About a decade ago, Robin Wauters, the co-founder of TechCrunch wrote a scathing article about a communicator who, in Robin’s mind, had violated every rule that is supposed to exist between PR pros and journalists.
He said this communicator had abused Robin’s “extremely sweet and mild-mannered colleague.”
Robin was so angry at this communicator that he called him out by name, called him a “PR disaster,” and printed only his emails (not the journalist’s responses).
I remember being outraged at the time because, as Lindsay Bell-Wheeler used to say all the time when she worked here:
There are all three sides to a story: yours, theirs, and the truth.
They only told their side of the story and didn’t let this communicator defend himself.
I’ve always thought it to be pretty disgusting to call out people like that, and even more so when you are using a media platform to do so.
Back in the day, when it was a thing to make fun of people by name on social media, I used to say, “Disrespect the idea, not the person.”
I know that’s awfully Pollyanna of me, but I really believe it.
And journalists are held to an even higher standard.
They should not, under any circumstance, become petty in that way.
And yet…it constantly happens. No wonder trust in the media continues to decline.
PR Pros Don’t Cause Crises—and Neither Does PR
There is another thing that really bothers me, which we’ve talked about here many times.
And that is when a controversy, an issue, a crisis, or someone doing something dumb is blamed on PR.
A couple of months ago, Apple announced they have new software to fight child pornography, which of course raised questions and concerns about an erosion of privacy on the iPhone.
I, for one, think child pornographers don’t deserve privacy, but that’s neither here nor there.
There are two new tools available: one is aimed at identifying known sexually explicit images of children stored in the company’s cloud storage service and the second allows parents to better monitor what images are being shared with and by their children through text messages.
Apple and other tech companies have faced pressure from governments around the world to provide better access to user data to root out illegal child pornography.
But, apparently, the rollout was flubbed because both tools were announced at the same time and parents became worried that Apple would flag the photos of their babies in the bathtub.
Not a public relations crisis, yet that’s what the Wall Street Journal has called it.
Then, two weeks later, Apple said it would delay the rollout of its controversial plans to scan iPhones for child exploitation images after security and privacy experts warned the software could open a back door, giving governments and even hackers access to the devices without permission.
The company was unprepared for the overwhelming backlash.
This Serves No One
Their communications team proactively called journalists to correct the record on background, they didn’t want to allow attribution because it was on background only.
Well, The Washington Post was having none of that and they published this:
Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said he would not provide a statement on Friday’s announcement because The Washington Post would not agree to use it without naming the spokesperson.
I get their frustration and I understand why they would want to be able to attribute the information to an Apple spokesperson, but communicators give information on background all of the time—and without attribution.
Likewise, many journalists have sources they 100% would never name.
So what’s the difference here?
Is it because it’s Apple and they’re tired of being pushed around by the company?
It’s been contentious since the Steve Jobs days, so I get it, but also publishing a person’s name in an attempt to get back at the company seems petty and spiteful and definitely comes across as unprofessional.
As I said I am a bit Pollyanna, but come on!
This serves no one.
Having to Revive One’s Reputation Is Almost a Lost Cause
There are certainly times that journalists should stick up for themselves—and I’m not so Pollyanna to think that there isn’t a single communicator who doesn’t deserve the wrath of the written word.
Case in point: Amazon.
Mother Jones recently did an investigative piece where they talked to journalists about their experiences with communicators who work for Amazon.
They said at least three reporters recalled moments when they felt the Amazon communications team had “outright lied” to them.
Outright lied, y’all.
That’s at least risky if not downright stupid.
I don’t care who you work for.
Lying is the fastest way to burning a bridge and harming one’s reputation.
As Warren Buffet so eloquently put it, “If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. But if you lose reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless.”
The Mother Jones article says:
Almost all of the journalists told me they found that Amazon press relations was either the most or among the most clawing and deceptive corporate communications team that they had dealt with in their work.
“Amazon is the only company I’ve dealt with that has directly lied to me,” said one tech writer, recalling instances when Amazon boasted of warehouse safety guidelines in ways that journalists who had spoken with rank-and-file employees had found not to be true.
“They’d often lie about things we had proof of,” said another reporter, citing times they had visual evidence contradicting the communications teams’ claims. “There will be videos of these big walkouts and they’ll say only a few workers participated.”
This is crazy!
But many journalists think this is a tactic Amazon uses to scare them away from reporting on the company.
Whether or not it’s working depends on who you ask, but after learning more about this, I’m not surprised journalists are fed up with PR pros.
The Contentious Relationship Between PR Pros and Journalists
I know it’s easy for me to sit here and armchair quarterback it all, but I do think there is value in treating one another with more respect than we notoriously do.
That starts with not calling people out by name in articles—or tweeting about how horrible a journalist is.
It’s difficult to draw an ethical line on how hard PR pros should push journalists when working on a story or getting corrections.
And the same in reverse—where is the line in what reporters should accept?
The Fourth Estate has had a rough go of it the past few years.
Their work should definitely be scrutinized and examined.
But it should be motivated by a sincere desire for truth or accuracy—not by corporations wanting to strong-arm their way into fluff pieces and positive feature stories.
Or journalists wanting to even the score by calling out PR pros by name.