PR ethics and journalism ethics in the face of media business meltdown

Telegraph website montageSince columnist Peter Oborne sensationally resigned from The Telegraph with a devastating public critique of what he believed to be its declining ethical and editorial standards I’ve read very little about the role and implications for PR, corporate communications and business.

To summarise Oborne’s critique is that The Telegraph now puts commercial interests above journalistic integrity and has shattered the traditional Chinese wall between journalism and advertising. Amongst other allegations he says that The Telegraph failed to cover malpractice at HSBC because of its fear of losing HSBC’s lucrative advertising. The Telegraph of course denied all wrong doing, only for evidence to immediately emerge on the Guido Fawkes blog in the form of a memo to Sony that:

“the Telegraph are unique in being able to offer a really integrated solution that genuinely works in editorial and paid for activity.”

So whatever the editorial department denies, the sales department is clear that editorial is for sale. Perhaps the reason is that the Telegraph no longer has a real editor, but simply a ‘head of content’.

Nearly all of the commentary I’ve seen focuses on the ethics of good journalism in a world where decreasing revenues mean traditionally prestigious titles are forced to work within constrained resources and important editorial roles – such as the sub-editor (which my blog desperately needs!) – disappear.

Yet just as important a question to me is the role of professional public relations practitioners and the businesses they serve. Even that phrase is loaded with meaning as some public relations professionals advocate that PR serves a wider public purpose or public interest. Others question if it should be called a profession at all.

Oborne cites several examples of editorial that he believes have been influenced by advertisers, but I want to focus on two HSBC examples.

“I researched the newspaper’s coverage of HSBC. I learnt that Harry Wilson, the admirable banking correspondent of the Telegraph, had published an online story about HSBC based on a report from a Hong Kong analyst who had claimed there was a ‘black hole’ in the HSBC accounts. This story was swiftly removed from the Telegraph website, even though there were no legal problems. When I asked HSBC whether the bank had complained about Wilson’s article, or played any role in the decision to remove it, the bank declined to comment. Mr Wilson’s contemporaneous tweets referring to the story can be found here. The story itself, however, is no longer available on the website, as anybody trying to follow through the link can discover. Mr Wilson rather bravely raised this issue publicly at the ‘town hall meeting’ when Jason Seiken introduced himself to staff. He has since left the paper.”

And this one:

“Last week I made another discovery. Three years ago the Telegraph investigations team—the same lot who carried out the superb MPs’ expenses investigation—received a tip off about accounts held with HSBC in Jersey. Essentially this investigation was similar to the Panorama investigation into the Swiss banking arm of HSBC. After three months research the Telegraph resolved to publish. Six articles on this subject can now be found online, between 8 and 15 November 2012, although three are not available to view.”

Thereafter no fresh reports appeared. Reporters were ordered to destroy all emails, reports and documents related to the HSBC investigation. I have now learnt, in a remarkable departure from normal practice, that at this stage lawyers for the Barclay brothers became closely involved. When I asked the Telegraph why the Barclay brothers were involved, it declined to comment.”

On the first HSBC “declined to comment” on if it had complained about the article or “played any role in the decision to remove it”. This I find disturbing because the implication is that it must have done or it didn’t know, otherwise it could simply have denied it. From this we have no way of knowing how HSBC’s PR advisers were involved. We don’t know if they were asked to provide advice on if asking the Telegraph to remove the first story and spike the ongoing investigation of the second story was a good idea.

My own advice is that it would absolutely be the wrong thing to do. As would any threat or action to remove advertising in order to influence or control editorial coverage. A free media is vital to the healthy functioning of society, the economy and democracy. If a company’s first priority is to its shareholders it can only deliver best value for them if it is also a responsible member of that society, economy and democracy. Not by attempting to pervert its wider corporate social responsibility.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ (CIPR) Code of Conduct states that one of the principles of good practice is:

“Honest and responsible regard for the public interest”

My personal interpretation of this is that it would therefore be wrong to use commercial advertising interest to influence editorial. However, I’ll caveat this as it’s also a grey area (but not more than 50 shades of grey). There is a difference between using advertising to influence editorial in  mainstream media (where the divide has historically been clear and distinct) and ‘trade media’ where the boundaries have always been blurred. In the first I believe the ‘public interest’ is in maintaining editorial integrity, in the second it is the survival of the medium serving a niche interest.

However, I can fully understand the temptation to use commercial threats to counter investigative reporting. I’ve helped clients who’ve been targeted by the Sunday Times Insight team, BBC Watchdog, BBC Newsnight and many others. The idea that they give the focus of their investigations a fair say is ludicrous. They don’t. The journalists are just as likely to spin and mislead as a PR defending a company is likely to. But two wrongs don’t make a right. In crisis communications there are still better ways to manage your reputation than resorting to bullying.

Oborne’s revelations and the subsequent debate are an interesting and important contribution to the emerging thinking in the public relations and corporate communications business about how we deal with the practical and ethical implications of the blurring between paid, earned and owned media. The emergence of ‘native advertising’ (or advertorial as us old-timers know it) raises important ethical and commercial questions. As does the growth of ‘contributed’ media where almost anyone can blog and publish on established media brands such as The Guardian, The Independent, The Huffington Post and Forbes.

We will be discussing this at the CIPR Social Media Panel’s first hackday on Wednesday, 25 February on paid media and its implications for the public relations business. The hackday is intended to be:

“disruptive, output focused sessions in which panel members capture collaborative debate and produce content in real-time for the benefit of CIPR members and the wider PR and digital community.”

You can get involved in the debate by joining the #CIPRCHAT on the day to share your views on paid, owned, earned, shared, contributed and help to influence the content created on the day.

Disclaimer: HSBC and some of its operating companies have previously been clients and everyone I’ve ever worked with I believe to have the highest professional and ethical standards.