Shocking! Scandalous! PR People Trying to Do Their Jobs
If you want to lament the alleged demise of traditional journalism – especially print – look elsewhere. IMHO, journalism is going through a radical transformation, spurred by the very fact that the business model – who pays – has radically been altered. Perhaps forever.
Yet, at least since the 1970’s, there always seems to be a plague, never self-induced, that has hastened the demise of journalism. First, TV news was responsible for killing the nation’s evening newspapers, even after Congress passed a law exempting the faltering newspapers from anti-trust rules. Then, deregulation and the relaxing of ownership standards under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 created behemoth TV & Radio ownership groups that later were forced to mash up then slash their news divisions. More recently, the shifting of advertising dollars and readership to the Internet has shuttered or crippled endless print media, from the Denver Rocky Mountain News (ceased publication in Feb. 2009) to U.S. News & World Report (which switches to online-only after its December 2010 issue).
OK, you can argue that the media and its owners sometimes never saw the freight train of change in their path. Still, as the dawn of a disruptive technology such as the Internet threatened to siphon the newspapers’ cash cow of classified and display advertising, you would have thought someone, somewhere would have been visionary enough to buy or merge with the winning players in the new medium. When they did, many of the bets went south -- see News Corp. and MySpace, which is on a downard spiral according to its owners. (And, for transparency’s sake, one of my former employers was monster.com, where I was involved with announcing their co-branded newspaper alliances, which seemed to only come to fruition after some of the newspaper groups had difficulty monetizing their own Web sites.)
Enough pontificating – what about the sensational headline?
All that said, the net-net is that we’re again at a critical crossroads for the future of good journalism – specifically the investigative style that takes time, money and really talented scribes. That’s why an organization like ProPublica was launched to pick up the baton. According to their Web site, ProPublica is “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”
ProPublica is a non-profit, foundation-funded news organization run by some legendary ex-print leaders with investigative chops, including Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, Stephen Engelberg (managing editor), formerly the managing editor of The Oregonian and an investigative editor of The New York Times, and Richard Tofel (general manager), the former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal. ProPublica has 32 working journalists, who published 138 stories in 2009 with 38 different media partners. It’s an interesting model and distribution channel. Develop an investigative story, then take it to one of the remaining big media outlets as a partner for distribution. ProPublica fulfills its mission, while media outlets strapped for funds and resources to conduct in-depth investigative work can deliver these stories served up on a platter.
I continue to applaud ProPublica for picking up the investigative slack. And their current, ongoing series entitled “Dialysis The High Costs and Hidden Perils of a Treatment Guaranteed to All”, could very well earn ProPublica a second Pulitzer Prize in their nascent history. But on Nov. 9, 2010, ProPublica posted “the Leaked P.R. Plan to Spin Our Dialysis Investigation” - their headline - and they also stated that “This article is part of an ongoing investigation.”
Help me out here. While I have no issue with ProPublica publishing a leaked PR plan, they seem to be extremely naive and/or ignorant of how media relations works. I won’t dissect the merits or shortcomings of the “leaked plan,” which you can judge for yourself. But let’s be real. There is not a shred of editorial analysis on the plan, except for the incendiary headline that the plan is to “spin our dialysis investigation.” Well, I suppose that should suffice for context. Not to mention ProPublica failed to mention that the plan may have possibly been “drawn up” by or with the counsel of a 3rd party PR agency working with the KCP.
ProPublica decided to simply post the plan with this description: “The umbrella group Kidney Care Partners (KCP), an advocacy and lobbying organization for dialysis providers, patient groups, drug companies and others, drew up a plan to respond to our investigation into dialysis care. We obtained a leaked copy that you can read below. (We have tried to reach the group's communications counsel for comment but have not yet received a response.)”
The “plan” should not look unfamiliar to the thousands of agency, association and corporate PR professionals on the job, the overwhelming majority of whom ethically toil every day in an attempt (sometimes in vain) to ensure that media reporting is balanced and fair. Much of our role in facilitating media relations for who we represent is to serve as an advocate between our clients and companies and news organizations, employees, shareholders, elected officials, labor unions, and the other publics they serve. It’s not spin. It’s helping ensuring the opportunity to respond to acquisitions, criticism and analysis. It’s fighting for balance and fair representation by presenting your side of the story or position with the hopes that opposing viewpoints may actually make it into a story, let alone be accurately quoted and in context.
The “leaked PR plan” components are a textbook example of how PR professionals provide valuable counsel and preparation to our clients and our companies when faced with a highly critical, frequently unbalanced media situation or crisis. The “key message points” are provided in the event that the article omits these themes. The “strategy” determines how, when and if members of the organization profiled should respond if they are approached by external publics once the story has been published. The “post-publication” section describes how the organization plans to issue and post a response statement to rebut the ProPublica story. It also outlines the possible activities needed for public policy, government outreach and other reactive areas that maybe necessary for the organization to undertake if the story proves to be inaccurate, unbalanced or generates undue criticism.
Again, I’m not taking sides with the reporting, posting the plan or the plan’s response. I’m just disappointed that an organization founded with such lofty journalistic goals and high ideals would post such a self-serving, we-must-be-onto-something headline (“plan to spin our investigation”) and their apparent naivety regarding the role of the PR industry for providing counsel when responding to a story.
As one of the early comments on this imbroglio states on ProPublica’s blog: “I don’t get all the excitement. This is not a press release, it’s a communications action plan. And it doesn’t look like “spin,” it looks like an organization doing the best they can to make sure their side of the story is told. In fact, I see no instance of their communications team suggesting anyone deceive or hide the truths - just ensure that their side of the story is available for balance.” – Jonathan Steen
Read the story and the plan, then let us know your thoughts.