The dark arts exploit soft-touch of thinning newspapers

The practice of smearing a rival through the media is a well-trodden path – but it’s getting easier, not harder, for PRs to repeat the trick.

So says the Economist. The recent story about Burson-Marsteller spreading make-believe stories about Google, on behalf of Facebook, may have given the impression that the media was becoming less susceptible to the dark arts.

The Economist provides the full story however, and believes thinning workforces are making newspapers a “softer touch”.

It says: “The PR flacks who did Facebook’s dirty work were two ex-journalists who had only recently gone over to the dark side. Their error was to put their indecent proposal in writing, in an e-mail pitch. When the blogger, Christopher Soghoian, sensibly asked who was paying them to do so, they refused – again in writing – to say, whereupon Mr Soghoian published their exchange of messages. This prompted USA Today to reveal that it had been on the receiving end of a similar PR pitch, and the Daily Beast, an online newspaper, to reveal that Facebook was the paymaster.

“More seasoned PR flacks might have done it differently. First, lunch the journalists concerned, ostensibly to discuss some other story. Then, over dessert, casually slip into the conversation the poison that their secret client wanted them to spread. With luck the reporters would follow up on the scuttlebutt without mentioning its source, assuring themselves that they had got the story through their ‘contacts’.”

Instead, Burson-Marsteller committed the cardinal sins of getting caught and becoming the story. But that was thanks to a blogger “not obliged to play by the rules” by copy-hungry editors and tight budgets.

“Few journalists would be as brave as Mr Sighoian … in jeopardising their relationship with a powerful PR agency,” says the Economist, which goes on to argue that “newspapers and old media are losing influence – and thus becoming less worth lobbying”.

One study, by Jamil Jonna of University of Oregon, reveals the stark truth about PR’s stranglehold on the media. It found that “as newsrooms have been slimmed and PR agencies have grown fatter, for each American journalist there are now, on average, six flacks hassling him to run crummy stories”.

(Source: The Economist)

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