Flack Defrocks Press, Anoints … Blogs?

Articles in the New York Times and the New York Observer reveal: the MSM no longer has a monopoly on reprinting press releases from PR people ... because there are blogs now.

It must have stung a little, what Richard W. Edelman, president and chief executive of the public relations firm bearing his name, said to the New York Observer’s Jason Horowitz. “You’re not God anymore,” Edelman informed the reporter, sounding nothing if not triumphant.

And why, pray tell, are reporters “not God anymore?”

Thanks be to blogs!

Edelman — a PR bigwig and a blogger — wasn’t just engaging in a bit of blogger triumphalism (a favorite blogosopheric pastime which entails boasting about how they — bloggers — will embarrass, outdo, and ultimately render obsolete the hapless MSM). Edelman was engaging in some PR triumphalism as well, gloating to Horowitz that he and his PR peers don’t need Horowitz and his MSM peers (as much) anymore. (If there ever were an appropriate venue for a little PR triumphalism, it was the setting of Horowitz’s entertaining Observer piece — the annual awards ceremony sponsored by PR Week, which hands out prizes that Horowitz dubs “the Pubbies, or Spinnies or whatever you want to call them.”)

In other words, just as blogs give consumers more options when it comes to getting news — pay attention, now — blogs give PR flacks more options when it comes to shaping news, and often without the expensive and time-consuming wooing and feting expected by the spoiled mainstream media. Said Edelman to Horowitz: “It used to be I would schmooze you… Today, if we want to get a message into the public’s conversation, we just make a post on a blog.” That is to say, the MSM no longer has a monopoly on reprinting press releases from PR people (or, we’d add, reprinting opposition research from political campaigns or engaging in any other bad reporting practice) because there are blogs now.

Us, we’re not deifying bloggers just yet. For now, we’re betting there isn’t a single Edelman client who wouldn’t prefer to have a positive story “placed” on A1 of the Wall Street Journal than to have that same good news posted on every blog in the ‘sphere. Which is not to say that corporations won’t pay PR firms handsomely to generate a little blog love. In fact, the New York Times reported Tuesday on how Wal-Mart is doing just that, with the help of its PR firm — you guessed it: Edelman! (Edelman is everywhere! Omnipresent. Almost…like God).

“Under assault as never before,” the Times’ Michael Barbaro reported, “Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters,” a strategy which to Barbaro’s mind (and ours) “raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers.”

Bloggers, or course, were quick to criticize the piece, and criticisms generally fell into two camps. Camp 1: The Times story is the MSM’s attempt to force bloggers into a small ethical box called “transparency,” a box in which plenty of reporters fail to confine themselves. Wrote Atrios: “Unless I’m missing something this New York Times article is just another stab at holding bloggers to ethical standards and practices which don’t apply anywhere else in the universe.” (We’d argue that these “ethical standards and practices” certainly do apply elsewhere in the universe, they’re just not upheld as often as we’d like). MyDD characterized the Times piece as an “attack on bloggers” and “a clear ‘blogger ethics panel’ moment” before asking “why is the New York Times so afraid of the Internet? According to Poliblogger, the article “suggests that the print and broadcast media never, ever use press releases to write their stories and that they always and forevermore release all information regarding the influences that have gone into their work. This is, of course, absurd.” Camp 2: The Times story is a non-story. For example, Richard Edelman (yes, that Richard Edelman) blogged the following about Barbaro’s article: “Of course we give information to bloggers, just as PR people for generations have done with print media, and I’m a little surprised that the print and broadcast media are surprised.” Wrote Atrios: ” ‘Wal-Mart PR guy reaches out to bloggers’ just isn’t much of a story. PR people reach out to me all the time. So what.”

Here’s what: The blogosphere is a young medium, still in its adolescence — too young to already be kidnapped by the PR industry. Jeff Jarvis, one of the blogosphere’s respected elders, offered these thoughts on the Times piece: “The Times is merely reporting how PR works. Only the object of this PR is the public, not the press. And some of these people, these bloggers, aren’t as slick as reporters in knowing how to deal with this.” Jarvis went on to offer this advice to his fellow bloggers:

“If you write a post inspired by what you get from a company or its PR agent, say so. If you use facts or quotes from a company, politician, PR agent, or press release, say so (better yet, link to it). If you get anything from a PR agent — things, business meetings, social events — say so. Your public has a right to know where your information comes from so they can judge it accordingly. And then you know what? You will be way ahead of the press.”

What Jarvis didn’t explicitly say is that the best journalists are masters at cutting through PR fog and now bloggers — at least the ones who want to maintain their credibility — will have to become the same to avoid being fooled, or tooled, by the bigger PR juggernauts. As the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz wrote yesterday, prompted by the Times piece: “The better bloggers are going to have to figure out their own standards for dealing with corporate and political flacks, and those who blindly carry water for outside groups will probably lose credibility over time. But I expect them to be in the minority.”

We’re glad Kurtz has such faith. Us? We’re not so sure. The number of press releases showing up in our email in-boxes is certainly on the rise. (Here’s an example of one we received just this morning: “With award-show season in the midst of Winter and the Academy Awards having just finished, I’m sure your CJR Daily readers wonder, ‘How do celebrities keep their great tans?’” Accompanying this teaser was an offer to book some interview time with the CEO of Darque Tan.)

There is a category at the PRWeek awards (the “Spinnies”) celebrating the “Best Use of Internet.” This year, the winner made blogs the focus of its campaign. We’re guessing it won’t be long before “Best Use of Blogs” merits its own, stand-alone “Spinnie” award category.

(Personal aside: There is also a category at the PRWeek awards for “Best Use of Broadcast,” “honoring VNRs [Video News Releases] in terms of their creativity, cost-effectiveness and overall impact.” It is a travesty that Karen Ryan Group Communications did not take this category last year for its work in 2004. Why the snub? What in the world did the winner — Zeno Group, on behalf of the National Association of Music Education — have on Ryan’s “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting” series on behalf of the Health and Human Services Department? If the Spinnies are the Oscars of the PR world, then Karen Ryan’s work is surely the “Saving Private Ryan” of PR.)

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.