Friday, October 21, 2011

Fair is fair. Or is it?

Recently I attended PRSA Pittsburgh's Professional Development Day, which started off with a panel about PR ethics that included a local newspaper reporter. He raised an issue that provoked much discussion about the relationships between PR people and journalists: Is it ethical for a PR person to feed a story to one reporter over another, and if so, is there a right way and a wrong way to do it?

Here's the story the reporter told: He got a press release from a medical device maker about a breakthrough product, with the caveat that the story was embargoed, and the company wouldn't give him the information he needed until the embargo had lifted. But lo and behold, the following day, his competitor had the story, clearly spoon-fed by the company's flack.

That was unethical behavior, and to get at why, it's necessary to talk a little bit about embargoes, which most reporters hate, as do a fair number of PR people. In some situations they are, however, a necessary evil. Case in point: I used to work at Carnegie Mellon University, where one of my main duties was to promote scientific research published in peer-reviewed journals. Most of these journals imposed an embargo on stories about published research. The reason: Embargoes, it was believed, leveled the playing field, and took away a reporter's incentive to land a scoop. As a result, the thinking goes, all journalists covering the story will have adequate time to report on the research thoughtfully, and will be less likely to misrepresent it to the public.

The bottom line for me was that if I allowed a reporter to violate an embargo it would have damaged my institution's relationship with the journal, not to mention the researcher's relationship. But the reasoning behind embargoes is valid, and many public information officers at research institutions, particularly those that are public or receive large amounts of public funding, believe they have an obligation to keep the public informed about the work its tax dollars support. I admire them for it, and to the extent that they believe embargoes advance that purpose, I don't argue with them.

So back to our medical device maker, whose PR rep used an embargo not to ensure that the story would be reported accurately but to lull a reporter into backing off a story so their competitor would have a clear shot. That's deception, pure and simple; it's unfair and it was unethical.

But that doesn't mean that as PR practicioners we are required to treat all reporters equally. When I tweeted as much during the panel, Bryson W. Thornton of FedEx replied "Not equally but fairly." Fair is a slippery concept, and what a reporter regards as fair may not be the same as what a PR person thinks is fair.

Look, not all news outlets or journalists are created equal. Some publications have much larger readerships than others, even in the same market. Some journalists are more thoughtful than others, and are more likely to get the story right. And sometimes we know that handing a journalist an exclusive is the best way to guarantee that we get coverage with our strategic messages intact. I've done it, and it works, and I've been prepared to pay the price in the form of damaged relationships with the scorned reporters.

What I didn't do was lie about it, or use trickery to throw a reporter off my scent. To a journalist, it may be a distinction without a difference, but as a public relations officer, my job is to reconcile my client's or employer's interests with those of the public, and it is to those two entities that my obligations lie. The media is but a conduit between the two, and I must have some discretition over how I utilize it.

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