An object lesson for native content makers

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 7.24.54 PM

Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, finds itself between a lump of coal and a hard place by working for old energy companies while it also tries to appeal to corporate responsibility clients.

And therein lies an object lesson for media companies getting into the business of making and publishing native content. For that work — “telling brands’ stories,” as we euphemistically put it — puts the media company into the business of a public relations or advertising agency. It forces us to ask: Whom do we serve? And what does our brand stand for?

In What Would Google Do? — inspired by ad genius Rishad Tobaccowala — I came to argue that public relations firms should take their title seriously and represent the public to the company rather than the company to the public. It necessarily follows that if a brand owner flouts the advice of such a public envoy, then the envoy needs to fire the client or it will lose its trust from the public.

Are public relations (or advertising) companies willing to do that? Judging by the evidence of the story pictured above, no. And that’s not at all surprising. PR companies exist to fall on their own swords for their clients.

But what of news companies? Will they be willing to fire a brand and give up the business of telling its story? Where are the lines? What if Shell Oil comes to your news organization, checkbook in hand, to tell its story, or that fracking company that advertises every Sunday morning wants you to make a video about the wonders they enable? Or a gun maker while you’re exposing deaths by firearms? Or a drug manufacturer when your newsroom is busy exposing how drug makers addict children to opioids? Is it one matter to publish their ads and another to make them?

Just asking.

  • RealDarrenCohen

    This CVS news this week fits in the same category. They left the Chamber of Commerce over their stance on smoking. During the last two election cycles I said to a few people that the Chamber is going to become an irrelevant relic because of some of the ideologies they were willing to back for a few dollars at the time. Same would go for a PR firm like Edelman. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/08/business/cvs-health-quits-us-chamber-over-stance-on-smoking.html?_r=0

  • Eric Hydrick

    The real issue is a lack of transparency about why PR firms are publishing these stories and/or who’s driving the publishing. If PR firms (and more importantly news agencies) said clearly and unambiguously “Hey, these guys want to tell their story. They put this together, all we had to do with this is distribution”, there’d be less issues. And then, if the public could choose to try to follow up on the stories if they really cared.

  • happyindc

    Apparently, four executives at Edelman quit over this. That says something and its somewhat promising. But the corporate sustainability, feel-good stories, touted by PR firms don’t say much. Even if a firm achieves zero emissions, it may still support organizations such as Chamber of Commerce, which is part of the political resistance to real climate change reforms.

    The problem with most news organizations is the complete under-reporting of climate change. We’re dealing with a horrific situation, and the globe is almost certain to see, in the near term, global temps rise about 4F. There’s thought that 10F is likely. Greenland’s ice pack is probably lost at this point, which means coastal cities will flood. The planet, as we know it, is undergoing radical change. But you won’t discover this in most reporting and the coverage this issue gets is still generally thin. Newspapers need to get a lot more aggressive and work to inform readers and challenge leadership.

    To me the problem with news orgs is more insidious than, in your example regarding a petro firm. This direct lobbying may or may not happen. But what is happening is this: If the U.S. Chamber, for instance, is working to impede real action on this issue, how that inform your coverage of your local chamber and business community generally? A petro firm may acknowledge on its web site that climate change is real — and boast that its working to address it! — but the real damage is the lack of critical attention on the issue. Newspapers are playing a willing role, (willing executioners is not from wrong), in turning their attention from it and helping to set us on a dangerous course.

    Climate change denial works every day a newspaper refuses to treat this as a serious issue, or bumps the problem to an orphan science page. Newsrooms need to get seriously consider and brainstorm about how they can make climate a real issue for their local community, and do so on a consistent basis.

    • Andrew Smith

      What a shame your science is completely out of calibration. Care to
      back up your claim of 4 degrees temperature increase, let alone 10
      degrees? Scientific papers, please, not alarmism.

  • PR firms who advocate for big oil will have to be careful not to deceive if they want to remain reputable.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists has a dossier of internal memos of big oil which show that big oil has known of the realities of global warming induced climate change and has deliberately deceived the public about it:

    Internal fossil fuel industry memos reveal decades of disinformation — a
    deliberate campaign to deceive the public that continues even today.

    For nearly three decades, many of the world’s largest fossil fuel
    companies have knowingly worked to deceive the public about the
    realities and risks of climate change.

    Their deceptive tactics are now highlighted in this set of seven
    “deception dossiers”—collections of internal company and trade
    association documents that have either been leaked to the public, come
    to light through lawsuits, or been disclosed through Freedom of
    Information (FOIA) requests.

    Each collection provides an illuminating inside look at this coordinated
    campaign of deception, an effort underwritten by ExxonMobil, Chevron,
    ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Peabody Energy, and other members of the
    fossil fuel industry.

    (The Private Empire’s Social Media Hit Squads).

    PR firms would be wise move away from the potential for damage to their reputation by proceeding carefully when dealing with big oil companies.

    A lawsuit in California, recently filed, alleges :

    Every month, Occidental and Chevron directly pump 2.63 times more toxic waste water into the San Joaquin Aquifer than oil released into the Gulf during the entire BP spill. The California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) plans to allow them to continue for another 21 months. This lawsuit brought to stop the poisoning of the San Joaquin aquifer and to remediate the damage already done to the farmland of Kern County.”

    (What Next, Mass Depraved-Heart Murder?).

    Perhaps the PR companies should get in touch with those who supported big tobacco companies when big tobacco was losing its reputation.

    It is a hazardous journey to be sure.

    Those PR companies that ignore the realities, which Mr. Jeff Jarvis has pointed out in this post, are exposing themselves to unnecessary risk.