Journalists and conflict of interest part one: Double dipping into the PR pond

leslie_roberts.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxFor those working in journalism, the leap to PR doesn’t seem like a big jump, since it’s the reverse side of the same coin, it’s still writing and storytelling, and many skills do transfer to PR. I know many ex-journalists who have crossed over, and many still in journalism eyeing the other side for future employment as mainstream media continues to downsize.

And many people today have more than one job. “Moonlighting” used to be a bad thing, but these days having more than one occupation shows our diversity, our entrepreneurship, or maybe just our need to pay the bills, and it’s generally not frowned upon unless there’s a conflict of interest.

Ah, there’s the rub. You can work for two different entities, but not if they’re competitors, or if the goals of one cross into the goals of the other. And when one of the hats you wear is being a journalist, moonlighting in PR can be a big problem, or at least be perceived to be a big problem.

So perhaps its not terribly surprising that journalists have gotten into some hot water recently when they were accused of dipping their toes into the PR market while still working for mainstream media.

Let’s look at Leslie Roberts, lost his on-air job at Global TV after the Toronto Star outed him for owning part of a PR agency whose clients were often given airtime. He thought he could work in PR and journalism at the same time, as long as he didn’t personally pitch stories to his network. Hmmm…

The Toronto Star (they do seem to be breaking a lot stories lately about media people messing up) found out that Roberts, who hosted Global’s News Hour and the Morning Show, and was the executive editor of Global News, owned part of BuzzPR, a Toronto PR agency. Their story points out numerous examples of Buzz clients being interviewed on Global, and even of Roberts himself plugging some Buzz clients.

Global apparently hadn’t known about Robert’s stake in a PR agency, and suspended him right away. The Star interviewed Roberts before his suspension, and he said he had done nothing wrong but would resign from BuzzPR, the public relations firm he owns with a partner.

“Roberts said his involvement in BuzzPR never interfered with his work as a newsman. He initially dismissed the PR work as similar to other jobs he has had in the field of journalism. “I am not a one-trick pony. I have always done freelance work.””

A week later, he quit the network. A former journalist, Tony Burman, said that there was probably no other way out.

“Mr. Roberts’s suspension should be “a warning bell too all news organizations” about a gradual “blurring of the line between journalism and PR…no amount of disclosure would make Mr. Roberts’s dual role acceptable.”

Other journalists and PR folk were appalled at the situation. And Global TV took a lot of heat for letting it happen.

tweet iaintweet 2Moonlighting may be okay for many industries, but there are lines you just don’t cross when it comes to mainstream media. PR people can’t pay reporters to write about their clients, and double dipping into PR while still in journalism is just not on, at least not as long as you still work for mainstream media.

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Knowing the difference between content marketing and journalism

what-is-content-marketingNow that the internet has taken over the way we absorb information, we have entire new industries cropping up that generate “content.” Content used to come primarily from printed sources — books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Then radio and tv, but now from everywhere and everyone. Naturally the credibility of the content we find online varies, to say the least. But generally, we still rely on mainstream journalists to give us some level of credible, ethical writing. At least, some of us do.

There’s a whole new profession called ‘content marketing.’ Once upon a time we called it mostly advertorial, but it’s basically producing information for a marketing purpose, that’s not really advertising. Wikipedia describes it as:

Content marketing is any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire and retain customers. This information can be presented in a variety of formats, including news, video, white papers, e-books, infographics, case studies, how-to guides, question and answer articles, photos, etc.

So clearly this is not journalism. People will pay for content marketing, but you can’t pay a journalist directly to write about you. At my journalism school we were taught about the horrible error of “business office must,” where the ad sales guys try to influence who or what gets covered in the paper, but we ethical journalists push back for our neutrality. PR people understand that, which is why we pitch reporters, hoping to get their attention, but don’t pay them for coverage. But content marketers have not all learned that.

vasn_20120630_final____c5_83428_i001Take the case last fall in St. Louis, Missouri, of a lobby group, Grow Missouri, that offered to pay journalists to write blog posts promoting their tax reform messages. A representative of an agency working for Grow Missouri  emailed reporters asking them to write blog posts for the lobby group saying lovely things about Grow Missouri. but these are the same reporters who usually cover the issues in which the group is involved.

So to be clear, this is NOT good PR, nor is it ethical PR. But then again, it wasn’t really PR at all, was it? It was an attempt at content marketing, but with the wrong writers.

And what happened? Well, the reporters who were approached laughed, ignored, and then posted the emails they were sent by Grow Missouri and blogged about how wrong they thought this was. So of course that made it worse, because now it was public. The agency that sent the emails apologized, but by then Grow Missouri had fired them and they weren’t smelling so sweet in public opinion.

…we mistakenly contacted five journalists who cover politics, asking them to write articles that would appear on our client’s blog. Our team did not realize the conflict that this would cause for these individuals.

PAC tweetPAC tweetThe issue of journalists being in conflict comes up all the time (watch for a later post from me on the CBC’s recent troubles with one of their ‘journalists’), but this story just goes to show that while the internet may have changed how we get our content, the credibility of mainstream media hasn’t changed, really. And that’s a good thing.