“Transparency is harder than it looks”

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How would you feel if your personal file on a reporter went public? And what could happen if this reporter was doing a piece on one of your organisation’s Transparency initiatives and got to read this file? How would you react? 

Imagine you are working as PR counsellor for a big company and you have a reporter doing what you think is “digging up problems where they don’t exist”. Have you been in this situation?Imagine also that some of your briefings for your client, in which you inform about your fears, about the reporter’s possible angle and about the main communication axes that he/she should follow when dealing with the reporter, etc., are inadvertently sent to the wrong e-mail address and get to the reporter.  Here’s how it all happened.   

The Story (complete version is here )

Microsoft was being featured in a story by Wired Magazine because of an initiative called Channel 9 (the name was inspired by the audio feed that United Airlines uses to let people who are afraid to flight listen in on pilot communications, in a metaphor with the author’s view about Microsoft’s many internal fears). This project, relased in April 6, 2004, was a kind of Reality Show put up by a former Microsoft employee, Lenn Pryor. He went around Microsoft interviewing engineers about their products and about their jobs. He then posted the clips to a website accessible for anyone from inside and also from outside the company. Right from the start, Channel 9 raised a lot of criticism inside Microsoft from lawyers but also from PR people. Some time after, it even generated very good publicity for Microsoft with a video of guitarist King Crimson playing chords for Windows Vista, but as the author noted “PR people hate surprises”.  

A reporter (Fred Vogelstein) was doing a story about Microsft’s transparency initiatives and after an interview with Charles Fitzgerald (Senior Executive at Microsoft) about the company’s efforts to dialogue with external developers and the community. Fred inadvertently received an executive briefing document (link to pdf file) in an email from Microsoft. This briefing about the reporter’s work was put up by Microsoft’s Corporate Communications PR agency (Waggener Edstrom, Seattle) and shows a very profound will to control every possible detail about the reporter’s view. It includes memos about contacts with the reporter, several media briefings highlighting Key Messages, Key Q&A and so on for executives. The report also includes statements like: 

“We’re pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing. (…) We will continue to push Fred to make sure there are no surprises.”“We want to keep it short and not offer any new avenues to him – Fred has done plenty of reporting here and it is time for him to stop and just write the article. The key issue for you is management support.”“Corp PR is a little uptight about Fred because of his tendency to look for tension and his recent piece on Yahoo which was devastating but pretty much on target. So be careful.”“He is digging for tension where it does not exist. We have to be hard core on this point and communicate in no uncertain terms the level of executive commitment and support for Channel 9 and 10.”“Fred can be a little tricky in interviews. He looks deeply for any dirt around whatever topic he is focused on and generally is tight lipped about the direction he will take for his stories, sometimes even misleading you to throw you off. It takes him a bit to get his thoughts across, so try to be patient.”  

My questions 

To my view, this is a very interesting case of “Fear driven Media Relations” practice, but I would refrain from calling it a PR case. The fact is that many initiatives from the company are being heavily filtered by the agency’s lenses and that might be withdrawing credibility, playing against the real value of those initiatives.  

When reading these statements, do you see normal assumptions, or a pathological fear of the “unknown”? Does this fear (understandable in Media Relations) also apply to other PR areas? Can the weight of Microsoft’s account for the agency (they present themselves as the agency with the lion’s share of Microsoft’s Corporate Communication) be an explanation for the deepness of the worries? 

Can we draw a line between being curious about the outcome of a reporter’s work and intentionally interfering with his/ hers job? 

Would it be possible/ legal for an agency/ client to make this kind of reporter profiles publicly accessible?  

In a upper level, and from the viewpoint of journalists, this should be a question of what kinds of relationships are established between reporters and their sources. A source (in this case a company) has all the right to keep a file the journalist in the same extent as journalists keep files on their sources.  

Take a few moments to look at the report causing all the discussion. It’s interesting from a professional or academic point of view and also to better understand the issues at stake. Download it here

3 COMMENTS

  1. Joao,
    In reading your very informative story I was struck by the implication of one of your questions. I remember in the early seventies that Hill & Knowlton was the first international agency to open up in Italy. At that time I was head of communication for Italy’s then largest publisher, Fabbri Editori, and therefore went to visit my colleagues at H&K to see if and what they could do for me. What surprised me was that they showed me how they kept track in their computers and updated files on the main italian journalists, on their writings, positions, beliefs plus other more private information. Impressed, I returned to my office and decided that I too would prepare files for my major interlocutors. Later on, in the early eighties and as head of Italy’s largest pr agency of the time, I insisted that my coworkers keep centrally located files related to journalists, politicians and other opinion leaders with whom we had constant dialogue. Never thought I was doing something wrong.
    Until…until the ‘privacy’ issue began to emerge and then became a law. I have tried since many times to raise the attention of my colleagues about the sensitivity of this issue of keeping files on individuals, but with little success.
    From an operational point of view, in the mid eighties I took the initiative to select a careful sample of these files, eliminate all potentially undue references, and then I sent a letter to these individuals including a copy of their file just in case they might have wanted to add or subtract something. In my recollection, this was probably one of the five best pr stunts I have ever accomplished…as it allowed me, for many years after, to benefit an exceptional trust from those persons.
    More recently, today’s still major shareholder of Telecom Italia (I say today, because tomorrow Monday is the annual shareholders meeting and God knows what will eventually happen….given the circumstances) is under public scrutiny for having at least tolerated an investigative unit in his organization which electronically spied competitors, critical journalists, relatives, politicians etc…
    One journalist was also hired by that investigative unit (and is now under house arrest..) to create private dossiers on many of these people…
    Back to square one, I remember having worked for many years in eighties as consultant to more than one international company and amongts the more valued benefits they received from me was a perosonalized weekly report on the italian political and economic scenario which contained many informal and confidential items related to ambitions, fears, relationships of my country’s elite. Is this black pr? Maybe so, today. But it certainly wasn’t then.
    I also agree with your comment that collecting, understanding and interpreting sensitive information is one of the basic competences of our role.
    The Microsoft incident is just that: an incident.

  2. Tell me again how this is supposed to work?

    Reporters come to businesses and ask lots of questions, adn then they go to compeotitors and ask lots of questions, and then to suppliers, and then to customers. And they write down everything they can find about the people int he first business.

    But PR people are somehow or other not supposed to find out anything abouyt reporters who can write a story that slashes millions off a company’s capitalization, causes it to lose millions of Euros worth of new business, scares potential employees from coming to work there, and worse?

    Any good PR person knws lots about reporters before introducing the reporter to anyone being interviewed.

    When the reporet, as in the Microsoft story, already knows lots about an organization, it is important to new people he meets have a good idea of what he already knows; what can be released, what has been released, how likely is the reporter to twist the story, and if this is likely, which way will it be twisted.

    BAK

  3. Toni: Interesting experience you had back then. I surely never would have imagined that a Media Relations people would have had the same initiative.
    I guess that far too many times we think that having something (i.e. information) about the other gives us some advantage when it comes to negotiating something with him/her. Could it be that this is a ‘professional desease’? Could it be that many people put the time to take care of collecting that information in front of the time to really work upon the raw material they have to negotiate (i.e. information)? That is still something that the Microsoft case makes me wonder about.

    Brian: thanks for your comment. Do you think that media relations for Companies in the Stock Exchange Market should be conceived in a totally different way than media relations for other companies? It seems that you suggest that the potential effects of a Journalist’s work are much more ‘dangerous’ when they can impact stock prices. Can this be the “fear factor” I was referring to in the first post?

    Thanks

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