Tuesday, June 06, 2006

PR vs. Journalism, and my new pseudonym

Since I started writing for magazines and newspapers, I've been very careful to avoid conflict-of-interest issues. For example, if the subject of an article offers me a gift, I think very carefully about whether it is ethical to accept it: Is it reasonably inexpensive? Is it directly related to the subject of my article? Can I fully cover the topic without accepting the gift, and if not, does the publication I'm writing for have a large enough budget to pay for the item, rather than accept it for free? Even if all the above answers are satisfactory, and there would be no conflict of interests, would accepting the gift create an appearance of conflict of interests? Believe me, I've given up some nice offers because of this issue.

When, say, a nonprofit organization asks to meet with me to tell me about their programs, in the hope of getting some publicity, I tell them that they have a choice: They can either hire me as a PR representative, in which case I could write press releases for them and send those releases to editors, with no guarantee that the editors will choose to follow up. OR, if they convince me that they actually have something exciting and newsworthy going on, then I can pitch articles to appropriate publications, and if an editor "bites," then the newspaper will pay me. But under the latter circumstance, I'd be working for the paper, not for the nonprofit organization, and the people at the NPO have no say about the content of my story. They can hope that I'll only say positive things, but I can't promise it.

It is really scary how many companies and organizations take for granted, until I disabuse them of the notion, that they can pay me to pitch stories about them -- obviously, stories which put them in a positive light -- and that I could then also accept money from the newspaper. Apparently, there are reporters out there who double dip like that, and it's completely unethical. Disgusting, really.

Anyhow, in the last couple of years, I have in fact been hired by some non-profit organizations, mostly to write content for their websites and organizational magazines. Obviously (to me, anyhow), once I've been hired to write PR material for an organization, I can no longer pitch stories about them as a reporter. Conflict of interests.

There might be some very limited circumstances under which I could, say, quote a client of mine in an article. Actually, I can think of only one such circumstance: If, say, I'm writing a story about American immigration to Israel, and it's a long story, I'd have to get quotes from more than one immigration organization. And when one is writing about American immigration to Israel, there are really only a handful of offices that are known to be experts, most notably Nefesh B'Nefesh and the AACI: Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. In this case, I could not write an article about Nefesh B'Nefesh, since I've accepted money from them in the past, but I could quote Nefesh B'Nefesh, since they are quite clearly experts in the field right now. No one would question why I'm turning to NBN for, say, statistics, if I'm writing about recent American immigration. Still, I'd have to be careful to limit this exception to cases where the client I'm quoting is obviously in the forefront of the issue I'm writing about. If there connection is a stretch, then they are off limits.

Other than that, I can't think of any situation in which giving a client of mine free publicity through my work as a reporter would be ethical.

Anyhow, as I said, lately I've been getting more and more PR work, to the extent that it's almost all I'm doing these days!

It's nice to be getting more work, but I've been worried that people who read my stories might get confused about the level of bias in a piece. They might wonder which hat I was wearing when I wrote the story, the reporter hat or the PR hat. Worse, some people might wonder whether I'm confused about how much bias is acceptable in my work. "If Sarah is writing PR for Large NPO X, highlighting the positive of course, then how do I know, when I see her work in a newspaper, that she isn't glossing over the negative? How do I know whether she has a specific agenda?"

I decided that it's time to "split" myself into two different "brands." Under my real name, I'll continue writing what I call in my mind "real journalism," meaning that I'm being paid to tell readers everything they would want, or need, to know about an issue. In "real journalism," if there is a negative side to the story, I have to at least acknowledge it, if not explore it comprehensively.

Under a pseudonym (which I'll specify in this post - don't worry) I'll do the "PR" assignments, that is, writing in the context of someone paying me to make them look good.

This "split" shouldn't be construed as an attempt to hide the fact that I now do some PR writing (PR is very frowned upon by Journalism School Purists). Obviously, it's not a secret, or I wouldn't be telling you all about it on my blog.

Rather, it's a sort of reminder to my readers, and more importantly to myself, that I know the difference between biased and unbiased writing, and under which circumstances to produce which.

There will be some exceptions, but in general, when you see my real name, I'm being paid to be completely unbiased. And in general, when you see my pseudonym, it means that I'm being paid to highlight the positive. (An exception includes a recent client who asked to use my real name, since I was profiling a prominent person, and that person may have been insulted if they saw I was writing under a different name. Personally, I think the client was being a little over-sensitive, but I humored them.) You should be able to tell anyway; if a story's first appearance in the world is on the website of NPO X, or in their magazine, then most likely NPO X commissioned it under the condition that they come out looking fabulous. That's common sense, and I hope that all of you think critically about what you are reading and where that information is coming from. But like I said, I don't want "my readers" -- the people who know me and follow my work, regardless of where it's written-- to get confused. Brand recognition is key!

Anyway, the pseudonym I've made up is "Rachel M. Sprintzer."

"Rachel" is after my grandmother, who passed away in December.

"Sprintzer" and "M." are for two of my grandmother's sisters, Shprintzer and Machke, who were killed by Nazis in Poland along with their husbands and all their children. They've never had anyone named after them, so this is my way of remembering them.

If you have any questions about any of this, please leave a comment. The whole point of this post is to be transparent. I don't want anyone thinking that by taking on a pseudonym I'm trying to hide anything.

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