A HOOT SPECIAL REPORT Part III
first published 25.9.2012
A video interview, carried in July 2012 on the media website, Newslaundry, between interviewer Madhu Trehan, and interviewee Srinivasan Jain, former head of NDTV Profit, contained the following exchange:
MT : The programme on NDTV Profit called Big Spenders..is an advertorial I would guess. It looks like a paid-for programme. The whole programme is on one company and it showcases all the luxury goods, and allows the owner to talk about his product and promote his product.
SJ: Big Spenders per se is not an advertorial show. It is supposed to be a luxury lifestyle show but what ends up happening with luxury lifestyle programming is that it doesn't look at what it’s covering in a very critical way. It just ends up looking very pluggish. But it’s not an advertorial in the sense that it’s not paid for.
MT: Are you sure? Why would anyone do a programme which is so chaploosi and sucking up and promoting, with no balance at all? How can it not be paid for?
What this lively exchange captures is the existence of a big, grey, fuzzy, blurry space in the media today, and the confusion over what the heck it is – editorial, advertising, or something in between? This is the rich soil in which PR flourishes. Nourishing it are arrangements that range from paid-for content (in a nice range of permutations), to extending editorial carrots to advertisers and sponsors and more subtle forms of barter and favour-trading. Together, they shape who is covered, what is covered, and how they are covered. Disclosures are missing, on television especially, or are perfunctory at best. All the hapless viewer knows as she glides from gadget PR to corporate golf PR to tell-me-your-company’s- success-story PR to can-we-talk-about-your-new-movie-PR, to award-ceremony PR to save-the-world PR, is that when TV doesn’t roar, it purrs. However, print is no wallflower. It played a pioneering role in creating this grey zone. Here is a rough guide for negotiating it:
Medianet: Bennett Coleman Company Limited (BCCL)’s baby should soon be turning 10. Born amid uproar, for being the first media scheme to officially charge by the column centimeter for coverage in the TOI’s city supplements, Medianet has settled down to efficient business. Everything is covered for a price, from films and fashion shows to parties thrown by the hoi-polloi, which can be beefed up, a Sunday Times (UK) sting revealed last year, with celebrities available for an extra cost. Brands that don’t pay but are part of events covered by Medianet are ruthlessly excised from the reporting -- a natural collorary of an approach that sees news as advertising. Defending Medianet in 2003, TOI wrote: “When the reader sees an article being credited as a 'Medianet promo', he knows that is exactly what it is.” However, it then went on to drop the creditline. It was only after the sting that the supplements were designated the way they are now, as “Advertorial, Entertainment, Promotional Feature”. That still doesn’t tell you what exactly is paid for in there, and what’s not. Ambiguous for the reader, great for the client.
Advice, for a Price: Paid content was just too good an idea to be trapped in the tinsely world of supplements. Rujuta Diwekar, a dietician and bestselling writer, narrates the fascinating story of how she was approached in 2009 by a marketing executive representing a respectable woman’s magazine, and offered a health column to answer readers’questions. Her picture would be carried, and her website named. She was told she could, if she wanted, write both the questions and the answers. “When the figures were mentioned,” said Diwekar, “Rs 25,000 for per half-page column and Rs 40,000 for a full pager, I thought that’s what they would pay. Then, in some shock, I realized I was being asked to pay. ”
Product Placement: If a whisky brand randomly looms large and well-lit in the backdrop of a TV interview, say, of a sports commentator, that’s usually a deal between the channel and the brand. “Anybody who does TV knows at once it’s a set-up, because of the way it’s been shot,” explains a TV reporter. “ What looks like a coincidence is not.” Ditto, exclusive interviews with sportstars in even the sober ‘non-promo’ sections of broadsheets -- the interview was bartered for brand placement. Logo displays and brand mentions are thrashed out beforehand.
Advertiser Funded Programmes (AFP): When you see a strikingly glossy interview with a CEO on a business channel, don’t say, “The channel has sold out.” The right way to put it is, “The channel has negotiated an AFP.” These are capsules and programmes paid for by brands, co-produced, or sometimes even produced by them.This genre is a site of innovation: In 2009, CNN-IBN, in “exclusive partnership” with razor blade-maker Gillette, ran a campaign on getting men to shave, including features, interviews and panel discussions that concluded, surprise, surprise, that “Indian women prefer clean-shaven men.” Interestingly, when Archna Shukla of Indian Express sought the views of the top brass of television on AFPs, she couldn’t get a response from Raghav Bahl, the managing director of the Network18 Group, Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief, CNN-IBN, and Prannoy Roy, chairman, NDTV.
The Advertorial: Flitting through thepages of newspapers and magazines is a shadowy creature, often called something fuzzy like “consumer connect”, “spotlight”, “focus” or “infocus”. Advertorials have been around for decades, but, increasingly, they look like stories. In one infamous case, a printed story re-appeared as an advertorial, raising profound questions about the original story. The latest trend is for a story (or ad?) on a media company’s commercial initiative, with phone numbers of who to contact for services, to blend seamlessly into the news columns.
Don’t mind me, I’m only the sponsor: Sponsorship is OK, right, because it’s Disclosed? Well, there are backstories. In the case ofcricket celebrity columns by cricketers and former cricketers, embedded with boxy ads selling health insurance , the brand pays both the newspaper and the cricket personality. A column by a well-known one could cost the sponsor about one lakh rupees per insertion, divided up between the newspaper and the writer. The catch here is that the brands that bankroll the columnist ‘s reflections also have a stake in the great cricket bazaar he’s writing about. So he ends up sounding…well… PRish. Or his ghost writer does.
On TV, given the in-your-face nature of the medium – the backstory can jump onto the screen. This happens when the sponsor leaps out of his box, and right onto the show. In a recent instalment of The Property Show on NDTV, the COO of a property company, building its brand by sponsoring the show, was also on the show, in a panel discussion -- on brand-building. The company’s name was splashed large after ad breaks, flashed at the bottom of the screen through the show, and was also in run-on print behind the COO’s head. It was on screen 14 times in a single frame at one point.
‘Internal’ PR: As Paranjoy Guha Thakurta points out in his book, Media Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2012), when a media organization takes stakes in a business house (ie makes it a “private treaty” partner), it is “it is working in its own interest to offer favourable editorial coverage as a form of PR”. This form of ‘internal PR’ is said to be increasingly mirroring the practices of PR agencies in the ‘real’ world, with documents implicating the rivals of private treaty clients now making their way to newsrooms. Internal PR can take other forms, too, like advertisers being inserted as guests into TV panel discussions. As a media marketing manager put it genially: “If there are five jokers out there, why can’t one be mine?”
‘Talking Up’, or the Thematic Plug: Marketing driven ‘thematic plugs’ have been around for a while. Famously, the thoughts of some newsmagazines unfailingly turn to sex once a year to ‘mop up’ condom ads. Another common example is talk shows themed around ‘adultery’ or ‘horror’, timed with the release of big movies in those genres. Even hard news themes are talked up: The book, Indian Mass Media and the Politics of Change,edited by Somnath Batabyal and others(Routledge, 2011) ,reveals how Star News talked up the housing boom to get advertising from financing institutions. However, the latest on the PR circuit is that ‘talking up’ has achieved levels of sophistication approaching stealth marketing-- packages are designed to include subtle and repeated references to the client’s favourite themes as news points in news bulletins. Output is reportedly measured.
The Arithmetic of Social Commitment: Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News narrates how, over a decade ago, British Petroleum “performed the PR equivalent of a sex change, transforming their image from that of a ruthless profit-seeking predator to a caring green giant.” In India, too, corporate entities are now actively exploring such PR ‘solutions’ through campaigns that combine great PR (for the corporate) with great arithmetic (for the media outlet). Unlikely alliances are cemented: car companies with environmental activism, scandal-afflicted cellphone companies with saving the “the majestic tiger”, real estate companies with physical fitness, and makers of branded drinks and children’s foods with child nutrition and health. What makes this really ‘win-win’, as the PR world likes to say, is this: Since the themes are controversy-neutral, you can pull off marathon sessions of paid programming (with sponsor-friendly formats borrowed from reality and countdown TV), and strobe-like repeats of the sponsor’s name.
The Magical World of Events: This where the people pervading all the categories listed above come together on a common stage and pay each other fulsome compliments. ( Comely business anchor to CEO: Oh what a fantastic brand you’ve built. CEO to anchor: What a great brand you’ve built, with your show.) In tandem with advertising’s increasing event- orientation, the media too has embraced events – conclaves, conferences, and especially, awards. Apart from providing a revenue stream through sponsorship and TV tie-ups, events are a useful PR tool. Awards may not necessarily be ‘fixed’, especially if the jury has heft . But there is scope, say the knowledgeable, by gently tweaking parameters --- by number of years in the business, by product niche, and so on -- to accommodate those you want to keep happy.
Vital to the success of the media event is the editor. As any media marketing man will tell you, the media event would be a resounding flop without the editor. How does that dual role, of being a journalist, and being tasked with corporate PR by a media company, play out for the editor? A snatch of a conversation between an editor and Niira Radia in the Radia tapes provides an interesting glimpse:
Editor: I wanted to discuss something with you which has been part of my mandate for a while.Me and our Brand Head have been thinking of doing a really high level global summit where we want to bring top CEOs from abroad..Wondering.. if there's any group that can become our knowledge partner.. it can be the Tatas..
NR:You probably want to use companies like Tata Steel, Tata Motors..
Editor: We've spoken to people like Microsoft, they're willing to participate.
Editor: I’ll send you a little synopsis of this idea on the Global Summit..This is the kind of thing where we can bring in prime ministers….
NR: Interesting, send it to me and I’ll talk to the Tatas…
Editor: This global summit, if it appeals to the Tatas, we can also do it out of London..We want to do it on a big scale but as you know ET (the paper) never wants to spend money."
Structure or Agency?
So where do journalists stand, in terms of the larger relationships between a corporate media and a corporate world? To speak to the journalist, P. Sainath , who investigated the political paid news scandal that broke in 2009, in which newspapers took money from politicians for election coverage, is to hear compelling examples of how journalists are caught up in situations where they have no power. He gives the example of a senior journalist from Maharashtra who called him and told him that a paid news story, written by a PR agency, was carried under his byline, but he could not protest, since he was on an 11 month contract. “We had choices two decades ago,we were protected by the Working Journalist’s Act,” Sainath reports the journalist as telling him. “Now, we don’t.”
To speak to PRs, however, is to descend rapidly from tragedy to farce. “Today, you can’t hold a press conference, unless you send a car for every journalist, “ says a PR wearily. “Even Asian Age won’t come without a car, can you believe it, even interns want cars. There’s no choice but to send them, because the client will judge you by how many journalists show up. ” Says another PR, of a columnist,“She’s all hoity toity when you meet her, but she’ll take the magnum of champagne if you send it home.”
A TV journalist offers a third view: with the lines getting so blurry, and without clear rules, it is, really, just one big blob now. “A BBC Top Gear host can get into a car and say, this is an ugly machine. But have you ever heard our car show anchor getting beyond, ‘the bumper is a little rounded, the lights are a little square’?” asks the journalist. “ He never disses the car. That could be because of the prevailing culture of cosying up to companies. But also consider that he thinks nothing of keeping some cars for months.”
Links to -
Part 1 - Spotting the Astro Turf