Ethics Still Matter In Era Of “Media Manipulation”

January 9, 2013

trustmeimlyingI recently read Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday, and it frustrated the hell out of me.

If you haven’t heard about it, it’s the self-indulgent memoir and half-assed mea culpa from a 26-year-old PR/marketing practitioner who details the dubious tactics he used to earn his clients (American Apparel, Tucker Max) premium coverage from some of the most influential media outlets out there.

While he claims to have burned plenty of legacy media titans along the way — The New York Times, CBS, MSNBC, to name a few — blogs such as The Huffington Post, Gawker and BuzzFeed were the most common victims of Holiday’s antics because of their tendency to favor:

  • Expediency over accuracy
  • Salacious, click-bait headlines
  • Noncommittal reporting riddled with coulds, mays and mights

But the number one reason Holiday believes blogs were and still are vulnerable: The pay-per-pageview model.

Holiday writes,

“In the pay-per-pageview model, every post is a conflict of interest.  It’s why I’ve never bought influence directly. I’ve never had to. Bloggers have a direct incentive to write bigger, to write simpler, to write more controversially or, conversely, more favorably, to write without having to do any work, to write more than is warranted. Their paycheck depends on it. It’s no wonder they are vicious, irresponsible, inaccurate, and dishonest.”

To generate media coverage for his clients, Holiday supplied bloggers with the most sensational news possible. He admits to having created fake identities, fake interviews, fake advertisements, fake protests, fake controversy – simply put, fake news. He lied. Creatively, strategically, even masterfully, sure, but he lied.

When my clients have news to share, I have two very important obligations:

  • To target the right reporters at the right outlets
  • To tell the story in the  most honest and compelling way possible

I suppose anyone can land their client on Gawker by visiting the blog’s pageviews leaderboard and targeting the poor blogger most desperately in need of traffic. To that second point, anyone can be compelling when honesty is made optional.

But ethics still matter. Those of us who work in public relations must understand media coverage is no small matter for our clients, and one misstep (like the many taken by Holiday) can seriously harm people we’ll never meet, be they employees, shareholders or consumers. We are not autonomous but rather representatives of our clients when sending emails, making calls and coordinating events. They deserve  our integrity and nothing less.