I was astounded to pick up the Wall Street Journal recently and see this story on the front page: "How Companies Pay TV Experts For On-Air Product Mentions" (April 19, 2005). If you missed the story, it was about how companies pay third-party spokespeople to conduct satellite media tours about their products with local broadcast media, a practice which sometimes lands these companies on big national programs such as NBC’s Today Show.
Anyone who’s been in PR for more than a year knows this is a common practice and has been for many, many years. So, why now does this make the front-page of the Wall Street Journal? I would kill to have any of my clients on the front page, but normally it takes news, right?
Paying spokespeople to conduct satellite media tours or plug a product on the Today Show isn’t news. And it annoys me that throughout this entire story these journalists and the TV station producers were painted as poor victims of this appalling act.
Come on – you’re news reporters and you haven’t been able to figure this out in 10-plus years? That’s a little hard to believe. These companies aren’t hiding the fact that they are involved with these tours. These stations know the tour is about new products or current products and services. And, if the station wonders if the spokesperson is being paid, it can just ask. And, if the station feels that the company is not being straight-forward with them, then, go on the Internet. Most of these third-party spokespeople have their own Web sites with pricing for tours, etcetera. This is not being hidden.
The most frustrating point that echoes in my mind about this story is that I’m losing my respect for journalism. I’m a former journalist and I’m continually frustrated by the news that appears on TV and in other media and by the erosion of journalism. What made the Scott Peterson murder trial any more important than other murder trials? And why does each network and local news program cover the same stories? There is an air of sameness that’s quite disconcerting and eerie. Journalists have even become frightened to cover the White House honestly and truthfully for fear of being blackballed. Now, this should scare us all.
Also, a second point, new products or products and services in general are news. However, as a PR person who is continually pitching these types of stories, I find journalists don’t want to listen. Journalists sometimes forget that PR people are "unpaid reporters." We have a cooperative relationship – each one of us helps the other do his or her job. Consumers want to read about new products, services and other company news – newspapers regularly publish gift guides; TV stations employ consumer reporters who are constantly testing new products. The demand for this news exists.
The bottom line is that journalists have been complicit with PR practitioners in the birth of the third-party satellite media tour because they’ve shut themselves off to PR.
Ultimately, it works best when journalists and PR people have a cooperative relationship instead of a contentious one. In the end, readers and consumers win.
-- Leah Haran