Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mommy taught me not to lie

Reading Dan Lyons' piece on the Apple / Media dance - and, let's be honest, it is a great one to watch as a PR person - one thing stuck out for me: The larger takeaway is what this episode says about how the media covers Apple. It's one thing for PR flacks to tell lies. That is, after all, what they get paid to do. But it's another thing for the media to join in on the action. (Emphasis mine, of course).

The article was dead-on. There are a few corporations that get an easy pass, and have a hardcore public relations machine. Apple is one of those, and as a fanboy of Apple (and, well, a person that likes to watch and practice good PR), it is amazing to watch the way they handle press and get out the message. Apple is one of the few (the only?) companies that could probably find a hardcore Apple blogger, tie him up, beat him to a pulp, tar and feather him ... and get defended by other bloggers. It's just that Apple mystique.

But, well, it's not the job of PR to lie. We're a bridge builder, a way for reporters (and, well, social media 'reporters') to get access to the corporation, and get information out to the public. We're not supposed to be the impediment for news, the gatekeeper, but the way to help people get the stories they want. Does this mean to answer every media request, and give out products for review willy-nilly? Of course not - you use your intellect on this stuff. Come on people.

But, no, it's not about lying. What is acceptable?

Pulling the Heisman - that's fine.
Omitting facts - not lying, but, well, omission of details - that's fine.
Blatant lying - well, that's just not. Some PR people can get away with it - when you are at a hot company, you have some leeway with the press. But, well, the press doesn't forget these things. And, it will eventually catch up.

The thing is that I understand where Lyons is coming from with his piece. This is the second time he's called out PR for lying - blatantly - to him, and it really should not be acceptable. That's not how PR works, it's not how PR should work, and it's too often an occurrence.

Hell, just step outside of PR to the publicity / entertainment side of things. How often do you see a report that a publicist said "oh, no, they're not getting a divorce" ... a week before they file for divorce. Paging Liz Rosenberg and Madonna. Hell, paging ANY large entertainment publicity shop.

But, this is the problem with public relations: lying sacks of shit, as Lyons calls them, make all of us who don't engage in this type of subterfuge look awful. The blame is also with reporters, however, who have been duped by "sources familiar" to do their bidding. Journalism, as a means to report the news to the masses, has become sensationalistic and unreliable (and, at times, just lazy), and why the public has become less and less trusting of the media. It's less media and journalism in mainstream press, and more editorializing and sensationalism.

But, the reality is with the shrinking and spreading of media - the traditional is getting smaller, while the new is growing bigger (and, well, more niche and like vertical media, but no one wants to admit that about blogs) - the lies are becoming too obvious, and getting caught too easily. It's the job of public relations to relay information, or truthfully sometimes to keep information private. But if you're getting calls from a reporter on such information ... it's already leaked and out there. And, well, damage control does not mean lie and obfuscate, but rather deflect or respond.

All in all ... pretty simple rules from kindergarten, with less naïveté.