Influencer of the Week
You wouldn’t have thought that a journalist responsible for writing a rather gentile celebrity and showbiz gossip column would find himself at the centre of the week’s big story on freedom of the press and journalistic ethics. You might also be surprised to find out that it revolves around reporting on the Brit Awards – where historically ‘access all areas’ has been largely celebrated.
But our influencer of the week goes to one such journalist, who stood up against heavy-handed PR tactics and once again ignited the debate about the relationship between PRs and the press.
Tim Walker, writer of the Telegraph’s Mandrake column, is the journalist in question. The possessor of the “best job in London” and whose role it is to see “what mischief can we make today” was, on Wednesday, invited to attend the Brit Awards.
Nothing strange about that, apart from the conditions attached to him accepting the invite were, shall we say, prescriptive in a Putin-esque fashion.
House PR, managing Mastercard’s sponsorship of the event, dictated that to gain his seat at the table, he must agree to pre, during and post-event tweeting and include mentions of #pricelessSurprises and @MastercardUK, ensure any images taken on the night contained branding, signpost to Mastercard online content and include specific URLs in any write-up.
They also suggested the content of the tweets that should come from his personal and publication Twitter feeds.
Rather understandably, Mr Walker took exception to the demands and then took to Twitter, followed by the Press Gazette. Cue the ensuing Twitter storm by outraged journalists, and slightly agog PRs. Understandably Mastercard’s well-meaning hashtag also took an ironic twist as it was quickly appropriated by commentators.
There was also a fair amount of finger pointing as to whose fault it was that we’d arrived at a point where PRs thought it appropriate to demand this level of co-operation from journalists, and which journalists, if any, had accepted the conditions.
As the storm developed so did the debate as to what is acceptable to ask of a journalist, what you might be entitled to expect, and, if it’s ever possible to demand coverage or content in return for a story or invite.
Generally, and it is the unspoken rule of the PR/ journalist relationship, if you invite a relevant journalist to an event, you have:
a) Checked that they might want to actually write about it in the first place (if not, invite someone else)
b) Ensured your client involvement is interesting enough to warrant a mention
Likewise, our journalist friends do understand that if we invite them to an event that is relevant to them, we’d like them to actually write, tweet and generally shout about it.
Tim himself said he was happy to plug events and awards, just as long as it wasn’t a pre-requisite, as the story reached the BBC lunchtime news. Even Jon Snow accused the PR company of “Soviet” media management.
This situation was always going to demand a climb-down from House PR in order to prevent any client embarrassment, but rather than a gracious ‘whoops, we over-stepped the mark, an oversight on our part’ apology, what came was more of a defiant definition of what PR used to be, “The role of the PR agency is to pursue all coverage opportunities on behalf of its clients.” from MD, Ginny Paton.
This was followed not long after by a statement from Mastercard distancing themselves from the whole affair, describing the activity as ‘highly inappropriate’ and confirming that no conditions would be attached to any journalists attending as their guests.
So, Tim Walker, as the defender of journalistic freedom and for providing this year’s moment of Brits controversy, you are our influencer of the week. Not to mention ensuring that the PR agency became the focus of the story instead of the client.