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.”
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