Revolutionary Measures

Copy approval and the threat to the truth

The media today faces constant economic pressure – competition is up, digital has decimated advertising, and people are increasingly reading news via other sources such as Facebook and Twitter. This has had a major impact on revenues and how they operate, including increasing the importance of advertorial, paid-for content within publications or on websites.Clarebalding

It has also strengthened the hand of brands, and celebrities who have money or clout, and are increasingly precious about their image. Witness the HP spokesperson complaining to the Financial Times after a throwaway negative reference to HP CEO Meg Whitman, threatening to pull advertising from the newspaper.

This shift has also led to a rise in attempts to control the message in mainstream media, at a time when social media has taken away control in other areas. Two areas come to mind – interviews and copy approval. When I started in PR, most interviews with trade press were organised, a briefing provided to the spokesperson and they were given the journalist’s number to call. Follow-up ensured that the journalist had everything they wanted, but that was the extent of the control. Since then, even the most straightforward interview with the most trusted interviewer, has to have a PR person present. This is fine if all they are doing is keeping track of what was said, housekeeping and politely reminding the spokesperson if they’ve missed something vital.

The second area, copy approval, is much more insidious, and is in the news this week with a media debate about an interview carried out for Saga Magazine by journalist Ginny Dougary with presenter Clare Balding. Dougary claims that Balding and her agent were given copy approval of the resulting piece, and inserted additional material and quotes within it, prompting her to ask for her name to be removed from the article. Balding insists that the Saga editor herself made the changes and that she did not have copy approval.

Whatever the real story behind what has predictably been dubbed the #SagaSaga, it does bring into the light the whole area of copy approval i.e. the subject of an interview being shown the draft article and being able to make changes to it. I’ve never worked in celebrity PR but I know that many interviews don’t take place without copy approval in place, even if it is just to ensure that the interviewee’s new book/play/cuddly toy/wedding get a mention, while certain areas are declared off-limits to questions.

What is insidious is that granting copy approval by its nature makes the resulting article less independent. Some of the most interesting interviews I’ve read have a tension or awkwardness between the subject and the journalist, which actually adds to the story and your understanding of the person involved. Copy approval means that interviews are more likely to be bland and on-message, controlled by the brand. There is a big difference between sharing an article for fact checking (which journalists I’ve worked with have done before when covering very technical subjects), and copy approval of the whole piece.

As Dougary points out, copy approval undermines independence. If people stop believing that what they read in properly researched, fact checked, mainstream media, then we are accelerating down the road to fake news at alarming speed. This case may be about a celebrity in a consumer magazine, but the principle is the same – the public need to be certain that the stories they see in the press are not controlled by the subject, and are unbiased. Otherwise, it does whittle away at the truth, harming the whole media industry and removing debate at a time when we need it most.

Photo By Keith Page (Claire Balding) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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October 4, 2017 - Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , ,

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