Posts about pr

Going around, coming around

Tom Forbes writes about his experience with the NY Times in its sucker punch about Walmart and bloggers. When Howard Kurtz asked me on Reliable Sources what I thought about bloggers beating reporters to their own stories by posting ahead of publication, I said: Tough. All’s fair in love and the press. In fact, I’ll go further: I think it’s healthy. It will push stories to be better. It will teach reporters, too, that they can’t wait and control the agenda and the timing of news anymore. At the end of his post, Forbes also asks: “Meanwhile, I wonder if [New York Times reporter Michael] Barbaro is being tipped off by someone else HE’S not attributing, perhaps with the intials UFCW?” Good question.

Gatekeeper v. amateurs

The powerful — the rich and the elected — used to be the gatekeepers to information. Then, with the advent of mass media, journalists took over that role. They were the gatekeepers to the public. A few decades ago, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment, PR people got to become gatekeepers to news because they controlled access to the famous, rich, and powerful. But now that we are entering the age of the amateur — when no one can hold a monopoly on the tools of information — I hope we will witness the death of the gatekeeper. We’ll see.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m appearing on Howie Kurtz’ Reliable Sources this morning with PR mogul and blogger Richard Edelman to talk about the Walmart story. And so I’ve been mulling what he and fellow flack Andy Plesser said in the Observer: Edelman said that journalists “are not God anymore” and Plesser said that PR people are “the gatekeepers for news and information.” They’re both right but I hope they’ll both soon be wrong.

I witnessed the rise of the power of PR in the mid-80s, when the rest of media changed thanks to the humble remote control. That was when the clicker passed 50 percent penetration in American homes and, with the cable box and the VCR. Big media laments the resulting “fragmentation,” but I celebrate this instead as choice. The result, in any case, was a much more competitive landscape in media, which made it much more difficult to both reach and control large audiences.

Media became much more competitive and complex. I was the TV critic for People magazine then, lucky enough to witness this shift. Before I got there, before the remote took over, all you had to do to have a hit on the newsstand was to put a Top 10 show on the cover. But suddenly, that didn’t happen anymore — because the audience was no longer captive to a choice among only three networks. My editor and mentor at People, Pat Ryan, was known to shout at me from down the hall when disappointing sales results for TV covers came in: “TV’s dead, Jarvis, dead!” So the magazine made a shift, concentrating more on the events in the stars’ lives than in their careers: births, marriages, diseases, deaths. I said it was the birth of bodily fluids journalism.

At that moment, PR people realized just how valuable their stars’ images and stories were to magazine sales. At that moment, they became the gatekeepers: ‘If you want my star, you’re going to guarantee a cover or let us pick reporters or pictures or even questions and if you don’t want my star, I’ll go across the street to all the other magazines that are desperately using celebrity to support their sales and they’ll do what I want.’

The same thing happened in politics, where they became much savvier about controlling the message. In George Bush’s White House, we see the highest form of this art of gatekeeping. As Jay Rosen has pointed out frequently, they tell only what they want to tell. And we saw this happen even in business, where corporate PR learned how to spin.

As a result, we also saw the professionalization of PR. Journalism schools gave out degrees in PR (which I think is a mistake for both). PR became more powerful and lucrative. Spin became an art. Soon, everyone was no longer famous for 15 minutes; that’s so over. Instead, everyone got media training.

The problem with gatekeepers is that they try to control, to get in the way, to keep us from getting what we want.

And the problem with professionalism is that it’s all about separation from the public: a belief that you can manipulate them because they know less than you do.

That’s called spin.

And so, I hope that the movement of amatuerism may be an antidote to professional gatekeeping. No, we bloggers don’t have all the tools and access that the pros have. But we have the ability to ask questions and keep pressure on.

So when journalists of The New York Times criticized bloggers in the Walmart story, we bloggers came back and criticized the journalists, telling them: doctors, heal thyselves; reporters, reveal thyselves. We said that they are not transparent enough about their relationship with PR and spin. We put the pressure on. That’s what we do.

We can’t take over their role of acting as gatekeepers to audience or information because the age of scarcity of information and distribution are over; anybody can do this. We shouldn’t want to be gatekeepers. We shouldn’t want to get in the way of connecting people to what they want to know. We should do just the opposite and enable more people to find out more information. That’s what media and we can do now.

When there is a proper balance, then journalists can do what they should do: find out what other people don’t want us to know. And PR people can do what they should do: get official information to you. And we can do what we should do: judge for ourselves.

So learn the lesson of the gatekeepers: Their reign never lasts forever.

: LATER: : Steve Rubel, now of Edelman, argues that we’re all gatekeepers. I hope not. Gatekeeping is about keeping people from something. I think the ethic of this age is about sharing, which includes transparency.

: See Terry Heaton’s comment to this post:

Professional journalism and professional PR are two sides of the same coin, having been birthed in the Creel Committee days of Woodrow Wilson’s administration. As Walter Lippmann’s social engineering vision (the elite shall lead) birthed professional journalism, so did Edward Bernays social engineering vision (“it is now possible to control…the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”) birth professional PR.

The triumph of personal technology over mass technology is undercutting both of these visions. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

And as Chris Lasch used to remark about Lippmann, the rise in the professionalization of the news business produced a decline in the public’s involvement in the political process. This is why I think a rather remarkable political change is coming.

PR will likely become more and more essential for business and industry downstream, perhaps even supplanting advertising. Their problem, however, will be to find a way to participate in Media 2.0, and that won’t be easy.

: Umair Haque says that transparency is not a matter of ethics but of business strategy. He’s right. If your constituents don’t trust you and you don’t hold a monopoly, then you’ll be out of business.

: See Richard Edelman’s post about the Observer story — in which he argues that “traditional media matters now more than ever” and shares a lesson about giving interviews during cocktail hours. Perhaps he’s dreading the reporters who say, ‘hey, so I’m not God, huh?’ I think he was right the first time. See also his post about the Walmart story.

See Andy Plesser’s comment re my post on the Observer story, below.

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.

No, the public sets the agenda and if anyone — journalist, politician, marketer, manufacturer, academician, PR person — forgets that, they will fail. They are all trying to figure out what the agenda of the people is. And the smart ones are realizing they have a new way to discern that because we have a new way of communicating it. We’re speaking. Stop gatekeeping. Stop agenda-setting. Stop spinning. Listen.

Shhhh. Listen.

: LATER STILL: I have been quite properly taken to task in the comments for using the phrase “train bloggers” on the show. I’ll find an excuse for a slip of the tongue. What I meant was just this: The Times pulled a sucker punch, I believe, when it found one blogger who was clueless enough to quote the Edelman Walmart PR letter without attributionk, as if it was his own. I don’t know the blogger, but it was a clueless thing to day. But I suspect he had no ill intent. So I think somebody should clue him in about revealing such things. And while we’re at it, somebody should clue in big media journalists about being transparent about the stories and information that come from flacks, not to mention their favors and lunches when it’s relevant. I’d say that big-media journalists need more training in this than bloggers. Still, I apologize for using the phrase “train bloggers.” There, am I forgiven now?

: Glenn Reynolds quotes the CNN Reliable Sources transcript. I agree with him about the Times reporter.

: Oh, and this is a good time to reiterate my full disclosures: I consult for The Times Company at; as I said before, Edelman bought me a danish in December and his sister invited me to lunch awhile ago. But I still don’t shop at Walmart.

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.

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 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.)

Smart Sprint’s unadvertisement

I got email out of nowhere from Sprint telling me that they’d read my blog and wanted to offer me a chance to use a new, high-speed phone free for six months. The email said:

The Sprint Ambassador Team recently visited and wants to invite you to participate in our Ambassador Program.

The Sprint Ambassador Program is all about exploring our latest products and services and allows you to give direct feedback to Sprint. We recently launched the Sprint Power Vision (SM) Network and want to provide you with the full experience, at no charge. Sprint Power Vision Network enables customers to download data at faster speeds and experience new data products.

The email and the terms and conditions ask to receive feedback but do not require it. I’ll take them at their word that they want feedback and if they get and use response from customers, that can only help them. If I were them, I’d publicize the ideas and feedback I got from customers and used. That is the real feedback loop.

And wisely, not a word is said about blogging this. If they tried to buy publicity with phones, that would not be good. But they’re smarter than that: They know that a blogger must blog. And so here it is: free publicity. And if I find anything noteworthy about the phone, I may blog it again. The publicity they get is not controllable. I could hate the phone (but I probably won’t since I am a gadget addict and a speed freak… and I could also buy the phone and hate it and blog that). It’s a risk, but a small risk well worth taking.

It’s also a very, very inexpensive form of advertising. Note well that I’d be a lot better off if Sprint bought ads on my blog; that would be worth more than and phone and six months of phone service. So it may be nice deal for me, but it’s a far better deal for them. And that’s smart on their part.

Full disclosure: The phone they’re sending is free and the service on it is free for six months. If I want to use the phone after that, I have to pay a signup fee and sign a contract. Sprint is still Sprint. If I do, I will tell you. I’ll add that I do not plan on using the phone after the trial and obviously won’t use it as a primary phone during the period; I already have my expensive Treo.

: I TAKE BACK ALL THE NICE THINGS ABOUT SPRINT I JUST SAID: I just spent three — three! — hours on the phone with Sprint people because the phone I ordered for my parents a week ago was never put through at Sprint and I dealt with no end of cluelessness and no end of hold music and lost calls and bad attitude. You can have a good idea at the top of a company but if the culture still sucks below, your own company will torpedo you. Having subjected you to cunsumerist rants before, I’ll spare you the details on this one. I’ll just say that it doesn’t take much to burn up goodwill.