Media Watch picks an odd target

I’ve got a nasty feeling I’ve finally gone native.

Much like Stockholm Syndrome where kidnap victims come to adore their captors, journalists have always been susceptible to a similar syndrome.  

It may be one reason sports hacks rarely break bad news about the players. And when I worked on a magazine for doctors, it was a regular conversation with colleagues who were thinking of retraining as medics. And there are too many examples to mention of journalists who write about marketing who then move agencyside.

But I never thought it would happen to me.

Until last night’s Media Watch, when I’ve found myself siding with the marketers against the journalists.

The piece – the main one on the program – was something of a kicking for The Conscience Organisation. Media Watch accused them of “unconscionable” conduct in creating a “cynical online advertising campaign”.

The subject of Media Watch’s investigation was a press release on behalf of Boost Mobile. It identified various types of texting disorders. And the campaign was underpinned by a social media campaign run by TCO. The “disorder” types – which the press release attributed to Boost Mobile – were Textophrenia, Textiety, Post Traumatic Text Disorder, and Binge Texting. It got excellent – from the client’s point of view – take up in the media.

Where TCO came into the equation was the creation of a Textaholics Facebook group and a series of virals, hosted on Boost’s YouTube channel along with working with the brand’s own marketing team on that strategy which was about getting out its cheap texts message.

Not really pretending to be something they’re not, are they? I suspect that very few members of the public would be fooled that these were real people. By now, I suspect the concept of advertising has probably sunk in with the public.

So what exactly did Media Watch have a problem with? It was the way the press reported the press release. They went further than the release and turned it into a bigger story than it in truth was.

That, by the way, is a bad thing. But it also happens every day. Several times a week, press releases come in promoting spurious studies that – surprise, surprise – highlight an issue that the funder of the study wants highlighted. The clue is often in the footnotes when you have a look at who paid for it.

When I then see them appear in the paper, I don’t sneer at the PR people who sent it out, but for the journos who bought it. The problem – and this is a big one for journalism – is that a lot of news content is driven by an unspoken conspiracy. If the PR content is entertaining then the newspaper won’t ask too many hard questions about whether it’s true – just whether it’s a good story.

But that responsibility lies with the journalists, not the spinners. They’re the ones who decide whether to publish. Unfortunately, entertaining readers, viewers or listeners come higher on the agenda than getting to The Truth.

A further wrinkle here is that Media Watch’s focus was on TCO. Boss Clive Burcham tells me he wasn’t approached for a comment (although he concedes that a message could have been left that didn’t get to him. Update: Media Watch tells me that they left messages with TCO’s Julian Cole but no comment was forthcoming). Normally Media Watch clearly states when people didn’t comment, but they said nothing either way on this occasion.

Yet SueMacMedia, the PR agency, didn’t get mentioned in the item at all. Sensibly, they did return Media Watch’s calls. If there is a problem (and I don’t think the release is anything out of the ordinary) then surely, the PR agency should have been the focus?

In this case the responsibility for running the story clearly lies with the media. Nobody was tricked into covering this and they all omitted giving their audience the true origins of the story. As host Jonathan Homes put it: “But none of those reports told us that the cute names had been dreamt up by a marketing man.”

(As an aside, Mr Holmes, that seems something of an assumption – women work in marketing too.)

Marketing agencies are an easy target. Often they deserve to be. But I’m not sure TCO did anything unconscionable here.

Tim Burrowes



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