A banquet of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) grossed $1.47 million at the Waldorf-Astoria Nov. 23 with the profits going to oppressed reporters and their families throughout the world.
It is a noble effort supported by many blue chip corporate and media companies. Sir Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony, chaired the banquet. It was held on the first anniversary of the massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists, in the Philippines. A video commemorated the tragedy.
CPJ has tracked the deaths of 840 journalists since 1992, most of them murdered in cold blood.
Another banquet that honors journalists for coverage of foreign news is held each year by the Overseas Press Club. (OPC). Blue chips support it.
Laudable as these efforts are, it is time for both groups to turn their attention to the dire straights of the U.S. press. We wonder what they would say about a foreign country where upwards of half the journalists were slaughtered?
Such is the case in the U.S. since about 2000. The reporters are slaughtered figuratively rather than literally but they're just as dead. The slaughter not only continues but seems to be picking up steam.
Journalists in Despair
The deep cuts in journalism, taking place at three times the rate of jobs in other industries according to UNITY Layoff Tracker, have driven journalists to despair.
Thomas Frank, formerly at the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and who joined Harper's this summer, writes in the December issue: "Newsgathering staffs are decimated. Distant bureaus are closed. Print editions shrink or disappear. It is next to impossible to make readers pay for online content. There is no point in denying it. The industry is dying."
Journalists are being reduced to piece-work writers for "content mills" such as "Demand Media" at about $15 for 300 words, he says.
He is especially harsh on financial journalists, saying "journalism's greatest foul-up of recent years" is its "almost complete failure to warn about the collapse of the sub-prime bubble."
Another fund-raiser supported by many of the same blue chips is the "Financial Follies" of the New York Financial Writers Association (NYFWA) At least 400 journalists were guests of such companies (at $400 each) at the 2010 Follies Nov. 19. Scholarships are given to future financial writers.
Attendance at the black-tie event was about 1,000.
Steiger, Others Could Mediate
CPJ, OPC and NYFWA could do a lot to help U.S. journalism in its hour of need and it doesn't have to cost a penny.
Paul Steiger, managing editor of the WSJ from 1991-2007, chair of the CPJ since 2004 and the well-paid ($570K) chair of ProPublica, travels in the highest corporate circles.
Steiger and the heads of the other groups could bring this subject up to their blue chip CEO contacts. We doubt the CEOs know of the harsh, hard-sell, stonewalling tactics that have spread like an epidemic in their "corporate communications" depts.
What's needed in such units are things that are cheap but of limitless value: politeness, helpfulness, being hospitable, kindness, returning phone calls. Such behavior was standard in the departments decades ago.
Current PR practice, which limits the amount of information available to the press as well as access to news sources, is one of the factors speeding the decline of the media.
The reporters who are left have to work extra hard these days to squeeze any info out of a PR dept. Typically they are kissed off with an e-mail that has been monitored or even written by the legal dept.
Call off the Dogs
We concede there are many flaws in journalism, but this is no time for PR to be pouring water on a drowning industry. "Communications" has almost completely replaced "PR" as the term favored by blue chips.
Such departments are "goal" and "outcomes" oriented. What they do may involve little or no communications or interplay with the press. Critical journalists may come under personal attack.
Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft, told the Arthur W. Page Society this year that "corporate affairs" (headed by PR pro and Page member Perry Yeatman) is her "secret weapon." A weapon is something that is used to hurt someone -- an "enemy" of some sort.
Kraft Corporate Affairs performs best when it helps the company to achieve its goals, she said. Answering press questions and providing timely and truthful information does not seem to be the supreme value.
Corporate focus on legislation was underscored this year as Yeatman moved her office from corporate h.q. outside of Chicago to Washington, D.C. (link, sub req'd)
Wendell Potter, PR pro-turned journalist, said there is an "unsettling effort to shout down traditional sources of news" and that "inflammatory, often outrageous rhetoric is used recklessly to inspire anger."
Potter, author of Deadly Spin, an expose' of abusive PR practices in the healthcare industry, says personal relationships between PR pros and reporters have almost vanished with the advent of e-mail, which allows management to monitor what is said.
Distrust of reporters was preached at the 2010 conference of PR Society of America in D.C. attended by 3,000.
One slide at the Assembly said, "News is no longer vetted and gate-keepers [i.e., reporters and editors] are being eliminated." The slide charged that traditional "news values" are being "diluted if not dissolved."
CEOs Are Distrusted, Says Margaritis
Bill Margaritis, PR head at FedEx and chair of Page, told the Institute for PR November 11 that trust in corporate America has reached an all-time low, and that organizations must eliminate any gap between what they say and what they do.
The "reputational intelligence" that Margaritis advocates is mostly aimed at the "eager audiences" of employees, customers and vendors who will spread the same corporate message. It's a case of preaching to the choir.
Trust in corporations is bound to get lower as Potter conducts a nationwide, in-person tour of more than 20 cities, coupled with a publicity program that targets national and local media.
One of his messages is that too many corporations are seeking legislative and PR goals in Washington, D.C., in health insurance, financial, environmental and other areas via high-sounding "front groups," whose sources of funds are hidden.
PR Spokesperson Is Needed
This writer spent two hours with Potter November 16, during a public appearance at New York University on the date of the publication of his book. The audience was sparse -- only 15 -- but Potter stayed with them as long as they wished and answered all questions.
Where is the spokesperson for the PR industry who will do the same?
Logical candidate is Bill Murray, president of PR Society of America, largest PR group in the world, who received a total package of $373K in 2009. Murray's public appearances are rare. Employed since January 2007, he has yet to address the New York chapter or any New York group as far as we know.
Second in line is VP-PR Arthur Yann who was paid $137K in 2009. He and his staffers are the only ones who can give permission for any officer, board member or rank-and-file member to speak for or about the Society.
Volunteer leaders, such as 2010 chair Gary McCormick of Scripps Networks Interactive or 2011 chair Rosanna Fiske of Florida International University, do not have the time to go on multi-city, in-person tours such as Potter is conducting.
McCormick only addressed about a half dozen of the 110 chapters in 2010, which is about average for the elected head of the Society in recent years.
The Society has created "The Business Case for PR" but there is no one "on the road" promoting it like Potter is promoting his book, answering in person questions from the press and public.
PR is being criticized by those "who do not understand the practice and application of PR," says the Society's website.
This was written before the appearance of Potter, whose 20-year career in senior PR posts makes him as knowledgeable about PR as anyone.
Cripps, Hood, Margaritis Are Candidates
A candidate for spokesperson for PR is Kathy Cripps, who received total compensation of $319,014 in 2009 as president of the Council of PR Firms. Cash/savings at the end of 2009 totaled $887,861 (pdf).
A newcomer to the PR association world, but a logical candidate for industry spokeperson is Julia Hood, a veteran of ten years as editor of PR Week/U.S. and who recently joined Page as its first paid president.
Her predecessor, executive VP Tom Nicholson, was paid $198,951 in salary/benefits. Page had $851,582 in savings and investments at the end of 2009 (pdf).
Margaritis, as chair of Page, is a candidate for spokesperson for the industry, although his time would be limited.
Fraser Seitel and Mike Paul have appeared on TV hundreds of times on PR topics but they don't represent any PR group.
Journalism Is Weak and at Fault
Dean Starkman, eight-year Wall Street Journal reporter until 2004 who now covers the business press for the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote in the Sept./Oct. issue that "we are living in a time of PR ascendance" and that "a sense of empowerment comes through in the tone of PR professionals."
A Starkman piece in the Jan./Feb. 2009 Mother Jones considered the question, "How Could 9,000 Business Reporters Blow it?"
He cited a 25% cut in business reporters from 12,000 in 2000 to 9,000 and the fact that business reporting had gotten into a rut -- writing for "investors rather than citizens." He notes that some media, including the WSJ, tried to blame borrowers for the home mortgage disaster.
Reporters didn't follow up on key stories. Erin Arvelund of Barron's outed Bernie Madoff in 2001, after months of research that included 100 interviews. But she and her editors failed to pursue the story, and investors ended up being bilked out of billions.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor said that as of 2009 there are only 50,690 "reporter/correspondents" to 240,610 "PR specialists" of 2009, a nearly five-to-one disadvantage for reporters.
Criticism and ridicule of the media abound in corporate circles and even media circles.
Margaritis, citing an online poll the drew a half million responses, told the Institute for PR November 11 that Walter Cronkite has been replaced as the most trusted man in America by Jon Stewart of Comedy Central.
Stewart's basic technique is ridicule, an ad hominem approach that makes fun of people. A favorite ploy is to show videos of public figures that catch them in contradictory or inconsistent statements or behavior.
--Jack O'Dwyer is Publisher & Editor-In-Chief of O'Dwyer's Inside News of Public Relations & Marketing Communications