Media manipulation: It’s a fact, so what do we do about it?

Posted on August 1, 2012 11:36 am by | Blogging | Ethics | Media | PR | Social Media

Shankman-HolidayOn Monday, I posted a call for certification in the PR profession to establish a basis on which to establish trust between clients, the media and practitioners. If there’s any evidence that the client-media-PR world of a decade ago has changed irrevocably, it’s contained in a 45-minute conversation hosted on Google+ Hangouts on Air today by Duct Tape Marketing‘s John Jantsch. I was honored to be included, along with David Meerman Scott, as a commentator for the debate between Ryan Holiday, author of “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator,” and Peter Shankman, founder of HARO, one of the resources Holiday manipulated.

Massive warning flags should be plain to see among all stakeholders in this debate. Journalists —even those without journalism backgrounds—need to renew their commitment to fact- and source-checking, even in an era of diminished resources and pressure to publish first and often. The public needs to adopt critical thinking skills that will help them question what they’re seeing and hearing. Communicators need to recognize that outliers operating under the PR banner are engaged opaquely and unethically. Clients need to vet the credentials and practices of the outside PR and marketing help they hire to make sure these agencies and consultants reflect their own values and behave to their standards.

All of which, of course, is far more easily called for than done. The situation isn’t new, only hugely exacerbated beyond the inherent problems that have plagued the media ecosystem for decades. Simply posting in a blog that the public, clients, counselors and journalists need to step up won’t make it happen. What will? At this point, we need to ask the question. I have no idea what the answer is, but the more we talk about it, the better our chances of figuring it out.

Here’s the video of today’s conversation:



  • 1.Shel, I really enjoyed listening to the debate today - lots of good points were made about vetting and ethics. If there is a side to be taken here, I definitely side with Peter that Ryan's tactics were completely unethical and a slap in the face to the journalism community while disgracing the PR profession. However, Ryan's stunt did go to show how important it is for journalists to vet sources, for PR people to police our own (which I’ve seen a good amount of calling out Ryan’s tactics), and for clients to check out those they hire for PR help. I advocate for accreditation in PR, but I think your idea for certification in the field nails it. We need something that brings legal action against unethical behavior; we need something that identifies us to clients and journalists as knowledgeable and credible professionals that are bound by regulation to practice ethically. Of course, even with certification, there will still be some that dishonor the profession, but at least then there would be something with teeth to revoke licensure of these so-called PR practitioners.

    Monica Miller Rodgers | August 2012

  • 2.I listened to the entire program, and I swear I don't know where to start! I did take some notes, and will write more later, if anyone is interested. :)

    Sharon Bond | August 2012 | United States

  • 3.Sharon, I'm interested! /shel

    Shel Holtz | August 2012

  • 4.Shel, I've been away from the computer but spent some time thinking about the interview/topic. My initial reactions haven't changed with reflection; here's the shorthand, with further explanation below my short list:

    1. Ryan Holiday is a punk.
    2. Poor ProfNet!
    3. What are these "budgets" of which Peter speaks?

    1. Ryan is a punk. The premise behind Ryan's odious stunt is most assuredly not new -- for a grad school course somewhere around 1996, we read a book whose name and author I can't dredge up from my memory banks, unfortunately. It was written in the late '50s or early '60s and was designed to be a wake-up call about how news is created in this country.

    It also suggested some sort of cabal composed of PR practitioners and journalists. I believe the book made quite a stir at the time. The book is probably around here somewhere, maybe in a box in the basement; when I have time, I will try and find it so I can share the name in case anyone is interested. (Google searching has been fruitless thus far.)

    Going back further in my personal memory banks, to undergrad days, an assignment in my very first reporting class was to attend a talk, lecture or speech, then write a story about it. Luckily for me, it turned out there was this fellow who had been invited to my sorority house to give a talk on his philanthropic efforts and how we could help support them.

    Very long story short, it turned out he was a fraud and scammer who had been manipulating good-hearted people and normally skeptical journalists alike for quite a while. The journalists did not vet his story and background -- they took him at face value, just like a new generation of journalists took Ryan at face value today.

    In my story, the end result was that the guy had a ton of press clippings to "prove" he was legit. This was in the late '70s. His intentions were, frankly, evil, and I am thankful to this day that events came together in such a way that for some reason, my antennae were up and on high alert during this guy's talk. He was exposed as a fraud and had to slink back under the rock from which he came.

    Today, Ryan is trying to position himself as someone with nobler intentions, but I ain't buying it. Lying to make a buck is lying.

    2. ProfNet: Economists could probably have a field day with a case study about ProfNet and how that begot HARO. Talk about first mover advantage and how the one who gets their idea to market first doesn't necessarily "win!"

    Maybe no one here remembers the origins of ProfNet -- or cares -- but I think it is instructive. A couple professors started it with a simple, focused concept -- let academics and scientists help journalists out via this newfangled thing called email -- when they didn't where to turn for expert insight into stories they were writing.

    it was a closed system as far as who could participate, and I don't think (but could be wrong) you had to pay anything to be involved in it once you were approved as a source.

    Enter PRNewswire, who saw all the possibilities inherent in such a service, and bought it (I have no knowledge of how much they paid, or the terms, nor can I remember which university "spawned" ProfNet).

    I'm guessing here, but I imagine that PRNewswire made pots of money over the years through the large annual fees charged if you were on the sources side of the service. This barrier to entry meant, though, that access to the journalists who subscribed for free was limited to those with the financial means to participate, leaving others who wanted to be sources, or tell their clients' stories, pressing up against the glass and having to do their pitching legwork the old-fashioned way.

    Then along comes Peter Shankman, who recognizes the inefficiencies of ProfNet, and creates an open system. If you are reading this, Peter, perhaps you can chime in, but I don't remember you ever saying you set out to "kill" ProfNet, but because you had a better idea of how to implement what they did, ProfNet is now a mere shell of its former self and most likely on its last legs as a for-profit business.

    I am not lamenting the demise of ProfNet, by the way -- I think they got quite comfortable with the way things worked, and didn't want to consider other business models for the service, making them a ripe candidate for a takedown.

    3. Budgets -- Several times early in the interview, Peter referenced journalists having budgets cut -- what am I not grasping here? When I was a journalist, we didn't have "budgets" -- we had beats, and spent our time researching and wrpiting stories within those beats. Need some help here, unless Peter is talking about resources supplied by publishers to their staff that cost money, like subscription databases? (Lexis-Nexis comes to mind.)

    The only reason I even bring this question up is because I'm not sure that saying HARO needs to exist because reporters have had their budgets cut resonates. I'm certainly willing to be enlightened, though!

    Going back to point No. 1 above, and the fact that Ryan is a punk -- he wants to be applauded and financially rewarded through book sales and probably new clients for an odious stunt. There is assuredly an audience that will buy into that and figuratively ring his doorbell. For me, and what I hope is a sizable percentage of the public, I do not care to support him through time, attention and/or dollars. Here's hoping he ends up being a blip on the attention meter before too much more time passes.

    Sharon Bond | August 2012 | United States

  • 5.I'm not a fan of Ryan's "stunt." But I do find the premise of shopping around for sources on what's essentially an unvetted message board for PR pros to be a pretty lazy practice by journalists / bloggers. For any topic that you're passionate enough to write about, researching / identifying credible sources is a skill that should be developed, and not lobbed over to a bunch of PR people as a problem for them to solve. Inherent in that approach is that you're going to be misled by folks opportunistically seeking coverage - either by the Ryan's of the world (promoting their book) or people with thin expertise who are stretching to fit in the opportunity just for the publicity.

    Shankman is so quick to bristle up that he's created this tremendously valuable resource for journalists. What he's created is a watering hole for journalists that are too lazy to do real sourcing, and PR pros who aren't resourceful enough to create their own opportunities.

    Lastly, HARO is an instrument that's owned by a for-profit media research company called Vocus that is responsible for much of the spam that journalists receive on a day to day basis, and has by far done more harm than good for journalists historically. Why would journalists turn to that same company for sources?

    Ryan is hardly in it for more than promoting his book, absolutely. But let's make sure that the rest of the cast of characters is receiving their equal parts of scrutiny as well. This is hardly a mountain spring that's been tainted. More of a cesspool.

    Haro is Owned by Vocus ... Enough Said | August 2012 | San Francisco

  • 6.Great post Shel and I really enjoyed watching the debate (that was a heated one). You definitely got a new follower.
    By the way, I am sure you have heard of these guys at would you agree with them? They write some pretty interesting stuff on manipulation in business, politics and the media.

    Personally, I enjoy their media manipulation stuff

    Saluti dall' Italia

    Gianluigi | September 2012 | Napoli

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