Hacks and Flacks: ‘Lunching, dining and pitching’

BY ANJALI PURI| IN Archive | 05/11/2016
Well-spoken executives offering well-packaged stories also came in to pitch for new players who needed to build profiles, influence policy and defuse criticism.
ANJALI PURI looks at the changing equation between hacks and PR




 first published 25.9.2012


Playing out within the larger story of changing media structures is a narrower one of changing equations between PR personnel and journalists over the last two decades. PR executives, who had been peripheral to journalists’ lives  in the ’80s, became a pervasive and insistent presence in the  ’90s. Business houses had woken up to the reality that bad press could make your stock price tank, and shaping how the business press viewed it had become core to a company’s objectives.  With better access to company data, journalists could also ask tougher questions. So good bye long, cosy chats with corporate barons and hello, served up quotes and managed interviews. The dominance of this approach was to come through vividly, two decades later, in the taped conversations between PR diva Niira Radia and journalists in which, seductively dangling the bait of meetings with captains of industry, she made it clear CEOs wanted “a comfort factor” with a journalist, and  were “looking at a dignified response”.

Well-spoken executives offering well-packaged stories also came in to pitch for  new players who needed to build profiles, influence policy and defuse criticism. Recalls Ranjana Smetacek, a senior PR professional hired in 1999 by Monsanto, the maker of genetically modified(GM) seeds, “The greens were bombarding the media with scare stories and I was brought in to bring balance.”  Not being able to “lie down the road” , she flooded the media with information ( “a journalist doesn’t know a study exists until we give it to them”), took journalists on field trips to farmer leaders, and  organized opinion pieces by pro-GM experts unconnected to the company on the eve of  government approval meetings(“for any PR timing is important”). Among her successes, she remembers, was persuading The Hindu to be more balanced – that is, flying in a journalist from Chennai for a crucial event, to file a parallel story to that of the biotech beat reporter in Delhi, who was a “campaigner”. “If I had a product to sell, so had Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva,” says Smetacek hardily. “If there is no war, there won’t be any funding.”

Meanwhile,  PR was changing the newsroom. Recalls a reporter who worked for a leading business daily in the early to mid-1990s:  

“The lunching, dining and pitching had begun. The emissaries of asbestos and paint manufacturers were hovering around us, and reporters’ desks began to look like bureaucrats’ offices at Diwali. I recall that someone got a silver teaset, and some of my savvier colleagues began to ask companies to deliver at home. Cars had begun arriving to ferry you to the big guys. Competition for attractive beats, like aviation, was stepping up. Pressure from senior colleagues to follow certain stories had begun to rise. There were more frequent sightings of Tony Jesudasan of Reliance in the lift. There were in-house discussions on how to handle PR, and everyone agreed that while we needed to be watchful of plants, PR provided information and access, so let’s tame the beast, not ban it.  But it was clear that getting a bunch of journalists to agree on house rules wasn’t going to be easy.”

Not surprisingly, by 2002, media columnist Sevanti Ninan found  that “the profession is  frozen like a rabbit in the full glare of PR's wattage power and it's time to adjust one's lens” .  She pointed out, among other things, that on the business channel, CNBC, “the chat is so friendly you’d think anchor and interviewee were in-house colleagues” and that the media boom had generated so much space that “TV shows were rushing around looking for stars to put on them”.

The PR trajectories in sports and Bollywood mirrored  each other. As cricketers became brand ambassadors in the early ‘90s, middlemen sprung up to strike deals with a media eager to sex itself up with more ‘reader friendly’  fare. Similarly, as the film industry became more corporatized, quick-talking, English-enabled PRs also began to replace the homely  PROs of yesteryear. The film and cricket celebrities held all the cards, with their  TRP and advertising clout. It became customary for minders to dole out interview time by the stopwatch, to open the floodgates when it suited them – for film launches, brand promos, or, in a recent example, when a sportstar was diagnosed with cancer, and had to be quickly re-spun – and just as quickly dam the flood. A CNN-IBN sports reporter recently blogged  that he accepted a two-day junket to a small town in Bavaria for all  of  20 minutes with Sachin Tendulkar  at an Adidas factory ( the sportstar wearing, of course, his favourite Adidas shirt) because that was the only way to get an interview.

Equations came to be underpinned by a thicket of conflicting interests. With brands invested in cricketing stars, and in cricket marketing, and media outlets earning revenues from the brands, no one was going to spoil the party by being overly critical, unless something blew up in everyone’s face. “Why do you think,” asks a sports editor, “it look so long for the IPL scandals to come into the open?”  In  ‘tinseltown’, however, manufacturing good and bad publicity goes hand in hand. As film writer Namrata Joshi pointed out in a deconstruction of  Bollywood’s monster-machine, masala is integral to the mix.

PR agencies on the health beat had a less exciting time. Playing up the private healthcare sector , an aggressive self-promoter and a demanding client, requires the old PR tools of  spin and persuasion rather than the new ones of barter and trade.  It’s grim work, they tell you, milking dengue, typhoid, World Tobacco Day, World Diabetes Day(WDD), World Anti-Obesity Day, World Cancer Day and World  Thyroid Day – year after year.  That explains the touch of desperation in last year’s WDD pitch (which still managed to generate news coverage) about unnamed “anti-diabetes activists” convincing the Archaeological Society of India to allow the Taj Mahal and other buildings to be lit blue for the occasion. The giveaway was the name of endocrinologist Dr Anoop Misra, who crops up in annual WDD news releases, always issuing the same dire warnings, all the way back to 2006.  (Some doctors now have personal spin-doctors, journalist Debarshi Dasgupta reported,  charging anywhere between Rs 25,000 to Rs 75,000 to get media mentions five times a month.)

Working the health beat also means selling medical technology, to help hospitals recover crores of rupees spent on them. Says a long-suffering PR executive who handled a hospital’s account: “If you pitch a cancer-treatment machine, the journalist says, I can’t just write about yours. So then you have to get data on other hospitals that are not direct competitors, and organize patient testimonials. Once,  just as we had sewn it up, there was a frantic call from the hospital because one of the patients had died.”  However, journalists can also make life easier for health PRs, by advising them to stop pushing gastroenterology, and find fresh-faced, white-coated staffers who can hold forth on relationships, work stress and mental health.  The hospital gets named anyway, so same difference. After being with health PRs, you learn to read the tea-leaves. If there’s a story on the front page of a leading paper about moody teens questioned online  for a hospital survey, if the magic word,  Facebook,  has been invoked while discussing  their ‘mental health’ problems, and most of the  quotes are from one doctor, what it tells you is this: A flack got lucky today.

As health began to discover its softer side, soft journalism, of which PR claims ownership rights, transformed the ‘junket’ from an occasional journalistic perk  into free content for lifestyle pages and programmes. Golf in Pebble Beach, food tours of  olive country, long runs in Ferrari country, and breathless first person reports from Bollywood shoots in exotic places, all with No Cost to Company, or as the acronym goes, NCC.  It’s not uncommon for a travel magazine to launch without any content paid for by the media company that launched it (which explains why disclosures are a hard option). It’s hard work, then, for a travel-writer who cares about the story to duck the gimlet-eyed minder from the airline or take endless tours of ‘the property’ before escaping on a private tour. Even so, your hosts in a Muslim-majority country may raise hell later when they discover you’ve casually mentioned that that one of their grandees is gay and you met him in a bar. 

Fashion journalism found itself  exploring an even more sinister side. Shefalee Vasudev, former editor of Marie Claire magazine, reveals in her book,  Powder Room (Random House India, 2012) that Radia-esque ladies representing international brands and their advertising dollars rule the world of  fashion magazines. They stipulate that Indian brands cannot be featured next to foreign ones, outlaw the sari from magazine covers ( even Femina has stopped sari covers) and demand “editorial support”. Editorial support is not the office stenographer.  “ Editorial support, ” writes Vasudev, “is for those who advertise..or those who you want to please..like hotels, transport agencies, restaurants…There are so many individuals and agencies to thank every month that a newslist can be constructed just with ‘editorial support’.”

Now flooded with rookies, the PR industry, growing, according to an Assocham report, at 32% annually, and worth $ 10.56 billion in 2012 (this is regarded by many, though, as  an over-optimistic estimation)  is apparently so déclassé that Suhel Seth, famous friend of  the famous, not just denies that he does anything resembling PR, but  calls it “a salwar kameez business, with every bored housewife setting up a PR agency.”  An overflow of PR has turned journalists into scrap dealers, excavating what they can from repeat phonecalls, serial emails, Facebook and Twitter feed, a river of glossy brochures, and trashing the rest. That has a looping effect: More people find they need PR to engage the media. In an ironical development, that includes the media itself.  These days, PR executives handling a media company’s account call up feature writers to ask, “Would you like an interview with, say, Barkha Dutt or Nidhi Razdan?”  In other words, flacks are  selling hacks to hacks.


The  Uber-Press Release

Since the PRs have taught us to take anniversaries seriously, and it’s close to two years since the Radia tapes exploded in everyone’s faces, I am with a senior journalist who covers key economic ministries and corporate beats for a leading  newspaper, in a half-empty restaurant in a central Delhi hotel discussing what’s changed in the relationship between PRs and journalists since the scandal broke. Conversation about construction tenders drifts across from the next table, and celebrity-spotting has a different meaning here. “That’s Balasubramanian of  Reliance,” murmers my companion when an elderly man walks past. 

What’s changed, says the journalist, making the obvious point, is that people are careful on the phone. “But if you think we’re keeping the PR guys at a distance,” he adds “it’s not possible.” My main takeaway from my session with him is that it’s not about the trips and it’s not about the gifts – not for him, at any rate. It is, basically, all about The Document.

So we talk about his Source A and his Source B. Source A is a seasoned corporate lobbyist, reliable and efficient, who never supplies facts that turn out to be wrong. He’s resourceful enough, sometimes, to get you a CAG report the very day your boss tells you to give it a shot. The journalist generously shares recent conversations from his Blackberry Messenger (preferred mode of communication between him and Source A), so that I can see for myself how methodical he is. Having sent over a document relating to a criminal investigation involving a rival, Source A provides a precise run-through, with the “who” , “what” and “where” all identified: What names to Google for background, which newspaper  did  a good story on the case, who are the officers along the  investigation chain, and who is close to which politician. Story out, the journalist messages to say, cheekily, “Hope justice has been done”. “More than done,” is the reply.

Source B is a ‘consultant’ loosely connected to a well-known PR agency, whose job profile includes sourcing government documents for corporate clients. The advantage of the relationship is that he sources across ministries, and even turns up stuff from the PMO.  “Sometimes, somebody will say, I didn’t know you had PMO contacts, and I just laugh,” says the reporter.  In return, Source B will, from time to time, ask you to fix appointments for him with politicians or other useful people you might know. Occasionally, he may ask you to slip in a story on a lean news day. “I do it,” says the journalist stoically, “to keep the relationship. But I have my rules. I  won’t push the story with the desk and I will never follow up the appointment with the politician, either. What he does with him is his business. This is a murky world and I have to protect my credibility.”

Later, a corporate communications (“Corpcomm”) executive at a major business house provides a helpful tutorial on the deployment of  confidential government documents as a PR tool.  “Corporate affairs keep getting them, and passing them on. All kinds of  documents, related and unrelated.  Unrelated we pass on to journalists for relationship- building. However, management strategies also require the use of  documents, and mainly we do that in two ways. If you want send a strong message to the other side, that is, a rival, then you go for mass circulation. If you want to influence a policy, but don’t want to be identified as the source, you give it to a trusted person who could have got it from other sources as well.” 

It might seem reckless to send scanned extracts from government files, with crabby notings on the side, out on email – even if from a fictitious email account. But for journalists working beats that are arenas of corporate contestation, like petroleum and telecom, receiving such uber-press releases, a mixture of junk that got passed on ‘for relationship building’, and usable information, are a prosaic reality.  The tedium and excitement of  hanging around outside a bureaucrat’s office for hours until he allows you in, and lets you look at a  file, and take notes from it, are, at least for those who’ve learnt the art of getting their newsbreaks from corporate sources,  a flashback from a more leisurely past.

That documents travel in this ether, and transform themselves into stories, are tangible evidence that the cosy world   that came to life in the Radia tapes, of  blandishments and threats, mingled with teasing banter and seductive spin, still exists.  Another evocative  -- and hilarious -- symbol of continuity is that some of  Radia’s staff  now work for ‘the other side’. 


Links to - 

Part 1  - Spotting the Astro Turf

Part 3 - So Many Kinds of PR!


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