PR pros should be deeply concerned about the credibility issues facing the media.
Without unfettered and robust media channels, the PR profession is irrelevant. Right now their existence is imperiled, and that is everyone's problem.
The latest uproar is over the BP's alleged mandate that its media buyers be given notice of editorial mentions, ostensibly to pull ads that are running in issues where negative items are due to appear. A similar issue cropped up at Morgan Stanley, which demanded that its ad agency be notified when "objectionable editorial coverage is planned" as "last-minute changes may be necessary." General Motors, in the most egregious case to date, pulled its advertising from the Los Angeles Times over negative coverage.
A company that would expect these tactics to work is misguided. An editor that would agree to them is compromised. A PR professional that does not help the C-suite understand why these practices are wrong is a fool.
According to sources, there is nothing new in any of this. Sorry, but that doesn't make it right. One example cited in last week's coverage was media outlets' convention of pulling airline ads when there has been a plane crash. But that comparison is specious. A plane crash is a news event that transcends editorial judgment and point of view. On a less clear-cut level, it is also a matter of taste. A crash generally means that lives are lost. Running a news story describing the carnage in the same issue featuring an ad of a happy executive reclining in business class would throw the judgment of that media outlet into question, much less that of the airline.
But assuming we're talking about your run-of-the-mill business story, the laissez-faire attitude of the greater marketing community toward this practice is disturbing. It also sends a clear message that many still feel PR only counts when the story goes your way. The message is: When everything else fails, resort to commercial pressures to make your statement.
PR pros have more invested in the integrity of the media than almost anyone. If credible channels for telling a company's story continue to be compromised in this way, then the power of third-party perspectives unravels. The next step is for content decisions to bypass the editorial process entirely and be dictated solely by advertising spend. Some say that is already happening.
Holding companies must take a stand on this issue. When the Morgan Stanley story broke, a spokesperson for Starcom, part of Publicis Groupe, defended the practice to Dow Jones, saying, "It's not intended in any way to impinge upon a publication's editorial integrity." It is unlikely that executives in the company's PR holdings would agree. Even if you can somehow rationalize the practice, the perception of commercial pressure being applied is indelibly linked to the issue.
PR pros also need to speak out. But how does an agency or in-house team respond when the CMO or CEO demands editorial assurances or payback? There is no easy way around it. It takes courage to speak up and tell executives that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. It also requires a resolute belief that PR's role is crucial. A few more stories like this and it won't be anymore.