Conflict of Interest

James Coston
James Coston

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It’s one of those issues that can sort of be the proverbial “elephant in the room.”

“Is the news I’m getting completely objective?” “What role did public relations play in shaping this story?” “Am I being shown the full picture?”

Recently, one of our clients lost one of its employees to a national media outlet. Although we were sad to see her leave, we understood that this was a fantastic opportunity for her to further her career. Typically, it seems like media professionals tend to move from journalism to public relations rather than vice versa, but in this case, no one could really fault her decision.

Right before she left, one of her co-workers joked about how they would be pitching stories to her on a regular basis. At the same time, it seemed like a fairly innocent teasing remark and I didn’t make much of it. Only when someone else made a similarly innocuous remark about how I’d be representing the client at an upcoming event that she would be covering did I start to think more about it.

It’s everywhere

Recently, on an episode of the Fox News Channel morning show Fox and Friends, co-host Steve Doocy conducted an interview with Greg Clayman, publisher of the tablet-based newspaper application The Daily. The interview seemed to be very positive and pointed out the notable aspects of the app.

Liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America was quick to jump on the story and point out that both Fox News and The Daily are both owned by media conglomerate News Corporation.

It appears that neither Doocy nor Clayman point to this potential conflict of interest during the interview. One could argue that arranging for The Daily to get air time on Fox and Friends would require less effort than anyone pitching a non-News Corp. product.

The question then is whether a connection is so widely known that a disclosure has to be made. Let’s say, for example, an ABC affiliate mentions The Walt Disney Company in some capacity. While the station ought to mention that Disney owns ABC (and ESPN, A&E, etc.), in that case, that information is already pretty close to public knowledge. It’s a judgment call, but then again, most conflict of interest issues are.

To be fair, Fox News’ biggest cable news competitor MSNBC has been caught in similar situations. When the New York Times reported that General Electric managed to avoid paying taxes in 2010, many media outlets mentioned how MSNBC did not cover the story as extensively as other media outlets. Is it pure coincidence that GE owns MSNBC? We may never know for sure. What is certain is that Fox News is surely not the only outlet guilty of having conflicts of interest.

What can PR agencies do about it?

At the end of the day, public relations is not advertising. If you’ve ever taken a writing test for a PR agency, the odds are very high that you’ve had to take a writing test containing some variation of the question: “What is the difference between advertising and public relations?”

The simple answer is that advertising is paid media and public relations is earned media. Now, “earned” can be a tricky word in this context, but it essentially comes down to this: If you pitch a story to a media outlet and they deem it to be worthy enough to be covered, that placement is considered earned. Sure, PR professionals develop working relationships with reporters, but the fact is they’re not going to publish something that would reflect poorly on them and/or alienate their audience. Those connections can help someone with a particular outlet actually see or hear what you’re pitching, but if the content is not of a high quality or is irrelevant, they’re simply not going to use it.

Let’s go back to the Fox News/The Daily segment for a moment. When considering that segment, you have to wonder if either party thought about the possible negative implications of it. Does that outweigh any positive publicity gained from having your product profiled on national television? Or is there a way to make the segment seem more balanced? Those questions need to be asked.

If I pitch a story to the reporter who used to work for my agency’s client and she feels obligated to run it, the results could be disastrous for my client’s image. PR is supposed to appear seamless, not forced. When a particular segment could be confused with an infomercial, it may be doing more harm than good for the client’s brand image.

It’s inevitable I’ll run into that reporter again. And when I do and I have an idea for a story, I’ll need to make sure that it fits with what she is reporting and she’s not doing me a favor. I may have more time to pitch that story to her because of the prior professional relationship, but that shouldn’t mean that we should abuse that trust.

The key to dealing with any potential conflicts of interest is to be completely transparent about all issues. People don’t like feeling like they aren’t being told the whole story. Even though it may be uncomfortable at first, those initial admissions are easily forgivable. Hiding something for the sake of a story though causes much more substantial damage.

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