Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Walk The (Thin) Line

Journalists and advertisers are unlikely bedfellows. Most journalists would sell their own mothers rather than succumb to commercialism and a catastrophic infection of integrity.

Advertisers, on the other hand, are constantly on the lookout for a new angle. Because, as Bowie himself said as the pre-Don Draper ad man Vendice Partners in Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners, "We don't sell things, Colin. We sell dreams."

Why else would Mastercard attach itself to the BRIT Awards? A simple case of brand association. "Look at all these cool, creative, hip rock and pop types accepting gongs - that's who we want our customers to associate themselves with."

The problem is that, in the rush to make that association as visible as possible, Mastercard has lobbed the proverbial hand grenade into the crowded room that is the easy offence with which journalists take any attempts at commercial influence.

According to the UK Press Gazette, British journalism's trade magazine, the organisers of tonight's BRIT Awards have appeared to have asked journalists to guarantee coverage of the Mastercard brand in return for event accreditation. The awards' PR agency has, apparently, even gone as far as offering hacks pre-written tweets that include mention of the marketing campaign #PricelessSurprise and the @MasterCardUK handle.

The Gazette quotes one e-mail to a journalist saying: " return for this ticket we would like to ask that you agree to the following…", and then listing "social media support from both publication and personal Twitter feed" and tweets such as "Really excited to be heading down to @BRITAwards tonight with @MasterCardUK #PricelessSurprises".

As someone who has worked in both journalism and in PR, I know there is a thin line PRs and journalists tread when it comes to favours: are we just "facilitating" when we invite hacks on press trips to factories and trade shows in exotic climes? Or are we simply angling for - and steering - positive coverage?

It's obvious. Why else would Sir Alex Ferguson regularly ban reporters from the Manchester United press box. But the rubicon one never crosses is insistence. Yes, we PRs all have our Malcolm Tucker moments, when some hack incurs our wrath and strays off-message. But as one reporter who received the Mastercard missive said: "If they are going down that route they should really take out an advertisement.".

The trouble is, that sometimes doesn't work: in one of my early magazines, a review of mine of a Maxi Priest album got spiked because the record was also being advertised with us, and at a time when it was struggling financially. I was indignant. But, then, I was only 19 at the time. The magazine eventually went bust, which meant that my Woodward-Bernstein stance for journalistic impartiality and integrity was somewhat wasted.

Even today - and even from the corporate suit side of the equation - I still sympathise with my 19-year-old self. That episode, however, pales into insignificance with not only being told what to write but having it made a condition of involvement.

If I invite a journalist to an event, and that journalist trashes the whole venture, it has to be viewed in terms of a return on the investment, and therefore a poor one. You place your head in the lion's mouth, every so often he's going to chomp on it.

Vendice Partners and Don Draper are both of an earlier age of advertising and communications. An oven, then, was never just a functional kitchen appliance, but the gateway to a world of ambition and domestic aspiration.

Today, social media is a legitimate part of that dream weaving. But advertisers must share space with everything else in social media - cats playing pianos, tweets about hangovers, Facebook updates about relationship splits, posts about important work stuff, press puffs, jokes, breaking news and American presidents complaining about spoilers for TV series. Twitter, in particular, is like the proverbial road - strewn with pedestrians, parked cars, advertising hoardings and dog poo. What you can't do is dictate what anyone says on it. Ever.

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