I’ve been on both sides of the desk in my career, as a reporter and as a public relations person. I am sort of glad I’m not managing corporate PR anymore, because the trend in corporations today seems to be to use the PR function to block any real effort to establish two-way communications with the news media and the public.
I’ve been seeing increasing evidence of this for nearly a decade. When I was vice president of corporate communications at Summit Bank, we insisted on being transparent with the news media about the employment impact when FleetBoston Financial acquired the company. You weren’t going to be able to hide the fact that thousands of people would lose their jobs, so we demanded that Fleet let us do our jobs and honestly acknowledge the job disruptions and what we were doing in terms of severance benefits to mitigate the issue. I think we were rewarded in that effort when one article, with the headline, “Fleet laying off 2,500 at Summit” included a quote from a former Summit employee, interviewed as he carried his personal effects to his car to leave the bank, saying he thought the bank had treated him quite fairly.
It was a different story four years later when Bank of America took over Fleet. We were flatly barred from discussing layoff numbers at the state level. And later, the bank simply fired all the regional PR people and replaced them with new individuals in distant locations (Rhode Island was responsible for media inquiries from New Jersey and Philadelphia) who had no relationships with the reporters and merely read scripted responses over the phone, refusing to take other questions.
More recently, I’ve seen organizations invite the news media to attend programs on political advocacy topics where the speakers are from high-profile lobbying organizations whose comments are newsworthy — but the media are told that the program is off the record and their remarks cannot be quoted. I was even told by an economic development organization that its breakfast program with remarks by a sitting US Congressman was not open to the media.
The railroad industry is taking this approach regarding the movement of oil tank trains. It’s all very hush-hush, allegedly because of security concerns. News flash: The bad guys already know where the trains are. But the public that you ought to be arming with useful information is kept clueless. I heard from one radio reporter last week who was frustrated by the unwillingness of public officials to tell her what was in the railroad tank cars narrowly missed by the devastating Amtrak derailment near Frankford Junction in Philadelphia. And yet many of the railroad’s “proprietary” data sheets about such train movements are made public on Pennsylvania’s own emergency management website. So why pretend something is still secret if it’s not?
A public relations firm recently sent me a news release about a multifamily residential property transaction but did not name the buyers and the sellers. When I asked for this information, the PR firm had been instructed to tell me that the parties wanted this information kept confidential.
There’s just one problem with their desire. It’s unrealistic because this information is a matter of public record.
So I pleaded with them to just give me the information, or I would have to seek it out from public sources, and they would look really silly in the story when I wrote that they refused to give it to me but the city clerk did when I filed the Open Public Records Act request. They still refused, but complained loudly that I was “unprofessional” when I reported the information, and how they made it to get, even though it was a matter of public record.
A couple of years back, when the Philadelphia Eagles hired Michael Vick, one of the local TV outlets tweeted that it would be broadcasting the press conference — if it got permission from the NFL to livestream the event. I could never be a major market TV news director, because if the Eagles invited me to a press conference but then told me I could only cover certain things because the NFL owned the rights, I would order my crew to leave and not cover anything — and I would probably get fired.
This past week, a reporter broke an “understanding” and reported on the proceedings of a New Jersey press gathering, a roast for Gov. Christie at which bawdy songs were sung, and off-color insults exchanged, all on the understanding that it was “off the record.”
In a world where everyone and his brother has a smart phone capable of recording audio and video, it is utter nonsense for anyone to suggest that an event with 300 attendees can ever be considered off the record, especially when the guest of honor is someone whose salary is paid through our taxes.
A few years ago, the late rock photographer Jim Marshall told me in his last extensive audio interview that he no longer enjoyed covering rock concerts, because today, photographers are only ushered in to make a few images during a specific song, and then escorted out. Back when he started, you wandered around backstage wherever you wanted and shot whatever images you wanted. I can attest to that, I have a scrapbook full of backstage passes from spending a few years covering rock music. Nobody cared what images you made as long as you covered them.
Today it has become all about controlling the media and controlling the image, and controlling “the brand.”
The reckoning is coming. Social media makes everyone a reporter. The Internet makes it obvious when someone says one thing in one state and something completely different in another state.
Companies, politicians, and sports leagues must realize the truth of that old Chinese proverb that “A secret between two people is only truly a secret when one of them is dead.”
And since — under most circumstances — they can’t kill us, they are going to have to accept the fact that what they do will get covered. As it should be.