Reader Beware: This Article Could Be a PR Plant

The biggest game in Washington is news sources trying to excite the media, and the media trying to excite the public. This can strike some people as conspiratorial.

And now the news media, which never tire of expressing outrage over the obvious, is in a dither over the latest from Microsoft.

The Los Angeles Times recently revealed a "stealth media blitz" by Microsoft, involving "the planting of articles, letters to the editor, and opinion pieces to be commissioned by Microsoft's top media handlers but presented by local firms as spontaneous testimonials." One irate journalist called the plan "black propaganda."

Propaganda?

Or just public relations?

Along with the obvious biases of the quoted sources, most news stories contain the "hidden hand" of someone promoting a particular viewpoint.

For example, the background footage a TV reporter uses to illustrate a story about nuclear power may have been supplied by industry. Or, a pharmaceutical company's public relations firm might pay a freelance writer to report on a medical advance.

If raw, unfiltered news was what everyone wanted, C-SPAN would be the only station on television and every home would contain an Associated Press newswire (now that's an idea!). It's not manipulative to strike what media consultant Tony Schwartz calls "the responsive chord" in audiences. It isn't easy, either. That's why professionals like me are needed.

If it weren't for us, readers would have to plow through columns actually written by congressmen, CEOs, and scientists, and listen to speeches written by lawyers.

There are quite a few politicians, athletes, and entertainers who can be said to have written more books then they've read. Is it really shocking to learn that opinion articles are frequently written by individuals other than their bylined "authors"?

Readers with scales falling from their eyes should next answer the question they ask in Brooklyn: Wanna buy a bridge?

But we public relations professionals should also answer to our own ethics and social consciences (remember them?).

I was once asked to undertake a writing assignment similar to the one planned by Microsoft.

A year or two before Michael Milken got into his own very public battles with the Justice Department, his PR advisors thought it would be a good idea to start building up his image.

One of Mr. Milken's many lobbyists invited me to drop everything for an assignment that would mean a lot of travel and more money than I was currently earning from any of my other clients.

All I'd have to do was write about the ways Milken and his money were helping local businesses, families, children, people with terrible illnesses, that sort of thing. Local "authors" would be found to submit the op-eds and articles I'd write, and voil, Michael Milken would be seen as a hero.

I've never been a very keen reader of the business section, so I wasn't sure if Milken was rotten or just misunderstood. I called a friend who knew a lot more about him than I did. He clarified for me why junk bonds were bad for the economy, and then put the assignment in much better perspective.

"It'll be great," my friend said. "You can be there when the Feds take him away in handcuffs. You can know that you're on his team. Won't that be exciting."

I turned down the offer, and was indeed gratified not to be there when the ax fell.

But another writer, with different values (and friends) might have chosen otherwise. In fact, someone did, because I later read stories that were clearly the product of this PR campaign.

What's wrong with that?

Not a thing. If an article "by" a businessman gets you to think, does it matter who really wrote it? Not if the article fairly expresses that person's perspective and experience.

What's truly unethical is when phony front groups are set up with hidden backing from private industry.

Remember "caveat emptor?" Let the buyer beware? It's time for "caveat lector." Let the reader beware.

Companies, governments, and professional advocates of all stripes are competing for your attention, and some of them are even turning to communications professionals for assistance.

Are you shocked?

* William S. Klein is a political and media consultant in Silver Spring, Md.

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