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.