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 | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pope, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the lessons for PR

The last week has seen two big stories in the world of PR, both of which I think are linked to issues the profession has in getting it across what it does – and what it cannot or should not try to achieve.

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Firstly, the Vatican is rethinking its communications strategy, both to deal with the 24 hour global media cycle, and to better support the straightforward and down to earth style of Pope Francis. Given that the Holy See’s press office is understaffed and shuts every day at 3pm GMT you can see why changes are needed. Otherwise the risk is that the messages that Pope Francis wishes to get out will be undermined by lack of the right structure and mechanism to interact with the press.

The second, and much more high profile (on Twitter at least), is the case of HP Enterprise and the Financial Times. After FT columnist Lucy Kellaway included remarks made by HPE’s boss, Meg Whitman, in a piece that poked fun at foolish things said by leaders the World Economic Forum, Henry Gomez, head of marketing and communications at the company, sent an aggressive response. This ended with a direct threat “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.”

Rather than put up with this attack on her (and the FT’s) journalistic independence from advertisers, Kellaway went public with the exchange, to widespread support from both journalists and PR people. HPE made the situation worse by denying Gomez’s letter was aggressive and then releasing it. A quick read shows that it was exactly as described by Kellaway – aggressive and threatening. Hardly bridge building with the journalistic community.

What links these stories? In both cases the PR function is not doing its job. The Vatican is not providing the basic support that its boss/chief spokesperson (The Pope) requires, and HP Enterprises has gone to the other extreme by seeming to pander to the ego of its boss, who seems to have been upset by a tongue in cheek comment.

What seems to be missing is an understanding of what PR can, and can’t do. So, with particular emphasis on Mr Gomez, here’s a list of 5 points to bear in mind:

1          PR is not advertising
In PR you don’t pay money and therefore nothing is guaranteed. However the flip side is that your message is amplified by a trusted, independent third party (the media), making it much more powerful.

2          Not everything written about you will be positive
Particularly if you are a large global corporation not all stories will turn out the way you’d like them. Even if you prepare in detail there’s still the chance that your messages will be mangled or ignored in favour of a better story. Take the rough with the smooth, don’t be thin-skinned, and move on. If you want to hold a grudge, don’t do it publicly.

3          Complaining won’t help, it will make things worse
In the days of print, once something was published it was there in black and white and couldn’t be changed. On the positive side newspapers and magazines have a finite shelf life, meaning today’s front page story is tomorrow’s chip wrapper. Online, things are different. They are there forever (unless you can get Google to remove them from search results), but can be amended, updated and changed. I’ve asked journalists to correct stories online that were factually inaccurate – a particular favourite is when a reporter got the sex of a spokesperson wrong (after meeting her!). But there’s no way that you can expect any publication to remove or amend a piece that meets its own journalistic guidelines. As HPE is finding, complaining and threatening is just digging a deeper hole for yourself.

4          PR should be a critical friend
Communication departments need to reflect and support the business/religious organisation that employs them. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of common sense and what will actually work with the media, and other audiences. Be realistic in your aims, and if a PR person thinks a strategy won’t work they need to have the guts to tell their CEO why it won’t fly. PR people should think like a journalist – what is the story, why is it interesting and how can I get it across. Lots of agencies now employ ex-journalists, and as my colleague Chris Lee points out, there are a multiple benefits in doing so.

5          Journalism is independent
Despite living in an era of native advertising, advertorials and blurred lines between paid and earned content, companies need to remember that quality journalism is independent. So threatening to remove advertising pounds should have no impact – and doing so would be counterproductive on a number of levels. After all, as Lucy Kellaway pointed out, if the FT is the best way for HPE to reach its target audiences, then pulling ads from the publication will undermine its overall marketing programme.

What the HPE debacle shows is that it is time for PR to better communicate to stakeholders what it is we do, be robust, and think independently, rather than just believing that the CEO is untouchable. If he wants a role with an all-powerful leader, then perhaps Mr Gomez should apply to the Vatican – I believe they are recruiting…………..

February 10, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment