Unhappy brands told to pull ads ‘to alter behaviour’ of journalists, as Fairfax removes claim that VW withdrew advertising

Brands who believe they have suffered unfair press coverage should consider withdrawing advertising to “alter behaviour”, a leading PR practitioner has urged.

Gabriel McDowell, managing director of PR agency Res Publica and a committee member of industry body The PR Council, made the comment at last week’s Mumbrella360 conference.

His call came in response to a question from the audience about Fairfax’s campaigning reporting of Volkswagen’s alleged power-loss problems, which today finally led to a recall of some of its cars. The publisher had claimed – but has since quietly removed from the online version – that VW had pulled its advertising over its reporting.

Fairfax’s investigative reporter Melissa Fyfe has written a series of reports with intern Grace Dobell about power-loss problems in VWs which led to product recalls in other parts of the world. Initially the car company tried to avoid a product recall in Australia, but caved in last night. Fyfe has been a member of The Age’s investigative unit since 2011.

Last week Dobell reported a case where VW “threatened” an unhappy driver’s job because he had sent an email of complaint about his car from his work email address.

Cached version of VW story | Click to enlarge

Cached version of VW story | Click to enlarge

The original version of the story from last Monday June 3 – bylined to Fyfe – stated:

“Volkswagen Australia did not return Fairfax Media’s calls on Monday. The company has pulled much of its advertising from across Fairfax Media following reports on the problems with the cars’ sudden deceleration.”

Updated version of story: Click to enlarge

Updated version of story: Click to enlarge

However, the story has now been amended to read:

“Volkswagen Australia did not return Fairfax Media’s calls on Monday. It has previously said it would not recall models alleged to be prone to sudden deceleration.”

VW ads have started running in Fairfax titles again over the last few days. Mumbrella has invited Fairfax to comment on why its claim about ads being withdrawn has been deleted, but the publisher is yet to comment.

Fyfe also tweeted about the ads being pulled last week.

fyfe tweet vw ads

When asked about the issue at Mumbrella360, McDowell said he was not on top of the detail of the Fairfax-VW stoush, but speaking about brands unhappy with coverage in general, he said:

“If you are a brand owner and you feel that somebody has been doing something which is majorly wrong and isn’t going to correct it, I think you are well within your rights to say ‘Why would we reward that behaviour?’.

“If it’s wrong and you can’t get a correction, you would. Otherwise you’re not going to alter behaviour. Obviously you would want to progress all the routes you could to get the error rectified. I certainly wouldn’t be into rewarding somebody who is harming me and continue to pay them to do so.”

Also on the panel was ninemsn editor-in-chief Hal Crawford, who is a member of the Australian Press Council.

Crawford said that it was a journalist’s duty to report the story regardless of advertising issues. He said: “If there is a power problem, there is a power problem and you write about it. VW is only one of your advertisers. You’ve maintained your position of integrity with everyone else and the audience.”

But he added: “I don’t have a problem with advertisers pulling their campaign. They can spend their money where they want to spend it.”

Earlier in the debate, McDowell said that journalists are now commercially aware. He said: “I don’t know an editor who doesn’t know where the money comes from and I really don’t know a journalist who doesn’t know.”

And Crawford said: “We’re talking about mindsets here and the mindset that you have to adopt as a journalist is that you are independent and you have to be very ferocious about that. The reality of what gets published will be constituted by all of these myriad of little acts that happen in the newsroom. And I think that you do have to maintain the idealism, because otherwise what you get as a whole is the character of all those little interactions and all those little compromises and it all boils up suddenly you’re in a bankrupt environment.”

“My entire career is based on my authenticity, and I’m not going to sell that for one day.”

Asked about whether a big advertiser would hold more sway when a complaint comes in, Crawford said: “It’s really something that I forget about constantly, and I’m not boasting. But I can constantly forget about ‘who are the big advertisers?’ And I think that’s a really healthy place to be. The reality is that your job is funded by advertising, and you have to be wise and you have operate in an environment where you can facilitate for that enterprise to keep working. And part of that, and part of the respect you get over the years, is actually pushing back. And that can lead to unpleasant conversations. And that’s the price of the long-term viability.”

Volkswagen’s switchboard number rang engaged or went unanswered during a number of attempted calls this morning.

Tim Burrowes and Jack Fisher

Consumer Mark Stevens’ response:


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.