Media manipulation and editorial corruption trends in 2005 leave room for improvement

I've always been against licensing for PR pros. I think it's impractical and - given that PR is a form of speech - quite possibly unconstitutional.

I've always been against licensing for PR pros. I think it's impractical and - given that PR is a form of speech - quite possibly unconstitutional.

But 2005 events almost had me rethink my position. Because last year was notable, primarily for unprecedented media manipulation and editorial corruption.

It was a year that began with the Armstrong Williams scandal in January, with the Department of Education paying a prominent commentator to say nice things about the No Child Left Behind act. It ended in December with a Cato Institute scholar admitting he had taken payments from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for writing favorable op-ed columns about Abramoff's clients. In between, there was the revelation that the US military had been bribing Iraqi journalists to secure positive stories.

The only reason there was so little outcry, I suspect, is that most people assume such corruption is routine. According to a survey conducted by a unit of Publicis, 65% of consumers believe that when products were mentioned in the editorial pages of magazines, it's because they paid for the privilege. So much for the old theory that editorial coverage is worth three times as much as the equivalent ad space because it's three times more credible - turns out, most consumers don't believe there's any difference.

What were the other big trends of 2005?

More companies found themselves sucked into the culture wars: Microsoft, Kraft, Ford, and - at the end of the year - Mattel, which stands accused of sowing gender confusion and encouraging bisexuality among 4-year-olds, I kid you not. Any company that seeks to accommodate gay employees or consumers is likely to be a target. It seems to me to be a straightforward issue: Do companies believe in civil rights for all, and is that belief strong enough to withstand the ire of hate groups? However, it's one on which companies need to have a well thought out position.

The inexorable rise of citizen media presents another challenge. Last year saw a proliferation of blogs, many of which are every bit as credible - to hardcore consumers - as the mainstream media. Yet even now, relatively few companies do a good job of monitoring, responding to, or proactively courting citizen media. Which is too bad because in 2006 the smart companies will have moved beyond blogs to take advantage of mobile media and podcasting.

Finally, looking for some good news, there was the corporate response to the year's various and too frequent natural disasters, from the Asian tsunami to Hurricane Katrina. American corporations demonstrated outstanding generosity. And they showed that they understand how to respond to crises far better than the government agencies primarily responsible for disaster recovery.

Paul Holmes has spent the past 19 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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