Wagging The Journalist Tail

I’m a bit late on this, but if you’re a journalist it’s an interesting glimpse on just how much effort PR puts into spin: Microsoft’s PR agency sends its memo on a Wired journalist to the journalist himself (the dossier is here).

Much has been written about how it is normal practice to have PR closely monitoring a journalist, and we shouldn’t be surprised. True, I guess. What surprises me about the episode is the degree of influence/control those writing the memos assume they have over the process. Take these examples from the emails in the memo:

  • Spin: They are requesting a photo session with Jeff Sandquist {Microsoft’s director of platform evangelism} so we’ve secured the focus of our story. Translation: We wanted them to write about Sandquist and they are.
  • Interference: Fred will be writing early this week and we expect him to finish mid-week and will be in touch with him throughout the process. We should have a look at it early March and it should run late March for the April issue. Translation: We will be exerting influence over the writer as he writes.
  • Influence: We’re pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing. Translation: We are exerting influence over the timing of the journalistic process.
  • Professional pressure: We will continue to push Fred to make sure there are no surprises. Translation: We will exert influence over the journalist to ascertain the content of the article and (implicitly) seek to remove anything we don’t like.
  • Personal pressure: I would hate for them to feel like the story somehow missed the true essence in which Channel 9 and 10 came to be…I know it would be pretty disappointing to them if those elements weren’t captured somehow. Translation: We will use all tools in our kit including personal feelings and guilt to ensure the journalist writes what we want.

We should point out that Chris Anderson at Wired has written about how Waggener Edstrom, the PR company, were not given a draft of the story, they were faxed a proof (i.e. a final version that cannot be corrected.) I can understand the sense in doing this, but I’d say it’s still one step too much (and it doesn’t quite gel with what Wired’s research director Joanna Pearlstein says in a comment, that “we do not share copies of stories with sources prior to publication, period.” Might be worth clarifying this.)

We should also be careful about concluding that just because the PR flaks think they’re heavily influencing the process, they may not be. The proof, of course, is in the pudding. Was the final story what they were aiming for?

Journalistic integrity is the issue. Jeff Sandquist, the subject of the story, has written about how Wired has been trying to apply the lessons of transparency learned from Microsoft to its own institution. This might or might not be true. Transparency is fine, but more important is opacity. PR shouldn’t be granted, or assume that they’re being granted, such extensive access to the journalistic process. That should be sacrosanct.

There’s a simple way of looking at this. Replace Microsoft as the subject with a government. Would a publication and its readers feel happy about this degree of involvement by officialdom in the framing of a story? I’m sure it happens, but as a reader I guess I’d just hope it doesn’t. As a reader I’d be saddened by all this; not because PR is doing something it shouldn’t, but that from the tone of the emails, it sounds as if PR assumes extensive rights to be intimately involved in the story. That means this kind of thing is common.

I’m a journalist, so my interest is simple: to ensure that what I write is what I think is correct and that I have managed to filter out as much as the spin as possible, so that what remains is as close to the truth as I can get it. For the record, I would never tolerate this degree of involvement in the process. Of course I’m lucky; I intentionally live and work a long way from anyone who can personally manipulate me through relationships, and although I write for The Wall Street Journal I’m no big fish. In fact, I have a lot of problems securing even basic stuff like a copy of Office 2007 to review; in the light of this episode I’m quite grateful. I’d rather be ignored than be subjected to this kind of pincer movement.

Bottom line: It’s sad that there’s no sense of irony here that so much effort is put into trying to control the message that is ‘there is no control’.

12 thoughts on “Wagging The Journalist Tail

  1. Real transparency in any company is impossible. If I truthfully wrote about the internal of my company I would expect to be pulled up /very/ quickly.

    Channel 9 etc from MS are just marketing initiatives, nothing more or less.

  2. John: I think you’re right, and the same is true of my company, probably. But there are degrees: given the opacity of the past, the new Microsoft is definitely an improvement. That said, when I interviewed the guy behind Office 2007 I had to go thro PR and my follow up questions are still languishing somewhere in between.

    Juha: Does seem bizarre, doesn’t it?

  3. If all the pressure is hard on a professional journalist working for a big city or industry publication, can you imagine the influence PR professionals exert on a freelancer, a citizen journalist, or a micropublisher?

    And the controlling practices of bigco PR departments startles me. I’ve only been a practicing full-time reporter for a bit more than a year. But I keep running into chaperon-only interviewing, PR people that wave-off questions, and extensive note taking; all designed to prevent disclosure at a minimum and to discourage rapport.

  4. How interesting. Just last week I had a PR guy call me up telling me a piece I’d written about a heart device was inaccurate and based on biased information. Then he proceeds to email me three documents that are even more biased on his client’s side with one of them being a mock-up that I could post verbatim on my heart disease blog, AHeartyLife.com. They even put my banner on the document! The hard sell really turned me off and there’s no way I’m posting an update on the device until I get some opinions back from cardiologists who know more about the the efficacy of the device. Does he think I was born yesterday?

  5. As a “media strategist” who sometimes writes memos like the one cited (hopefully not too much like them), let me offer a semi serious alternative. translation

    They are requesting a photo session with Jeff Sandquist {Microsoft’s director of platform evangelism} so we’ve secured the focus of our story translation:
    “We were successful in helping the writer find something that mixed his goals and ours…a topic we want to get publicity about and one that is actually interesting to the readers”

    Fred will be writing early this week and we expect him to finish mid-week and will be in touch with him throughout the process. We should have a look at it early March and it should run late March for the April issue. translation
    “We will stay in contact with the writer throughout the process to see if we can provide any additional support as needed. The writer, as a courtesy, is going to send us an early copy of his final product. We won’t be changing anything, but we will get a heads up look.”

    We’re pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing.
    translation “We really want this out as soon as possible and we’re doing all we can to make that happen although we really have no influence over that at all.”

    We will continue to push Fred to make sure there are no surprises
    Translation
    “We’ve told the executives that we expect this to be a largely positive piece and we hope that’s the case. But if it doesn’t happen,we hope we at least get a chance to respond in the article to any unexpected digs.”

    would hate for them to feel like the story somehow missed the true essence in which Channel 9 and 10 came to be…I know it would be pretty disappointing to them if those elements weren’t captured somehow. translation
    “I’m just saying I would feel everyone’s pain if this doesn’t turn out to be a really positive story for us.”

    Look, I sit in meetings with PR folks all the time who really think they can massage stories and the reason is that increasing they can. More time pressured freelancers doing the work, less time for staff reporters to spend on research and fewer research assistants (or none), and more pressure to be ‘entertaining’ by picking good guys and bad guys for purposes of storytelling.
    On the other hand, as a longtime former journalist, I do my best to stress that answering questions honestly and increasing transparency are almost always the answer.
    But it seems to me that efforts to hook up interesting topics with interested reporters is not an inherently evil thing

  6. Media David: thanks for the alternative translation, and fair points. You’re right: hooking up topics/reporters isn’t evil, and I receive some thoughtful pitches along the way. But your point about pressures on journalists creating more opportunities for massaging PR folks is well taken. Sometimes I get pitches along the lines that Hsien Lei describes — a prefab story — which scare me. Not because I’ll use them but because presumably out there there must be publications that do…

    Phil: it is a bit scary, and I imagine a lot of PR don’t even bother with smaller publications. I guess the point is that the more that is spent on massaging a bit client like Wired, the fewer resources left for smaller outlets. The result: no PR response at all, not even to basic questions.

  7. Jeremy,

    I can answer your question about the “early” copy to Microsoft. Loads of people have been confused by this because the language of the magazine industry is, well, confusing. “Publication date” and “on-sale date” are not the same thing, and both happen weeks after we’re “off press” (ie, technically published). The facts are these: we faxed Microsoft a copy five days before “on sale”, which is when it’s officially available on newsstands. But subscribers get the magazine early, so some had already received it (and many newsstands put them up as much as week before the official on-sale date. So Microsoft got it after the first subscribers, but before most newsstand readers.

    (BTW, we fax rather than send a PDF to limit redistribution)

    Does that clear it up?

    –Chris

  8. jeremy -

    This is interesting and thoughtful. Goodness knows the signal to noise ratio on this topic has been very very low – so thank you.

    You make a couple of assumptions that I want to clear up:

    1)Microsoft didn’t even get a proof of the story before publication. I faxed them a copy of the story in the printed magazine a week ahead of the mag’s official onsale date. Why? Because the magazine is typically available publicly at random newsstands at least a week ahead of the official onsale date. A more detailed explanation of that issue is here:
    http://blog.wired.com/business/2007/03/what_i_did_and_.html

    2)Just because Microsoft pr talks as if they are hard-wired into my head, doesn’t mean they have ANY influence over my reporting and writing process at all. They may think that they are managing me and for all sorts of internal political reasons may tell each other that, but really they are just a conduit with much less impact on the ultimate outcome than the memo implies.

    That’s not to say they are insignificant. If you write stories about corporations and want on the record access to people inside a corporation, you have to deal with its pr folks. Wagged and Microsoft PR determine if I get access to Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer or any executive on the record at Microsoft. Indeed, if I’m doing a q&a with Gates, pr has huge power. They can make him available, in which case the q&a is successful, or they can say no, in which case the piece dies.

    But beyond that, pr’s influence is only large if I allow my reporting to be limited to the interviews they set up. I can assure you my reporting on any story is not limited to interviews served up to me by pr. They probably account for 10%-25% of my reporting work.

    Why the tone of self confidence in the memo? I’d guess that it’s a prerequisite of the job. The process of dealing with a journalist is fraught with uncertainty, and no matter how many risk/reward analyses you do and how much intelligence on the writer and publication you gather, it is simply impossible for anyone to know how a story is going to turn out. I don’t know myself typically until I sit down to write. But what self respecting pr pro is gonna say that? “We think the story is gonna be ok for us, but we really don’t have a clue?” Instead, you get what is in the memo – a detailed explanation for how they are managing the process the best they can.

    3)As best as I can tell from the public comments Microsoft HATED the story. How you call a company “visionary” in print and have it hate the piece leaves me perplexed, frankly. But it’s worth noting. Why? Because a lot look at the memo and look at the story and conclude I was Microsoft’s plaything. Meanwhile, they are furious at me for not writing a different story.

    It all explains why, when my story subjects invariably ask whether they will like my piece – after it is finished and edited – my answer is always “I don’t have the slightest idea.”

  9. Fred, thanks for the comment. A couple of things:

    1) Fair point, and Chris has clarified this above. Altho interestingly, as you say on the blog, MS were upset at not getting a copy earlier, suggesting that in other cases and with other outlets they would expect it.

    2) I tried to make clear this point above (that what PR people are telling their paymasters, and each other, may not be the reality.

    And good insight on the emails’ tone.

    3) Amusing that they might hate the story. Of course, this may all be part of the mind game….

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  10. The discussion and insights here and at Wired are great.

    Being in PR but with journalistic roots (education and early career, plus periodic freelance), I can say that any PR pro worth his/her salt ultimately realizes the journalist has the ultimate control.

    PR pros’ job is to know the media and reporters, know their clients/employer, and suggest stories that would be of interest to the media outlet’s readers while somehow benefiting clients/employer.

    As noted earlier, we’re nothing but conduits. Excellent ones, if we do our jobs right, but can make no guarantees.

    Unfortunately, some supposed PR pros get arrogant, can’t write worth a d_ _ n, have poor news judgment and can’t say no to clients/employer.

    – Mike

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