Lost in Transmission


I dread to think how much eBay is paying Waggener Edstrom to handle press relations for their Toy Crusade. At least I think that’s what is being launched — all the press stuff I received this morning, including image-laden email, attachments was all in Chinese. Oh, except for the headline.

I know I should, but I don’t speak Chinese.

Now, admittedly, the event is about China, it’s being organized in Hong Kong, and the website itself is entirely in Chinese (no English version in sight), but you’d think one of the world’s biggest PR agencies could have managed

  • to have a database of journalists’ language preferences clue: names are often a giveaway), or
  • perhaps an English-language version somewhere in the text, or
  • a link to an English-language version, or
  • an explanation that this is a Chinese-language only event/issue, or
  • a link on the email indicating it was sent by an intern with no idea of what mayhem he may be creating for himself by blasting off emails to all and sundry, or
  • a link in the email to a place where we journalists can complain volubly and ensure we never receive another email like it.

Serious lesson in this: At the very least, this kind of email is likely to end up as spam in a non-Chinese speaking recipient’s email inbox because the Bayesian filters will have been trained to treat it as such. (This is what happened to mine.) So that’s all pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.

But at the most, as a PR agency you’re being paid large amounts of money to target the message to the right people. I’m clearly not the right people. So either don’t send it to me, or send me an English language version, or send me a query about whether this might be of interest. Or expect me to get grumpy, and take 15 minutes of my day to write a grumpy blog post like this.

Update, Aug 27 2007: I’ve just heard from Waggener who have offered an apology and explanation:

In the case of the toy crusade press release, a staff member accidentally inserted the wrong distribution list, and this was overlooked by their supervisor during the checking process.

People do make mistakes and of course the individuals concerned are very apologetic.  To be sure, we have also added more safeguards to the process to minimize the likelihood of this ever happening again.

Fair play. Of course it’s better that these things don’t happen, but they do, and their response is measured and the right one. The proof will be in the pudding — will it happen again?

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’.