Investigating public relations companies

PR is a huge feature of modern politics. Every journalist spends a lot of his or her time coping with and trying to see through PR communications and tactics. However the issue for journalists should not just be surviving PR tactics and spin, but turning the spotlight on it.

PR tactics are themselves a big part of modern politics, but usually while the issues and conflicts are reported on, the PR itself isn’t a subject of news reporting. PR people and PR strategies stay invisible, the way they want to be. Bad tactics are rarely caught out. The public still feels the scale of spin and manipulation going on, even if they can’t prove it. I think this contributes to public disillusionment and cynicism about politics, politicians and – sadly – news and politicians as well. So, I believe that publicly discussing PR is a great service to the public, showing people that their feelings have a reason and hopefully replacing vague cynicism (which means a sense of powerlessness) with a healthy literacy or understanding about modern politics.

Most “PR” jobs are reasonably harmless – jobs like writing promotional communications about someone’s new tractors – and do not need to involve being a paid liar. The manipulative PR that needs more exposure includes everything from using misleading and selective facts (eg the up-beat press release announcing share prices up this quarter when the company has made huge losses that year) – to outright lies – through to full scale covert political campaigning.

My book was documenting a case where a US PR firm was paid to try to overcome environmental opposition to rain forest logging in New Zealand. Half the effort of the secret campaign went into trying to undermine environmental groups and their supporters (paying spies to infiltrate them, working to undermine their finances, trying to discredit key spokespeople, arranging intimidating legal threats, putting news organisation off covering the groups and much more). The other half involved manufacturing a pro-logging campaign where there had not been one (setting up a fake pro-logging community group, cultivating ‘third party’ endorsers of the logging, preparing mass letters to newspapers, lobbying, cultivating journalists etc). Some of the tactics were clearly unethical. Some were superficially ‘normal PR practice’ but, with huge resources behind them, were designed to dominate the issue in a way that overwhelmed legitimate democratic processes.

The key requirement for this type of campaign was secrecy. If anyone questioned the logging company’s tactics, it could simply deny the allegations. It is in cases like this that journalists can perform a great service by not just reporting the issue as it appears on the surface, but uncovering what is really going on. Often, the story of the hidden PR strategies is much more interesting and influential than the issue itself. In other words, probing PR tactics rather than just being a channel for them.

What follows are some suggestions how to investigate PR activities:

Understanding Public Relations is the starting point for recognising and investigating PR tactics. The best book for learning to recognise PR manipulation is John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Common Courage Press, 1995.

A lot of public relations reporting is primarily intelligent and sceptical analysis of news and issues. Also PR staff are often happy to pass on gossip about their competitors in other PR companies. Because public relations is inherently secretive, inside sources are crucial for gathering big stories.

Never assume that companies are homogeneous, where everyone thinks alike and blindly supports everything the company does. Most organisations contain a mixture of people, including people concerned about wrongdoing and ethics who willing to act in the public interest.

Sources may be senior or junior staff. Senior staff often treat lower paid workers as if they are invisible, or blind and stupid – but they may well know exactly what is going on and where the files are kept. The most successful way to find people is by word of mouth. Most of my inside sources covering many subjects are people about whom some friend of a friend told me. The key is to start looking.

More specific leads can come from someone you know or get to know elsewhere in the same profession (eg. in another PR company), government staff and journalists who have contact with the PR people or other people involved in the issues being worked on (eg. other companies, scientists and so on). They may well know about someone who recently left the very place you are interested in.

Remember that the particular classified information you are seeking is usually located in several different places, not just the obvious ones, and that some of these may be more accessible than others. Possibilities include a range of different sections within a company, outside consultants or institutions doing related contract work (eg research), other companies providing services (eg market research, publishing), other organisations allied to the main PR client and former employees. Imagine different types of interesting information and write a list of where each type might be located.

The first thing I try to get when studying an organisation is an internal phone directory or staff list, providing a window into the organisation and showing which staff work on what (even better is collecting a series of staff lists covering many years so that you can see staff come and go).

Retired senior politicians, government officials and businesspeople – who might not talk to us while in their jobs – are often very quickly forgotten by their old colleagues once they cease to be powerful and useful and are pleased to be interviewed about their experiences and insights. Following changes of government and ‘restructuring’ in companies and organisations is a good time to find such people.

Great care is needed when approaching potential sources. It is their careers at risk and the first priority must be protecting them. If it is possible that someone may become a source, it is essential that right from the start all contacts with them are private and untraceable. Otherwise, when you come to want to use information, the link to that person may already be too obvious.

We should assume people want to help. While refusals do not feel good, the key to getting information is being brave enough to ask. It is, of course, worth finding out about people before approaching them to check they will not be offended and the approach pointless.

A good start for understanding the PR landscape (such as which companies are working on what) is company websites, PR industry publications (in the US, the monthly O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report and PR Week), obtaining copies of the company profiles provided to potential clients and – especially – looking at the work of specialist PR watchdogs (eg US publications PR Watch journal and associated website;; and the Netherlands-based news group Pandora, and news archive

The best starting point for any new investigation is reading through all the easily available public information. Generally, if you have not done the unsecret slog of getting to know a subject from the open sources, you are unable to notice the good stuff when you find it – and, more to the point, you don’t know what to look for. Work out questions you’d like to answer and theories you’d like to test.

When you’re on to a story, all sorts of non-secret sources help to fill it out: annual reports, all manner of official reports, parliamentary questions and records, news searches, official websites and industry and professional magazines. I regard these boring looking sources – which often almost no one reads or even knows exist – as researcher goldmines. These sources can be supplemented by interviewing specialists (business people, government officials etc) on the record.

Wherever possible, we should start with original documents (not other people’s articles or quotations from them), as the secondary sources can miss interesting clues or even get things wrong. With articles or books, often the most valuable part is the footnotes at the end. They may point you to exactly the source you need.

A good way to save time is to ask around to find researchers, public interest groups or academics who know the topic you are investigating and who can recommend good sources to which you can go directly. Two or three phone calls are often all it takes to locate someone who can help you on the way to the information you are seeking. They might also point to important angles and key questions.

Despite the convenience, don’t assume that you only need to look on the Internet. It is a wonderful tool (for instance, searching for basic information about individuals, companies and organisations) and provides unexpected clues, but it can also waste heaps of time in aimless search. Most information sources on many topics are not on the web. One reason is that the Internet usually only has very recent information (say, 2-3 years or less): older sources have never been placed on-line or have already been taken off again.

Web pages – if you find something useful on a website make sure you download a copy for later reference. It is common for good information to be quickly removed from websites. Conversely, don’t rely on websites to include, for example, all media releases. It is common for companies to issue media releases on major incidents but never to load them onto their website.

Often specialist libraries and the files of specialist organisations are more useful. Many companies, government departments, research institutes and public interest groups have their own libraries. A day reading old files in the national archives can likewise be productive. No matter what the institution is, librarians are the researcher’s friends.

One excellent source of information is PR industry conference papers and even better attending the conferences. Often the most revealing comments are made in response to questions and you can get a better understanding of key individual’s personalities. Above all access for interviews, without minders present, is much much easier inside a conference.

A key task is encouraging editors to recognise PR companies, strategies and activities as an interesting and important area of news reporting. There are still very few journalists who report on or investigate PR activities and there are almost none, outside PR industry publications, who specialise in it.

In my case, I sought and was eventually leaked a full set of the secret PR planning documents (strategy plans, minutes of meetings and all). I found that exposing the covert campaign completely changed the issue. The state-owned logging company was seriously discredited because of its dirty tactics and shortly, after a change of government, the revelations led to a new Prime Minister (who had learnt she was a target of the PR campaign from our book) deciding to stop 100% of the controversial logging. Exposure can be very powerful, not just for that issue, but generally for alerting people to these sorts of tactic.

I believe that covering PR agencies and campaigns should be a regular reporting area for news organisations in the same way that other business and political areas are regular ’rounds’. This does not have to mean big exposés. Much of the useful reporting would be simply covering small day-to-day stories. But there is currently a reluctance to cover PR, partly I believe because so many PR people are ex-journalists who we know, but also because journalists just accept the PR people’s idea that they should stay invisible.

Overall I see three main benefits of investigating PR (in addition to getting good stories): empowering the public so people do not feel just like passive victims of manipulation; defending democratic processes; and hopefully helping other journalists not to be so gullible in future.