Journalists and conflict of interest part two: Mainstream media ethics

amanda_lang.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxIn our current era of ‘new media,’ where everyone has a blog, including journalists and non-journalists, and some blogs get equal if not bigger audiences as mainstream media, the line between journalism and non-journalistic opinion is blurring. When I teach media relations, I usually say that journalists are subject to a code of ethics, and accountable to their editors and publishers, whereas bloggers are generally accountable only to their readers, so if people will read what they write, they can say what they want. In PR, we too have a code of ethics, although one need not subscribe to it if one is not a member of a PR association, which you don’t have to be in order to do communications. And now that we all have a forum (online) to publish opinions, it can be hard to tell if a writer is subject to one of these sets of rules or not.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that sometimes a conflict comes to light, where a journalist is accused of playing both sides of the fence. Even if it’s only the appearance of conflict, there is a public expectation of neutrality from mainstream media that seems to call for a higher standard of ethics. As with the situation where a PR agency tried to pay journalists working at mainstream media outlets to write favourable blog posts about a client, the ethical line isn’t always clear, but the public expectations on the ethics of mainstream journalism is clear.

Take the case of Amanda Lang, a business host on CBC TV, who was accused of being in conflict of interest on stories about RBC and the bank’s use of foreign workers because she has been paid by RBC to give speeches, and because her boyfriend is on the RBC board.

Unknown-2Lang was accused of interfering in the reporting of a big CBC news story, both at the network and through an op-ed she wrote in the Globe and Mail. While her take on the RBC story was more pro-RBC than the position of the reporting team at CBC’s Go Public, the real accusation is that her take on the story resulted because she has been paid by RBC for speeches, and because she’s dating someone at the bank. As the Globe and Mail summed up:

“At issue is a series of allegations… – denied by Lang and the CBC – first, that Lang had a number of paid speaking engagements for a corporation whose representatives she later interviewed in a softball manner on CBC; second, that Lang attempted to diminish CBC’s coverage of the revelation that Royal Bank of Canada was laying off Canadians and replacing them with foreign workers; and, third, that her involvement in the story was tainted by both personal and professional connections to RBC.”

Lang defended her actions and CBC backed her up, but the appearance of conflict still hangs over her. No one comes out and says RBC paid her directly to influence CBC’s coverage of the bank, but since they sponsored some of her speeches, from which she benefit financially, the implication is that she did exactly that. And that taint still follows her.  Google her name and the stories about the allegations of conflict are all over the first page of results. The Globe’s TV columnist called for her to resign.

“It’s time for Lang to get down off her high horse and go away. This is about the CBC’s reputation, not hers, which is already in tatters.”

The CBC took, and is still taking, flack for it’s defence of Lang. Part of the fallout for CBC, which is still facing public criticism of its handling of the Jian Ghomeshi situation, is that CBC has now banned its on-air journalists from accepting paid speaking gigs. At least now that’s clear, right?

Lang wrote another op-ed in the Globe to defend herself, and said:

lang“In retrospect, I see that I allowed this circumstance to develop, by assuming that my integrity would not be questioned if I accepted speaking fees from business associations and companies…I support CBC’s decision to change its policy, and I will no longer accept paid appearances, and in fact began refusing payment several weeks ago.”

So her thinking seems to have been that she knew she didn’t do anything wrong, so was shocked when anyone accused her of wrongdoing. Perhaps not her best approach at apologizing and regaining public trust.

But the real issue isn’t just about paid appearances, it’s about ethics and avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest, and how we hold mainstream media organizations and their journalists to a higher standard. A blogger might have been let off more easily, but not the CBC. Kathy Tomlinson, the reporter who broke the RBC story said:

“As a result of this, many people – including me – are asking one simple question. Why it is ever OK to have any perceived conflict of interest, under any circumstances? This is not about Amanda Lang. It is about the long standing belief most journalists have – that conflicts should be avoided at all costs or explicitly declared up front.”



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.

When the apology is worse than the blunder

When the apology is worse than the blunder | worst apology ever lululemonDo you know who Chip Wilson is? He’s from Vancouver, where I proudly hang my hat. So I really want to be proud of him. He’s an amazing entrepreneur, who has created global, multi-billion dollar companies, mainly Lululemon Athletica, which revolutionized what we wear to and from yoga. And yet, over the past year, it’s been hard to be proud of Chip.

First there was his company’s see-through yoga pants. That was bad, but not nearly as bad as his explanation. In a media interview, Chip told a reporter that basically, their pants aren’t designed for larger women. Or at least that was the inference. What he really said was:

When asked about complaints about pilling of the fabric, Wilson replied:

“There has always been pilling. The thing is that women will wear seatbelts that don’t work or they’ll wear a purse that doesn’t work or, quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for it,” Wilson said. “Even our small sizes would fit an extra large, [but] It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there … over a period of time, and how much they use it,” he continued.

His wife who was sitting next to him during the interview cringed when he said it and tried to back peddle, but the damage was done. So now Chip must apologize.

And that’s the other reason why it’s hard to be proud of Chip. His “apology.” ABC News called it perhaps the “worst apology ever.” The only response he had to that big mistake in media relations was to post a short clip on Youtube that was directed to Lululemon staff, but was of course public.When the apology is worse than the blunder | worst apology ever lululemon

How was this a mistake? Well, first, he only apologized to staff, not customers or anyone else he offended. Next, he told us how sad he is that this has happened, but it’s not about you, Chip, it’s about the company’s reputation, it’s about sales, and it’s about being seen not to be offending potential and current customers. What he said:


“I’m sad. I’m really sad. I’m sad for the repercussions of my actions. I’m sad for the people of Lululemon who I care so much about that have really had to face the brunt of my action…I take responsibility for all that has occurred and the impact it has had on you. I’m sorry to have put you through all this.”

And that’s about it. He did not retract his statement that “some women’s bodies just don’t work” for his pants. And he didn’t apologize to those who might have taken offence. He didn’t explain or add context or take it back. He’s just sad and sorry. For his staff.

Chip has spawned many parodies, including a top five of his most controversial quotes that I quite like.

Oh Chip, we want to love you, but you make it so hard!

When the public expects an apology, will an explanation do?

British Columbia has seen a bunch of spending scandals in the past few months. A number of politicians and non-profit executives are giving their colleagues a bad reputation after being caught spending public funds on personal or frivolous stuff. The public is angry, and sometimes, only an apology will do.

When the public expects and apology from Linda Reid Take the example of Linda Reid. The Richmond, BC Member of the Legislative Assembly and the Speaker of the Legislature, was outed by the Vancouver Sun in March for spending tens of thousands of government dollars on what seems like unnecessary stuff (especially in these days of spending cuts and austerity and refusal to give teachers a pay raise). She spent more than $13,000 to create an MLA-only TV lounge (with a muffin rack costing more than $700), another $14,000 for new drapes in the legislature’s dining room, and more than $48,000 (!) for a custom touch-screen computer terminal in front of her seat in the legislature.

It seems Reid also hired her election campaign manager as her executive assistant, but since this woman lives on the mainland and the job is on Vancouver Island, Reid was billing the legislature for her hotel, travel and meals. Even her own government didn’t defend her on that.

Naturally this story led to heaps of media coverage, with critics having a field day picking her apart. It took Reid a few days to respond, but finally did. Her answer?

“As Speaker, I take full responsibility for these expenditures, The legislative assembly is the people’s building, it should be open and transparent and the public must have absolute confidence that we are managing the taxpayers money appropriately.”

That $48,000 computer monitor?

Reid said the new equipment allows the Speaker to know when MLAs wish to address the house.

So a hand held up wouldn’t work, huh? Teachers, can you justify this now for your classrooms? And about those drapes:

Reid called the expense “routine maintenance,” which permits repairs every 18 to 20 years.

So no apology, just an explanation. She later did apologize to fellow MLAs, saying:

“I certainly apologize, and I recognize the concerns which have been raised have detracted from our work to make the assembly’s financial management more accountable and transparent.” 

So, not really sorry I abused or even appeared to abuse public funds, but sorry I got caught and that’s distracting from our work. She did add that her executive assistant will now work out of her constituency office and not fly back and forth on the public dime.  

And did that silence her critics? No, but it did get her a reputation.

Media-cornered, (Reid’s) response will live in B.C. history: “Accountability speaks to me, transparency speaks to me, accessibility speaks to me.” She should have stuck the public for a hearing aid.

But people forget figures. They never forget a symbolic item that Dick and Jane can relate to: Reid spent $733 for a muffin rack. She’ll take a pasting for that forever.

linda reid's husband the public expects and apology from Linda Reid

And her attitude pasted a target on her back too, because she was also outed that same month for flying her husband to South Africa, spending about $5,500 of public money, to have him by her side while she attended a conference. She even tweeted a photo of how much fun he was having. At least this time Reid offered some humility, and repayment.

“If this caused anyone any consternation, I sincerely apologize.”

But then went on to explain again.

“It’s a practice. What this place has always done, they tell me, is if you can get the flight for less than a business class flight, if you can get two of those, you can do that. And that’s frankly been done for 15 or 20 years, if not longer.”

Even her own government thought that wasn’t good enough. The Finance Minister Mike de Jong said:

“Politicians have to ask themselves whether or not the money, the public dollars that they are spending, are being spent in a defensible manner.”

So our lesson here is pretty clear. Don’t abuse public funds, but if caught, it’s not defensible to tell the public that you were allowed to do it. Even if you were, you’ve been caught, everyone, including your peers, is telling you it’s wrong, so apologize. A heartfelt apology will help win back goodwill, but offering only an explanation will only increase ill will.

It’s not about you, Mr. Spokesperson

I was watching a presentation from an international PR agency about trust, and they were talking about what makes a trustworthy spokesperson. Engagement ranked high on the list, right next to integrity. These are important points for your CEO to keep in mind, especially when reacting to a crisis.

A really bad example of how a spokesperson loses all public trust in a crisis is BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward.

Deepwater-Horizon-Oil-Spi-006In April 2010, a blast at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in history. It took five months for the well to be completely sealed, with oil leaking into the ocean every day. BP was widely condemned for its slow response to the leak, which pumped out around half a million barrels of oil in to the gulf during the first month. The world looked to Hayward for reassurance that the company would fix the situation as quickly as possible to limit the environmental and financial damage. Alas, Mr. Hayward was not the guy for engagement or integrity.

He made a lot (a huge amount!!) of mistakes when it comes to media relations around this crisis. In fact, google his name and you’ll find entire pages from credible newspapers and magazines listing his errors. The worst, undoubtedly, is the one where he forgets this crisis is not about him:

“We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

Yikes, your life back, man? What were you thinking? Or how about this one?

“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” (speaking to fellow executives in London about the Gulf oil spill disaster)

There was the time he tried to deflect the blame.

“Well, it wasn’t our accident, but we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up, and that’s what we intend to do…The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people and their processes.”

And of course, then there was the way he completely minimized the impact.

“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.”

And of course my favourite,

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

By October of that year, Tony Hayward was no longer BP’s CEO.

When you mess up (again), at least be apologetic


Oh, Rob Ford, how is it you’re still in office? Still, I probably shouldn’t complain. You’ve been a gift to bloggers like me who write about mistakes in the media. You’ve been a treasure trove, really!

Recently, after swearing you’d turned a corner and were laying off the hard stuff, you had a slip. You not only slipped, you fell when you were videotaped in a fast food joint ranting drunkenly. Really, really drunkenly. [youtube] But worst of all for you, you were unapologetic. That’s what the media all called you. “Unapologetic.” The Globe and Mail wrote:

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford acknowledges having a “minor setback” in drinking again and being caught on video in a rambling, expletive-laced rant about the city’s police chief – but insists the latest episode is a private matter. An unapologetic Mr. Ford read the remarks from a prepared statement… “I’m a human being – the same as every one of you,” Mr. Ford said. “I’m entitled to a personal life, and my personal life does not interfere with the work that I do day in, day out for the taxpayers of this great city.” The mayor just two months ago admitted he had smoked crack cocaine in a “drunken stupor,” but swore he had given up drugs and alcohol. On Wednesday, he said he is “still working hard” to improve his health, but did not provide details.”

Really, man, how many times can you screw up without admitting your error? Time to be apologetic now, don’t you think?