I don’t generally have much time for the type of blog post that says PR people are idiots because they don’t understand bloggers.
Bloggers, PRs, journalists and editors all do their thing for different reasons and different levels and forms of reward. Sometimes they have to deal with each other and a degree of understanding certainly helps for a successful outcome.
I’ve done all of those things – on occasion all in the one week. You’re right, this makes me something of a (new) media trollop, offering my favours to whoever takes my fancy at any particular moment. But that stops me from getting bored and enables me to feed my children. It also means I have seen the view from all sides of the fence, to stretch a metaphor.
But I don’t believe there’s a problem with this provided it’s clear to all parties what the arrangement is. If I’m doing PR the client is paying me and I say so, if I’m blogging I make it clear what the deal is, as a journalist my copy is balanced and follows NUJ codes of conduct, and when editing decisions are made for the benefit of the reader but paid for by the proprietor. Oh and sometimes I do copy writing for which the client pays by the yard.
Today, though, I got an email from a PR person that troubled me. It said it was looking for someone to write a feature article of 700 to 1000 words about a proposed renewable energy development and then ‘place’ that article in the relevant regional and national press.
I was a bit puzzled so asked for clarification. The PR agency was offering to pay me to write an article about the benefits (as far as they saw them) of their planned development and for me to somehow, using my contacts, get that article into the press. Hmmm. They said they’d get me local people who were keen on the project to interview.
The PR person said: “We could just send out press releases but they might not get used. So we thought this would be a better approach.”
When I said that I didn’t think I could place an article such as this because newspapers liked balance, she said: “It depends what you mean by balance.”
I declined the PR lady’s opportunity and wished her luck and hoped to think no more about it.
However, I couldn’t quite forget about it. I am troubled firstly that a PR agency would actually think this was an effective route to gaining publicity and secondly that a freelance journalist would take the money.
I know times are hard, but if you take PR money to write something that you pretend is journalism, surely that is cheating. You either do one thing or the other – you can’t do both at the same time.
Wow! That's really cheeky, and unfair to readers. You'd think in this political climate companies would be even more careful about this kind of thing wouldn't you?
Ellen Arnison says
Yes it is. I can't think that if she did find a freelancer to take her up on the offer that a paper would accept the article.
Mike Ritchie says
Hope I don't sound too strident. Essentially, this is a sloppy PR asking you to do part, a big part, of her job.
You write, you get a fee, she still picks up her PR rate for the job.
She drops her obligations to her client big style.
Does she sign-off your copy: or does she offer it to her clients as her own for clearance?
Does she approve your choice of media outlets?
Does she have media contacts in the first place? (Bet she told her client she does.)
Does she tell the client what she's doing?
How does she observe any confidentiality issues with her client?
Would she expect you to field follow-up questions once such an article was offered and issued?
Are you available for/expected to handle late-night media inquiries on behalf of her client for your feature?
Does she expect you to handle potential negative questions from media sources?
Does she really know what she’s doing?
Ellen Arnison says
Thanks for your comment Mike.
I think it's fairly clear she hasn't a clue how papers work.
I agree. It is cheating. It's good that you declined and chose to highlight it.
neil craig says
Isn't this, in a somewhat less baltant way, how the media normally works? How many “feature” or even “news” items don't come from rewriting a PR release from some government department, quango, fakecharity or, as in this case, politically approved government subsidy junkie?
There are things that come through Reuters or other approved news agencies but when did you last see a story, except perhaps in the Mail, which was obtained by a journalist actually using shoe leather without talking to some PR flack.
Granted the bribery may often be less blatant and come in the form of some whisky bottles or a good lunch.
PS Since you don't name the PR company, for whatever reason, would I be correct in assuming they did get the story placed.
Ellen Arnison says
Thanks for your comment. You're right that a great many stories do start life when a journalist gets a press release. However, my training and that of most of my peers would say don't take one organisation's word for it and get the other side of the story. It would be a matter of professional pride.
There are many other news organisations that gather news using 'traditional means' such as contacts and going asking questions. It's sad you'd think the Mail is the only one.
I didn't name the agency because I'm giving the PR the benefit of the doubt that she just doesn't know what she's doing and I don't want to embarrass her.
As far as I know the story proposed to me has not been placed – a check on Google doesn't show anything similar either. I can't imagine any editor taking a story that only shows one side of the story.
neil craig says
I am pleasantly surprised that it was not published.
I don't see how your belief that, as a matter of professional pride, no hournalist would put only 1 side since i can point to numerous examples of very important stories where anything but the official line is suppressed.
From personal experience when, folowing several FoI enquiriesI was able to prove that SEPA had deliberatley lied, on air, in answer to a question of mine about alleged radiation at Dalgety Bay, and subsequently made a remark about the physics of what they were allegedly investigating, so ignorant that it is impossible for SEPA as an organisation to be considered eitheer honest or competent, the BBC refused to broadcast any factual correction. While some east coast papers r5eported it nione of the main papers would touch it.
We also see the balmhet censorship British participation in racial genocide over the last 20 years in Yugoslavia while absolutely any obvious lie by people proven to be corrupt gets published.
There is also the unambigous BBC decision to suppress any debate on alleged catastrophic global warming.
These are all important subjects but the principle, or lack thereof, applies everywhere.
It may be that the BBC journalists are more dishonest than most, but surely not that much more?