The flack flack

Howie Kurtz writes about the nonflap the NY Times tried to stir up over Walmart and its PR company, Edelman, pitching their spin to bloggers.

What’s not in dispute is that what was once dismissed as a pajama-clad brigade is becoming increasingly influential, to the point that giant companies have to worry about what they say.

Howie gives the bloggers the Times poked and prodded equal time to tell their stories (which includes the fact that the Times reporter doesn’t understand that a blockquote is our indication of taking an excerpt… except it’s not something we invented, it comes from academic practices).

Shouldn’t The Times give those same bloggers that same right of reponse in its space, at least online?

The Times does link to those blogs. But I’d say they should go the extra graph.

: BTW: I’m going to be on Howie’s Reliable Sources this Sunday to talk about this very topic.

: See also this week’s New York Observer reporting from a PR awards gala — and the award for best spin goes to… — on Richard Edelman and the age of PR:

“In a world where we don’t have a belief in a single source, you don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore. P.R. is the discipline on the rise,” said Richard W. Edelman, president and chief executive of the public-relations firm Edelman.

“P.R.,” he said, “plays much better in a world that lacks trust.” …

“It used to be I would schmooze you and I was your flack,” said Mr. Edelman, whose firm netted about $260 million in 2005. “Today, if we want to get a message into the public’s conversation, we just make a post on a blog. If The Wall Street Journal goes after a client, we don’t have to accept that anymore. Let’s post the documents we gave The Journal; let’s show the interviews the newspaper decided not to show.

“You’re not God anymore,” he said.

Mr. Edelman–and he is not alone–believes that the erosion of the public’s trust in bedrock institutions after scandals in government, big business and the press only contributes to the industry’s success. Without anyone holding a monopoly on truth, the argument goes, P.R. people can get their messages across without pesky filters like, say, the news media….

Some executives suggest that the press never had control to begin with.

“The role of public-relations people is to act as the gatekeepers for news and information,” said Andy Plesser, who runs Plesser Holland Associates, the company that handled the public relations for the public-relations awards. “Many journalists want to believe they are being enterprising on their own.”

I’ll say again: What The Times story about Walmart PR and blogs really exposes is the journalism business’ dependence on flackery and its lack of transparency about that. That’s a big story that the press should do on the press. I still want to see a PR audit of a day’s news in the paper and on TV: How many of the stories there and how much of the information there came from PR or from reporting? This may be a case for the Blue Plate Special team.

Now I’d also say it’s frightening that the flacks think they are in control and ready to replace God. Plesser says flacks are the gatekeepers. He doesn’t see that this era is all about tearing down the gates and their keepers with them.

And I think Edelman’s off on his contention that “PR plays much better in a world that lacks trust.” No, I think it only becomes another cause for distrust: We wonder who’s behind the spin.

And the solution to that, the cure for distrust, is transparency.

So I will repeat my rules for dealing with PR, rules that bloggers already tend to uphold but journalists do not. So this is suggestion to bloggers and a call to all journalists and news organizations to follow three simple guidelines for transparency regarding PR:

1. If a story starts as a pitch from PR, say so.

2. Any information in a story that comes from PR or a source with a vested interest should be identified as such.

3. Reveal any help you got from PR and official sources in doing a story: setting up interviews, lunches, digging up information.

If you don’t do that, we will trust you less.

  • You’re spinning (or at least going round and round in a rapid whirling motion) when you say that PR wants to “replace” newspapers as God, Jeff. Richard said nothing of the sort.

    That said, your rules for bloggers dealing with PR folks sound good to me.

  • It may be true that newspapers don’t follow the same transparency rules as some bloggers when it comes to dealing with PR firms.

    But it’s also true that newspapers have a system of checks and balances in the form of journalism training, editorial standards and real human editors who can question and probe where information comes from.

    Early bloggers embraced the idea of transparency because they saw blogs as a social movement. We have no idea whether newcomers to blogging are following those same rules. In fact, it’s probably a good bet that many of them are not.

    Mr. Edelman’s quote mentions that his firm no longer needs to schmooze to get stories placed. But what exactly was his employee doing with those bloggers if not schmoozing? He certainly didn’t just “make a post on a blog.”

    There is nothing wrong with PR firms interacting with bloggers, but the responsibility for transparency lies with the professional agency, not the amateur blogger.

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  • Perhaps this isn’t germane to a discussion of PR, but the dynamics of the online community is really changing.

    Look at this posting by Lucian Truscott IV which he put up on a blog because (apparently) the NY Times Op-ed wouldn’t use it.

    I image if they did run it, it would not have been as long either.

  • I’m in the media strategy business and have been engaging bloggers for a couple of years now as part of my consulting.
    Interestingly, most of what we do is aimed at answering blogging critics who don’t like something a client has done, not seeking space in friendly blogs.

    but as long as everything is transparent, I can’t see anything wrong with being involved with the blogging community.

    I also think the idea that all bloggers have (or should have) the same standards for their work is sort of like expecting the Washington Penny Saver to have the same standards as the Washington Post.

    It’s all pretty hazy now regarding the standards, positions, responsibilities and goals of 10 million bloggers.

  • I’ve been away from daily journalism for about 7-years, but at the time I worked in local TV newsrooms, I complained bitterly about what I called “news by fax.” Many a reporter would write a story from a faxed PR, then go out and get sound bites from the same people quoted in the fax. The strain of multiple newscasts during the day and shrinking staffs meant there was not much time for any real reporting.

    About 10-years ago, The Center For Science In The Public Interest prepared an entire package on diet and health and sent it out to stations. The station where I worked (a network O&O) created an entire week-long series out of the material and never researched any alternative information. Reporting from PR goes on every day in the MSM without any attribution. I think many, many bloggers have much better standards than the MSM.

  • Scott Suttell

    “2. Any information in a story that comes from PR or a source with a vested interest should be identified as such.

    3. Reveal any help you got from PR and official sources in doing a story: setting up interviews, lunches, digging up information.”

    These are easy enough to do. But does the reader really want that kind of information? Most of it is pretty mundane.

    I work at a weekly business newspaper, and many of the interviews with presidents, CEOs, etc., have to be set up with the help of PR people, as does verification of certain facts, such as how many people work at the company or organization.

    In print, including this kind of disclosure about the role of PR people might mean that more valuable information isn’t included in the story. Is that worth it?

  • It is the right of anyone, including bloggers, to take Wal Mart (or any other company’s side). What bothers me in this story is that the bloggers in question just served the ‘PR’ line. If they believe in Wal Mart’s line, they could have taken the time to contribute their thoughts in their own words and still quote the Press Release. Were they paid to write it?
    My 2 cents


  • And the solution to that, the cure for distrust, is transparency.

    The problem, Mr. Jarvis, is that everybody has an agenda, not just PR people. Transparency helps, but to be fair, it would have to be applied to every source of every story, and if we really parse out what that means in practical terms, it’s well-nigh impossible.

    In the first place, the mainstream media is a mature information infrastructure. Hence, it’s been extant long enough that people have learned how to game it. So political activists get their quotes reported as if they were just average people-on-the-street; partisan think tanks are consulted without their bias being revealed; etc.

    But even neutral sources can’t really be trusted. Just because I’m a bystander with no dog in a particular fight doesn’t mean my perceptions are valid. Maybe I was bit by a dog when I was a toddler. Maybe I think stewed dog is delicious. Maybe my mother was a . . . oops . . . my point is, our brains tend to impose meaning; our inner narrative drives what we perceive as significant. So who can reporters go to for untainted source material? Themselves? They’re biased, too. And God doesn’t have a press secretary.

    The real problem is that for some period of time, media consumers were lulled into thinking that they could trust, unequivocably, what they read in the major papers or viewed on network news. That was probably always an illusion. This latest “scandal” is just another hole in the ol’ balloon.

    So who’s hurt? Media consumers? Some of them, maybe, but most are too sophisticated (or cynical, if you like) to be vulnerable. They’re going to greet this thing, if they even hear about it, with one big world-weary shrug.

    On the plus side, perhaps there is an opportunity for mainstream media to cop a little bit of irony themselves, instead of pretending that they’ve got the inside track on “just the facts, ma’am.” I for one would love to find a quality print daily that avoided outdated pretensions (assuming it wasn’t Daily-Show leftist).

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  • Jeff,

    You’re right, there are no gatekeepers for the new “citizen journalism”. It’s an open system and that’s wonderful. For traditional media, the game is played differently, that’s where the of public relations comes in.

    Traditional media is still extremely influential and I must differ with my esteemed colleague Richard Edelman who says a bad article in the Wall Street Journal doesn’t really matter — or that journalists aren’t “God” anymore.

    Citizen journalism has opened the playing field and has provided new platforms, but traditional media is extremely important, and frankly more important at this time.

    I wanted to expand a bit on quote in the New York Observer to explain that there are PR people are the “gatekeepers.”

    In many areas, noteably government, celebrity and business PR, corporate communications professionals manage the flow of information and completely shape the news. And I believe a vast majority of news and feature coverage on television and in print is generated by public relations professionals. And, you’re right journalists are loath to acknowledge this. It’s kind of dark secret, I suppoe.

    So maybe “gatekeeper” is a pejorative term and not altogether accurate, perhaps “agenda setter” is more accurate.

    And, of course, there are many wonderful enterprising reporters and I didn’t mean to dimish their great work by my quote. But being enterprising is really tough these days in light of strongly controled information managed by muscular corporate PR execs and government public affairs officers.

    This power play, exemplified by the Bush White House and copied by others in government and big business really pisses journalists off. It’s not a pretty picture. I think real success comes in helping the press do their job. And, yes, me and my staff loves to “schmooze” the media when ever we can. Friends yes, adversaries, no!

    Keep up the good work, Andy


  • Serge, I read your comment:
    What bothers me in this story is that the bloggers in question just served the ‘PR’ line. If they believe in Wal Mart’s line, they could have taken the time to contribute their thoughts in their own words and still quote the Press Release

    It shows you probably haven’t read any (or many) of the blogs you are referring to. Come on over to mine, do a search of Wal-Mart, and then see if I used my own thoughts, or just what Edelman sent out. (In the 2 posts they provided info for). I’ll be more than happy to provide you with the e-mails that they sent that started the posts.

    While one of the many bloggers admitted to probably cutting and pasting a little too much, I’ve looked at nearly a dozen this week, and can say that isn’t true of any others I found. (there may be a few more, I haven’t seen them all).

    Feel free to drop me an apology after you read what I’ve written.

  • ronbo

    I’m not carrying water for Edelman, but what was the relevance in the NYT article of the Edelman flack having contributed to conservative blogs? Would he have been less eeevil if he wrote for Daily Kos?

    On a similar subject, what was the point of your comment about having been given “stale danish” at your meeting at Edelman? You don’t need to prove your flack-free bona fides to anyone; and if you did that was a gratuitious and mean-spritied way to do it.

  • LJ
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  • Wow… here I am 60 seconds away from deleting BuzzMachine from my favorites and I decide to click on one more post. And I find again why I read this blog – the commenters (many of them anyway).

    Scott, John, Robert F. (as always), MD, Juan, another Scott, Serge, Kirsten (wow), Andy, and even the guy who calls himself Crazy – your comments show why blogs don’t need an almighty “editor.” You give the post perspective, corrections, pose questions for further thinking, and clarify each other. It’s a pleasure to listen to you all.

    Maybe I’m unique, but in my mind the commenters make the blog. Of course the host makes the commenters (if he invests the time and has the skills).

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  • Ului

    Feingold Calls Warrantless Wiretaps an Impeachable Offense

    This needs to be discussed further…

  • Ului
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