PR pros: Leave the dossiers to the spies

Executives reached by PRWeek say knowing what a journalist covers and how he or she covers it is part of the job, but compiling formal dossiers is a step too far.

NEW YORK: Leave dossiers to the spies of pulp fiction, not PR.

That’s the message from several PR pros interviewed by PRWeek, who say keeping tabs on journalists’ careers is a part of the job, but compiling that information in a dossier—and talking openly about doing so—is a form of intimidation.

"I have never compiled or maintained dossiers on any reporters, and I don’t know of any colleagues that have done that," said Greg Jenkins, deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, now the principal at North Bay Strategies. "It literally sounds like a bad spy movie, like a threat."

Understanding the media outlet and how its reporters have written is just "table stakes," Jenkins added.

"If [compiling dossiers is] happening, it hasn’t happened at places where I’ve worked," added Matt McKenna, former head of comms in North America at Uber and the former spokesperson for the office of President Bill Clinton.

The topic of dossiers was in the news earlier this month after April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, said Trump administration communications staffer Omarosa Manigault told her the White House had compiled information on her and other reporters. The White House has denied it is doing so.

Ryan’s claims went public amid escalating tensions between the Trump administration and the press. President Donald Trump has routinely rebuked the media on Twitter and during in-person appearances as "fake news" and, more recently, the "enemy of the people."  

"The word dossier is a creepy and scary word, and I have no clue what the White House was talking about," said Jim Wilkinson, former deputy director of communications under President George W. Bush, via email.

"My best guess is that the person who said the word ‘dossier’ had no idea what the word even meant. If, however, this was an attempt to intimidate, I have to tell you that I can’t think of an example in history as a home for free press where trying to intimidate reporters paid off," he said. "As for our firm [Trailrunner International], of course we research the past coverage and areas of potential interest by reporters. That’s basic due diligence and very common."

Several instances of companies or their PR representatives keeping dossiers about journalists have been recorded in the media. Last August, Gizmodo reported on a dossier about a senior reporter at Fast Company that was sent to journalists by mistake. "We do this to ensure the interview is a good use of time for both parties," a Microsoft spokesperson said about the document.

What reporters are saying
Journalists interviewed by PRWeek shrugged off the idea that an entity, public or private, could be maintaining a dossier about their professional activities.

"The whole point of private dossiers is that you wouldn’t know if one were written about you," said George Condon, veteran White House correspondent at the National Journal. "The simple answer to your question is that we do not know of any administration writing such dossiers. And the Trump administration denies that they have any."

Axios founder and executive editor Mike Allen said, "If they want to make a dossier about me, they’re welcome to do it."

"My dossier is everywhere on the web, having written newsletters and having been on social media for years," he explained.

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