Speaker by Various Artists

59

The End of Trust

by Paul Brislen

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading the Dirty Politics book and associated stories, emails, blog posts, tweets and rants, it’s that I’ve got a thing or two to learn about PR.

This worries me somewhat, because while I’ve only been a practicing PR consultant for three months now, I spent five years working in corporate PR and thought I knew enough to get by.

I’ve also spent a decade as a journalist, fending off PR trolls, and four years as a lobbyist (well, more properly an advocate) and so have a pretty good grasp of the world of communications.

I can honestly say I’ve not seen anything like this before.

When I was a journalist I used to delight in not doing what PR people wanted. Attend an event on the basis that I’d write it up favourably? Well that depends on the content. Feel warmly about a client because they are friendly and hold a Christmas party? We’ll see when your annual result comes out, shall we?

At Computerworld we held it as a point of pride not to bother with press releases.  So much so that when a new sub editor started and felt her job was to put press releases on my keyboard for my reading pleasure, I upset her greatly by actually laughing out loud and chucking the lot in the bin. We don’t do that, I imperiously informed her.

But of course we did. We took the lunches, the free software, the dinners, the trips abroad. I went to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Singapore, Orlando, Stockholm, Hannover and Amsterdam on someone else’s ticket as a journalist. Every time I took great pains to not be swayed, but of course I was to some degree. Famously, one colleague attended a conference in Beijing (I think) where an analyst rubbished the organiser’s products and so she got a lovely “Company Sucks, says analyst” headline, followed by the “Computerworld travelled to Beijing courtesy of the Company” disclaimer at the end of the story.

Our motto was “you buy our time, not our copy” and at Computerworld we stuck religiously to that. Yes, we’d attend your conference and meet your speakers and interview your CEO but on our terms. I felt pretty good about that, but I do remember receiving anti-virus software every year for half a decade and not once writing “man, this stuff just doesn’t work very well” because they were so lovely.

But what I didn’t realise is that  PR isn’t about journalists, it’s about influence. The reporters and the editors are just a means to an end – we want to influence someone somewhere to do something and so we push stories at media folk in the hopes they’ll write a piece that supports our mission. If they do, we take all the credit for “placing” a story. If they don’t, well we move on and try someone else.

It’s a funny business to be in. It’s based on trust, in no small part, and in relationship building and if Dirty Politics has done anything, it’s completely shatter that trust.

Journalists shouldn’t trust PR people, but they have to, to some degree. We have things they want, just as they have things we want. We want stories, column inches, interviews and photographs for our clients. They want access to clients, interesting stories that will appeal to their readers (or viewers or listeners) and a scoop on the competition.

Normally this works well. When I ring a former journalist colleague and pitch a story idea I hope they’ll listen because they know I understand something of their job. I don’t ring when they’re on deadline, I don’t pitch a business story to a consumer reporter, I don’t pitch stuff they’ve seen before.

Similarly, I trust that if they like it they’ll treat it fairly and ask questions where they don’t understand, aim to be balanced in their writing and not waste my time and energy.

What Whale Oil and co have done is destroy that trust.

David Fisher and Matt Nippert have both written excellent pieces about how they were suckered in, how they’ll think twice before blindly following a promise of a scoop in future and how they’re sorry their readers were not treated better.

They’re not the only ones.

Various other journalists are guilty of not “following the money” and asking why this person is leaking this information, who benefits and who suffers as a result.

On top of that there seem to be a number of companies that are complicit to one degree or another with the attack blogging that’s gone on.

Attack blogging. I can believe it’s a thing but I can’t believe we’ve got it in New Zealand. Surely that’s something the Americans would do, or perhaps on a bad day former tabloid journos in the UK. But here?

I’ve been on the receiving end of a mild dose of it myself and it’s not pretty, but having read Dirty Politics we’ve all seen how low these things can go.

This is the dark, dark side of PR. The unprincipled, the unpleasant and ultimately unrewarding side. Companies that are considering employing some of these tactics will now have to think twice because it is coming back to bite those that have been involved.  It’s cost a government minister her job and apparently any future in cabinet, triggered a couple of inquiries and more to come including, I suspect, some kind of criminal action to go with the civil.

Most organisations I know, certainly all the ones I work with, wouldn’t have a bar of running a negative campaign like the ones we’ve seen recently. I sincerely hope the adverse publicity puts any future black ops work on hold indefinitely.

Paul Brislen is executive director of the Anthem public relations company

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