The ongoing battle between PR and journalism

Two years ago, CNN got its hands on a promo script that Sinclair, the nation’s largest television broadcaster, made its anchors read, calling it an "anchor delivered journalistic responsibility message." 

That message included concerns “about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.” But also how “some media outlets publish these same fake stories... stories that just aren't true, without checking facts first.”

And then knife twists into the viewer: “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control 'exactly what people think'...This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”

Translation: the media is the enemy of the people, a message that the President of the United States levies against journalists regularly. 

(This morning, the President gleefully tweeted that one of America’s journalistic institutions recently laid off 20 percent of its staff.)

But the chef’s kiss here: Timothy Burke, a reporter at Deadspin (RIP), cut together dozens of anchors reading the script. It was devastating. 

But it’s also a textbook example of how corporate communications works, spreading information in a coordinated manner. We just don’t typically see it from a mass media company like this. Sinclair executives using Sinclair employees to push a message to convince viewers that something’s afoot. 

It was designed to position Sinclair as a way to “keep our audiences’ trust by staying focused on fact-based reporting and clearly identifying commentary,” according to a statement from Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s senior vice president of news.

Translation: Sinclair spin for Sinclair. 

Yesterday, however, we saw how a company can distribute its message to a media landscape thirsty for content, but also weakened by layoffs. 

On Sunday, ABC affiliate KOCO newsman Zach Rael got an email from Amazon public relations, suggesting a pre-edited story, replete with a script.

Tim Burke was back yesterday with the sequel to the Sinclair script, putting together a supercut of 11 television stations running the package as-is. In a Courier News post, Burke reports that only one of these stations acknowledged that the package was put together by Amazon, which distributed the script via BusinessWire, the press release service.

The package was designed, as any public relations tool is, to change the perception of the company. Amazon, as The Verge noted:

“has come under fire for refusing to disclose concrete numbers around COVID-19 infections, cracking down on worker protests against safety conditions and failing to inform some workers when their colleagues have become ill.”

A good way to revamp that image? Put together a made-to-air package and hope someone bites. 

Last week, we talked about how the recent layoffs to 36,000 journalists will have a negative impact on society. This seems to be the most egregious example, but certainly not the last time a company will (attempt to) manipulate the press. 

The other thing I find interesting about l’affair Amazon is that this came from its internal team and not an outside agency. 

Disclosure time: I used to work in public relations. (I have had MANY former careers; I am a cat.)

Public relations agencies exist for two reasons: to do work that the client doesn’t really want to do; and plausible deniability. 

On the first point, a story: 

When I worked at a media relations sweatshop (a firm whose sole purpose is to get media hits for clients; no strategy, just the good old spray-and-pray approach), we had a quota. Get X amount of press hits per week, or you’d be fired. It was not a great environment. 

So one day, the CEO walks into my area and says, “Josh. You’re up. I need you to get this client a media hit by the end of the week, or you’re gone.” 

Fortunately, dear reader, I had a plan for this exact moment. Seeing that my colleagues were continually on the whipping post, and that my time was coming, I created a spreadsheet of all the radio stations in the country. My thinking: a press hit is a press hit. The CEO (and the client) didn’t care where they got press. 

Knowing that no “mainstream” publication would bite, I sent out a paragraph pitch to the thousands of local radio stations across the nation, thinking that KFBC in Wyoming doesn’t get pitched all that often. I was right. I saved my job for that week.

The point of this story: media relations, at scale, is a Pyrrhic victory. Sure, you get your name in ink or on air, but to what end? If there’s no strategy behind it, it’s empty calories. But it’s a main reason why these PR agencies exist. Clients don’t want to spray-and-pray, they’d rather pay someone else to do it while they’re able to craft “strategic” messages and “work” with reporters. (Also, it should be noted that the way client-side PR folks work with different types of media—traded media vs general interest media for example—varies.) 

This was highlighted yesterday in a Business Insider piece about how Hill+Knowlton, a PR firm inside WPP, bills its clients. PR agencies operate in a billable-hours model. 

(Image via Business Insider)

Pricing for agencies has always been a little bit of smoke and mirrors, as clients aren’t quite sure what—or even who—they’re paying for.

“I have been actively telling startups I'm mentoring about the scam that is the agency billing model,” said David Binkowski, president of Large Media, a marketing firm. “As well as bait and switch, roles and responsibilities, how to manage their agency properly, data transparency and the fact that agencies are not your friends.”

With COVID-19 shifting everything under our feet, watch for PR agencies to shift, again. The industry has been forced to change as much as media companies over the last decade, as new technologies and tools have made certain areas of PR obsolete. Remember the “desk-side” briefing?

Corporate comms is not evil, generally. Their role is specific: position their company in the best light possible. 

Which is why I get frustrated with the modern “according to INSERT TECH COMPANY spokesperson” language. Comms people, who get paid significantly more than the journalist they’re speaking with, get that high salary to speak on behalf of the company. Their names should be attached to what they say. I once raised my hand to an editor to ask if we could start using spokespeople’s names, with the logic that since they are paid to speak for the company, they shouldn’t be granted anonymity. I was told “no.”

Anyway. Compromise begets compromise begets compromise, to the point where a former journalist-now-corporate comms exec loses a sense of objectivity. 

The question for the journalist-turned-comms exec will be: do they go to an agency or client-side? 

If the latter, expect more Amazon-style initiatives (remember that the company’s top spokesperson was, in a former life, a top editor at Time before becoming President Obama’s press secretary; we’re all cats) to push a company’s packaged story. 

Fleetwood Mac, “Little Lies”

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Some interesting links:

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  • What to Expect From the Much-Anticipated HBO Max (Adweek)

  • Miss Your Office? Some Companies Are Building Virtual Replicas (WSJ)

  • The coronavirus crisis is marketing’s ultimate A/B test (Digiday)

  • Twitter Refutes Inaccuracies in Trump’s Tweets About Mail-In Voting (NYT)

  • Instacart Launches Self-Serve Ad Platform, Offers Alternative To Google, Amazon (MediaPost)

  • Amy Cooper knew exactly what she was doing (HuffPo)