Does the ‘P’ in ‘PR’ stand for ‘press’ or ‘public’?

The New York Times this morning reports on Walmart’s PR strategy with blogs, executed via the Edelman PR firm.

First, I suggest you read the story and substitute the name of your local newspaper for any reference to bloggers. Remember that PR companies have been reaching out to reporters since they were born; that is why their industry exists. Today we have search-engine optimization companies; back then, we had press optimization companies.

Remember that reporters do not tell you every story idea that came from a flack — and so stories do start with PR pitches that I’ve often said if I ran a paper, I’d have flack-free days: Every story in today’s paper came from actual reporting! (It’d probably be a thin Saturday.)

Reporters may be smart enough to rewrite the verbiage in press releases (unlike the hapless blogger in the Times story caught quoting Walmart’s flackery without attribution — a practice Edelman, smartly, warned them against). But they don’t tell you all the and facts and viewpoints they use from flacks.

Reporters do not tell you about the meetings, lunches, drinks, and help given them by flacks.

There is no scandal in the Times story. And in fairness, the Times doesn’t directly present it as a scandal. It points out how Edelman is transparent about its activities and even advises bloggers to be open. No, The Times is merely reporting how PR works. Only the object of this PR is the public, not the press. And some of these people, these bloggers, aren’t as slick as reporters in knowing how to deal with this.

So my first reponse is to help bloggers with advice:

If you write a post inspired by what you get from a company or its PR agent, say so. If you use facts or quotes from a company, politician, PR agent, or press release, say so (better yet, link to it). If you get anything from a PR agent — things, business meetings, social events — say so. Your public has a right to know where your information comes from so they can judge it accordingly.

And then you know what? You will be way ahead of the press.

I think some newspaper ombudsmen should do PR audits of their papers. How many stories come from flacks without disclosure? How much of the substance of stories comes from flacks without disclosure? How many benefits accrue from flacks and companies without disclosure?

Yes, take this New York Times article about Walmart and its flacks and turn it on any newspaper and any PR client and then you have a real story.

(Full disclosures: I consult for The New York Times Company at About.com. I had breakfast with Edelman execs — I had one mediocre pastry and one cup of coffee — but have not been hired by them. And I hate shopping at Walmart but don’t think they’re evil.)

  • http://www.di2.nu/blog.htm Francis

    It is of course far worse in the trade presses. If it weren’t for PR agencies and press releases 99% or more of specialist publications from architecture to zoology would be either far far more expensive or a heck of a lot thinner. And either way they would probably have a lot smaller circulation. Indeed even if there is original reporting in almost all cases it is partially driven by press-releases announcing the latest widget from acme corp or trumpeting some customer success story or competitive trial. The PR agencies and their releases are the raw material that journalists and blggers use to build up most of their run of the mill stories. Of course everyone likes to have an exclusive scoop that originates from some journalistic investigation of a rumour but in fact in most cases the announcements via the PR agency are just as important for the industry as a whole because they also contain key information. The mark of a good journalist (or blogegr) is that he goes beyond simply cutting and pasting the press release into his article and provides some analysis or complementary PR from other sources or both.

  • http://www.smallbiztechnology.com Ramon Ray

    Francis, you said it best here The mark of a good journalist (or blogegr) is that he goes beyond simply cutting and pasting the press release into his article and provides some analysis or complementary PR from other sources or both..

    This is exactly what I do at SmallbizTechnology.com – sure I use press releasea. I don’t use the “we’re the best company in the world part”, but the factual text to keep my readers informed. But with EACH press release I give my commentary on the product/service, etc.

    Do I report, sure I do interviews and things but it’s often hard to get executives to talk human and deviate from their scripts.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Some years ago there was a study of the WSJ and the use of company press releases. The figure was about 40% of the stories if I remember correctly. The WSJ said they were doing their readers a service since this was a good way for the readers to find out what was happening with various companies without having to go to multiple sources on their own.

    What is different in this case is that Walmart (or it’s PR firm) is hoping that the echo chamber will magnify the factoids that they put out and they will become part of the “conventional wisdom”. If it were just simple PR Walmart could list the emails as press releases on their own web site as is done my most major companies. The use of email as a distribution medium implies that they want the information to be re-released and its original source to be downplayed.

    It’s shilling not PR.

  • http://www.di2.nu/blog.htm Francis

    Robert wrote What is different in this case is that Walmart (or it’s PR firm) is hoping that the echo chamber will magnify the factoids that they put out and they will become part of the “conventional wisdom”. If it were just simple PR Walmart could list the emails as press releases on their own web site as is done my most major companies. The use of email as a distribution medium implies that they want the information to be re-released and its original source to be downplayed.

    I think this is a incorrect on two fronts. Firstly it looks like quite a lot of the stories also appear at http://www.walmartfacts.com/ I’m not sure if they all do or even if the stories at walmartfacts are the same but certainly if they aren’t the same they do appear to be very similar and to make the same points.

    Secondly emailing PR articles to selected journalists is utterly standard practise. In fact I know some PR agencies specifically write PR pieces to send to specific journalists becuase they know what the journalist is interested in, thus the same announcement may spun different ways in different versions of the same announcement sent to different journalists or news outlets.

    All that walmart is doing is treating some bloggers as if they are as influential as MSM journalists.

    The more valid criticism is of the bloggers who have not acknowledged the source of their posts and hence potentially misled their readership. We, as fellow bloggers should be on their case about this and both complain and consider not linking/reading them. However although this is a bad thing it is a little rich for a newspaper like the NY Times with the Jason Blair scandal to complain about it in others. Someone once said “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and it seems to me the NYT would do well to bear that in mind along with something about planks and splinters in eyes.

  • http://www.hespos.com Tom Hespos

    Jeff:

    Where did the Times article say that Edelman had warned bloggers to avoid reprinting stuff verbatim? I didn’t get that from the article you linked. Did you get that somewhere else or did I miss something?

    -TFH

  • Andrew

    Amen Jeff!

  • http://www.di2.nu/blog.htm Francis

    BTW A couple of additional comments chez moi

  • Anonymoose

    Off topic but if this bill passes this anonymous post will make you a criminal. New Jersey politicians scare me.

    http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2006/Bills/A1500/1327_I1.HTM

  • http://www.laurencehaughton.com laurence haughton

    I think that would be brilliant Jeff. (“I think some newspaper ombudsmen should do PR audits of their papers. How many stories come from flacks without disclosure? How much of the substance of stories comes from flacks without disclosure? How many benefits accrue from flacks and companies without disclosure?”) That’s the kind of reporting that would pay off huge in increased credibility.

    Then they could expand that audit to include everyone that influences them who had an ax to grind. Like the reporter who had to insert this into the story “Wal-Mart, long criticized for low wages and its health benefits…”

    “Long criticized” by who? What’s their agenda?

  • http://www.ralston360view.com peter

    I bet you like VNR’s (Video News releases) too. These seem to be the most offensive….

  • http://dylko.blogspot.com Ivan Dylko

    These bloggers who didn’t disclose where the info came from – are breaking the cardinal rule of blogosphere – transparency. While, I am sure they won’t be around for too long, they can still do damage to this cool idea of blogs… However, blogosphere is so huge now – we can probably expect to see all kinds of renditions of this media form – good and bad.

  • http://www.consumergeneratedmedia.com Pete Blackshaw

    First, full disclosure. I’ve worked in partnership with most of the major PR firms. I used to be a press secretary for a California elected official. I presently put out a fair share of press releases, and usually hope (nay, pray) ever-volatile bloggers will create a positive “echo” on my stories. Now…my comment. The issue of “disclosure” is going to be one of the most difficult issues to grapple with in marketing and advertising. It’s laced with ambiguity, and some of this stems from the fact that we’re all still “inventing things as we go” in this highly dynamic, sometimes turbulent online environment. We’ve struggled with this particular issue a great deal with disclosure/transparency with WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) in the context of “buzz building” programs, especially those targeted to teens. This is what led to our draft ethics code (http://www.womma.org/ethicscode.htm). Is it, for example, sufficient enough for a marketer to encourage teens (or any age segment for that matter) to “disclose” to their peers that the product they are recommending came directly from a marketer…or even a marketing incentive? And what about product samples? And then there’s the larger issue which web buzz already seems to be suggesting could be an even bigger looming issue: disclosure in “product placement.” Should the same rule Jeff Jarvis alludes to above for media relations also apply to one of the fastest growing advertising arenas? Will this be a buzz-kill for consumers when watching movies or television shows, or is this, in their eyes, the ultimate triumph of truth. What does seem clear (and transparent) is that consumers are more demanding and attentive than ever before, and carry far higher expectations about just about anything we say or share; disclose or don’t disclose. This is a very important debate, and it should be continued.

  • http://www.howmanyfingers.blogspot.com jblog

    First, considering the NY Times’ recent reputation for botching (Judith Miller) and fabricating (Jayson Blair) stories, they have no business critiquing the reporting practices of others.

    Second, this is the most “Earth Still Orbiting Sun” non-news story in the world.

    Speaking as someone who has worked for and with the media for more than 20 years, I can state categorically that reporters regularly and routinely swallow pitches whole from flacks — even at the New York Times.

    The dirty little secret is that many reporters don’t mind getting rolled if they agree with the viewpoint of the pitch or if the story is juicy enough, and will happily print verbatim what’s handed to them. No work or critical thought required.

    Take a look at the publicity antics of groups like PETA and the resulting press coverage and that becomes plain.

    For the Times to accuse bloggers of doing something that conventional media do routinely is hypocritical.

    The real agenda here, I suspect, is to undermine the credibility of bloggers, who are siphoning off readership from conventional media (like the Times) at a phenomenal rate. Pretty hamhanded, IMO.

  • jim in LA

    The irony is killing me. Being a PR guy, I had an intense conversation with an angry NY Times reporter at 5:30 AM Pacific on the Monday after the Sunday evening when I disclosed material news on behalf of a client to The Wall Street Journal. The Journal, of course, ran the story in Monday’s paper. The Times reporter was calling my cell phone to complain that I did not give him the story.

    I didn’t feel badly at the time: that company, I reasoned, the NY Times didn’t really matter all that much, and so what if they were mad. But, reading how The Times really feels about PR stuff, I’m feeling even better…

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  • http://www.agwired.com Chuck Zimmerman

    I fully agree Jeff. Right on the money. I adopted a policy on AgWired from the beginning to to put anything that I copy out of a release or from someone else’s document in italics. I try always to provide links to where that information came from or at least attribute it, and I specifically mention an item or something that was given to me from a PR person. These parts of my posts are always accompanied by my own editorial prose.

    I wonder how often we read something thinking it’s what that person wrote when they did just copy and paste someone else’s words.

  • http://fardj.prblogs.org Fard Johnmar

    Well, well, well. I guess the comments in this thread put to rest the whole debate over whether the press release is dead. It’s not, not by a long shot. See the article that rekindled this sad debate here.

  • http://crazypolitics.blogspot.com Crazy Politico

    Great job on the CNBC Closing Bell show. I mentioned your first point on my blog last night, the MSM has been using PR tips for years, and doesn’t have a problem with their own lack of disclosure.

  • Mark Schraad

    PR = Public Relations (an action)
    PR = Press Release (a thing)

    This is not news. For years I have been told by local and national news media that if I wrote an article about my company (or hopefully an issue) it would likely get published. Many publications are ONLY a collection of press releases. The content side of publishing is expensive. The revenue comes from ads. Journalistic integrity aside (which is where it often is) the solution to this equation is not rocket science.

  • http://www.howmanyfingers.blogspot.com jblog

    As long as there are lazy reporters, there will be press releases.

    And there’s certainly no shortage of the former.

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  • http://buzzmachine.comviainstapundit Nancy Swaim

    While you’re on the subject of full disclosure, the print and electronic
    “reporters” could mention their membership in AFTRA or Newspaper Guild (AFL-CIO). Labor unions are the source of complaints about Walmart (in collusion with MSM) because they NEED the 400,000 Walmart employees.

  • http://johnporcaro.com John Porcaro

    Interesting topic. We’ve had similar discussions internally in my team at Microsoft.

  • http://lonewacko.com/ TLB

    I never thought I’d read the phrase “Crazy Politico’s Rantings” in the NYT. I’ll bet they never thought they’d print anything like that phrase either.

    While some flackage is no doubt fairly innocent, some kinds are a bit more sinister.

    For instance, in 2002 the Denver Post collaborated with the government of Mexico on a story supporting illegal immigration. They went on to attack Rep. Tom Tancredo after he complained about the story.

    And, if you think either the Chicago Tribune or the N.Y. Daily News have any credibility, look at this. Two stories about different sympathetic illegal aliens printed 6 weeks apart, but virtually identical in structure and what they propose. And, there are several more very similar puff pieces in that post’s category. I’d really love to know which organization (or country) is providing those puff pieces in case any brave reporters want to come forward.

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  • Brian

    With many government agencies sealed off from the public, frequently the only way you find out about something is through a press release. I used to cover a government demilitarization facility for one of my newspapers, one that handled sarin and VX. Obviously, there wasn’t any way I was getting close to that building. So all we knew came from the PIOs (who were very good at getting good and bad news out).

    I don’t think that getting a story from a public relations person is a bad thing; in many instances, it’s the only way the press can learn what’s going on. And the PR people I’ve worked with, generally speaking, have been good at disseminating information. Keep in mind, though, that a typical newspaper office gets dozens of press releases a day, from the serious to announcements about a revolutionary new toothbrush. Most reporters work daily beats, and they can come up with stories on their own. When I’ve written something from a press release, my editors and I have generally tried to go beyond it, either by looking for additional information or putting the information in the context of what we know. That’s the best approach — it usually turns an announcement into a good story.

  • http://www.bloodandtreasure.com Noel Guinane
  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    There is an ongoing discussion on the topic of Walmart and bloggers at the Writing on the Wal web site:
    http://thewritingonthewal.net

    One of the comments is from someone who details the relationships between the PR firm, the Republican party and key members of the Walton family.

    By the way Walmart Facts is an astroturf site set up by Walmart, so it is not surprising that the press releases show up there.

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  • http://crazypolitics.blogspot.com Crazy Politico

    TLB- I never thought I’d see “Crazy Politico’s Rantings” in the NY Times either, especially since I normally beat them like a drum on their one sided coverage :)

    Hell, if I knew it was going to be there, the Washington Post, and 3 TV stations (that I’ve heard of so far) I probably would have thought of a more conventional name!

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  • qcontent

    “A lie is only a lie until people start believing it.” (Because it was told over and over again, over time, by many diverse and seemingly creditable sources, until many people started to believe it and have faith in it; then most eventually bought into it). –Qu paraphrasing Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minster.–

  • qcontent

    Jeff wrote, “Does the ‘P’ in ‘PR’ stand for ‘press’ or ‘public’?”. . .which I would add to in this manner. . .”Does the ‘P’ in ‘PR’ stand for ‘press’ or ‘public’ OR ‘PROPAGANDA’?”–WHICH IN THE END, IS WHAT IT IS REALLY ALL ABOUT, NO?

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