PR tips
and advice
for SMEs

PR tips
and advice for SMEs

Corona Beer and Chocolate Milk from Brown Cows: when journalists expose PR’s dirty secrets…

By Marty Brieger

When journalists expose PR’s dirty secrets: Near the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, millions of people around the world would have read a story about how 38% of beer-drinking Americans would not order a Corona beer. The story got headlines in leading news outlets such as CNN, New York Post and Vice. Any seasoned PR pro or media hack would have raised an eyebrow or allowed themselves a small chuckle as a result of the survey’s findings… Several PR stories have gone viral over the last few years, including the surprising amount of Americans who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. While most people who work in the media industry can identify a bullshit story by just reading its headline, it is always inevitable yet disappointing when journalists from respectable media outlets follow up after a story has gone viral with their own commentary, where they purport to let you in on a secret they have exposed that no one else knows – that PR agencies exist to promote their clients…

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A couple of years ago, The Conversation went to great lengths disseminating the chocolate milk story. Likewise, so did a journalist from PRWeek in March questioning an agency’s methodology of their Corona beer story (though to be fair, their argument centred more on how negative cliches unfairly affect the PR industry). That article in turn was based on one written for The Atlantic, who wrote an expansive piece to expose the PR industry as a harbinger of misinformation. In each case, they broke down alleged falsehoods and questionable data.  In referencing the extensive coverage that the Corona beer campaign achieved, the Atlantic article’s author talks about major news outlets appearing “to have walked right into the trap.” Unfortunately, this demonstrates a naivety you would hope they would have understood by now – that PR companies exist to market a product or service, not as credible news sources. It is no different to advertising.

I wonder whether the good people of TheConversation, The Atlantic and PRWeek would ever write up articles questioning the advertising messages purported by big retailers? Do Nike sneakers really make you run faster? Ok, disregard that one. Or will you really be healthier and happier when eating a particular brand of sugary cereal every morning? The hacks at these publications don’t write about these dubious claims because they understand it’s the nature of marketing. You make a claim (perhaps add a couple of ** disclaimers at the bottom) and you hope that consumers believe it and buy in…

Just like in any industry, there are good apples and bad apples, and the PR one is no different. Having worked in the industry for over 20 years, the majority of PR practitioners I have come across work with integrity and are good, honest people. Of course there are examples of people with questionable ethics, but that can be said of any industry – like clockwork, a news story will regularly break about a rogue doctor who did something bad. Or just read up on who caused the 2008 financial crisis… I don’t think they are all ruthless  ̶w̶a̶n̶k̶e̶r̶s̶,  just some are.

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When a brand takes on a PR agency, they mainly want two things – quality and plentiful press coverage which is on brand and benefits their business. PR executives are driven by their clients to achieve these results, and it is an unfortunate reflection of the mainstream media landscape that journalists opt for fluffy and sensationalized content over well-thought-out, in-depth and educational content. Going back to the Corona beer story, having worked in the industry for years, including the crossover from print to digital, I can say with almost complete certainty that had the agency in question run a story about the changing patterns of alcohol consumption since the start of the pandemic, it would have been a complete flop. That is not to defend the story or its methodology, but put simply, the PR agency was simply providing the media what they wanted.

There could, however, be an argument to be made that news outlets should be questioning all methodology or studies and surveys included in press releases before featuring them. But again, doing so would be misunderstanding the dynamics of online content. In an era when budgets at publishers are being drastically cut, journalists it appears, are no longer only judged on their research or how well their articles are written, but also on how many articles they can produce and how many clicks and shares they get. For quite a few years now, people have bemoaned that that online news has deteriorated, and that it is now focused on the viral at the expense of the substantive. True, but they are businesses nonetheless and without increasing their readership they are in trouble financially. Moreover, while an independent reader of news would certainly hope that publishers have enough integrity which would stop them from purposely featuring news that they know is fake, their primary responsibility lies with their owners or shareholders. From my experience in the PR industry, I ran major campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic, some serious, some more trivial in nature. When preparing our media distribution lists for more sensationalized campaigns, we knew not to even bother including journalists from truly independent publishers from The Guardian or BBC for example, as they simply wouldn’t feature these types of stories.

So if it’s not PR agencies’ fault for pushing ‘light’ content as it is requested from their clients, and if journalists feature said stories if they are to keep their jobs, who’s fault is it that the online media landscape is drowning in trivial stories rather than more considered work? The Atlantic contributor claims that the social media reaction to the Corona beer story demonstrates that Americans are ‘desperate to believe the worst about one another’. When it comes to our current political environment, maybe, but not with tabloid-type content that is entertaining, causes no harm and is obviously not portrayed as some sort of scientific study (something clearly lost on the above journalists). I believe that both PR agencies and online media publishers are doing what every business has done since humankind began – giving customers what they want.

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