Peeyoo-litzer Prize Winning Reporting

In past fulminations, we’ve opined about PR people producing client-friendly video and placing it on the news, posing as reporters narrating the news in a client-friendly way and stuffing polls covered by the news in ways that benefit their clients or employers.

But the one thing that reporters still completely control is the questioning of its government and their apologists. That’s the heart and soul of the good old Fourth Estate, right?

Not so fast there, Bernstein. Last week the Bush Administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reportedly used PR flunkies posing as reporters to ask softball questions about FEMA’s response to southern California wildfires. The old “I’m not a reporter, but I play one on TV” trick. This “reporting” was apparently covered live by MSNBC and Fox.

Darn it all, if only Browny’s boys had thought of this in New Orleans! “Browny’s doing a swell job, isn’t he?” “No human being could possibly have imagined a levy could break, right?” “Would you say recovery efforts are going great, or super-duper great?”

This obviously isn’t a widespread practice, and it isn’t likely to become one. But honestly, the arrogance of the PR profession these days boggles the mind.

– Loveland

14 thoughts on “Peeyoo-litzer Prize Winning Reporting

  1. The Analyst says:

    It was a brilliant manipulative move … choreographing a sudden, bogus, listen-only tele-press conference with canned questions and answers. The only flaw was in its disclosure. If only a couple of bureaucrats could have kept their traps shut.

    As was pointed out Sunday morning by Britt Hume, the Katrina debacle was Democratic government ineptitude at its best … artfully passed off on Bush. From Ray Nagin’s school idled school bus fleets to Kathleen Blanco’s refusal to upgrade the levies, the whole escapade was passed off on FEMA and Browny.

    Chertoff ought to give his staff a bonus for nearly pulling off the PR coup of the decade last week.

  2. Ouch. So this is one of the saddest, stupidest things I’ve seen in a while, but blame “the PR profession”? Politics is such a different world that even if these people have PR jobs, a FEMA PR person is to “the PR profession” what arena football is to the NFL. Sure, it’s the same sport, but it’s a damn different game.

    So can we agree? Don’t blame PR. Blame politics! 🙂

  3. jloveland says:

    “The PR profession” would never pose as reporters in an attempt to control the message? See VNRs.

  4. Sam says:

    This blog is living proof that ex-journalists make the worst PR professionals. They are incapable of distinguishing strategy and advocacy from personal ideology.

    Corporate newsletter jockeys at best.

  5. Kelly Groehler says:

    I don’t know if I agree with that statement, Sam. I’m not a former journalist, but I also haven’t come across another forum that is willing to call out the profession’s elephants for us to bash, analyze, defend, or claim don’t exist. We can’t improve the profession without acknowledging its flaws.

    Case in point, re: FEMA – I have my suspicions that government isn’t the only entity pulling this crap.

  6. jloveland says:

    Sam, though neither journalists nor corporate newsletter writers will claim me as one of their own, I do appreciate the love.

  7. jlovelan says:

    Sam wrote: “They (the authors of this blog) are incapable of distinguishing strategy and advocacy from personal ideology.”

    Ok, so let’s distinguish then. As a hypothetical, let’s set aside my personal opinion that publicly impersonating reporters in order to control your message is unethical.

    Even if there were no ethical reason to avoid this tactic, given the probability of getting caught, isn’t this also just dumb strategy that did a disservice to the employer?

  8. Becky says:

    Unethical, absolutely. And nevermind how monumentally stupid and, well, smarmy, you look when someone figures it out and reports on it. It just screams “hey. I know my talking points are lame, and I know we’re not fooling anyone. Except ourselves.”

  9. GH says:

    Goofy thing is they didn’t really need to manufacture good press at that point. FEMA and other agencies were already starting to get deserved plaudits in places for their work in California and for acting on lessons learned after Katrina, whoever’s fault they were.

    http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10024904&CFID=24111525&CFTOKEN=83525203

    http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1025/p01s02-usgn.html

    I wonder what the “reporters” were doing behind the camera during the answers. Pretend nodding? Taking fake notes? Formulating faux followups?

  10. Loveland: ” ‘The PR profession’ would never pose as reporters in an attempt to control the message? See VNRs.”

    If we denigrating VNRs as a smarmy form of controlling the message, should we just trash the concept behind a written news release, too? I’m not saying that they’re not a “controlled message.” I’m saying that, when done properly, that “control” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  11. jloveland says:

    It’s a very good point.

    My take: News releases and video news releases are in the same family, but the difference is a matter of degree. With VNRs, the originator actually dresses like a reporter, narrates like a reporter and generally infers that they are a reporter. The written equivalent might be if I wrote a news release where instead of the “Contact” I was listed as “Joe Loveland, Staff Reporter,” and then laid it out in exactly the same font and the same columnar layout as the target publication.

    But I do agree that the news release is an odd tradition too. Why not just give reporters something that reads more like a background memo than something that is written kinda sorta like a mock story? I’d be fine with that. It might help PR people remember their proper role.

  12. Kelly Groehler says:

    Think of the declining impact that would have on the online news sites and aggregators. I’m stunned at how many online hits are just the release crossing the wire.

  13. jloveland says:

    Great point, KG. It’s shocking how many news releases get placed as is on online news sites. When that happens, the line between reporting and flacking is not blurred; it’s effectively eliminated. I wonder if online news sites and aggregators will come to use VNRs in such an unfiltered way over time.

  14. Kelly Groehler says:

    Exhibit A: YouTube.

    I also love how global wire distribution for a release is 10x the cost of the national wire – given the online news aggregators will carry it worldwide for you (so long as you set up the correct search terms, etc.).

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