Joining me on this week’s episode is Adam Ritchie, the principal of Adam Ritchie Brand Direction, which helps brands invent and transform. He is seeking to reshape perceptions in the practice of PR from its past as an organization’s mouthpiece to its future as an organization’s creative engine. What really got my attention though was he recently questioned PR’s addiction to fake newswire metrics.
Adam will discuss:
- A lighting round of four ethical dilemmas he faced
- The insidious practice of double billing
- Why we need to stop PR’s addiction to fake newswire metrics
- How Amazon is hurting public relations measurement
Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I started Adam Ritchie Brand Direction in 2007 and we’ve handled clients on four continents and it’s everything from beer to baby seats to treadmill desk to cybersecurity to the world’s largest swimming pools to niche social networks. I think we’re the only agency in the world that takes an invention first approach to public relations and that’s where you apply your PR skills to product development instead of just product promotion. It’s where you don’t wait to be handed a product from a client or a concept from their ad agency but you come up with a product that’s designed to earn the media and every other function across marketing communications and the PESO model can support that.
Well, I’ve got a few for you and I’m going to keep them all short. Because there hasn’t been one major one, but I’ll preface it by saying a lot of the time the client isn’t even aware that their ask is unethical. And it’s our job to diplomatically talk them out of doing the wrong thing while offering up a better alternative. The PR pros that survived the longest know that you can’t always counter a client’s request by climbing on top of your moral high horse and smiting them with the Mighty Sword of Ethics. A lot of the time you just have to talk them down and show them the smarter path. And most of the time they’ll follow you. It’s pretty rare that they don’t and that’s when relationships end. The first example I’ll give you is one where a client asked us to promote something.
It was a construction deal, but it smelled like this was not a done deal. They were demanding that we start pitching some news about some building at a major property. The way we got out of this was by saying, sure, we can certainly pitch this fantastic deal. Before we start, can you give us the spokesperson for the university who will go on the record and speak to this deal? Because as soon as we get a glimmer of interest from media, they’re going to want to talk to obviously your spokesperson but someone from the university as well. And they said, no, we can’t do that. And we said, well, if you don’t give us that, you don’t have a story to pitch and we can’t pitch it.
And they insisted that we pitch it and we said, the minute we do, we’re going to get that interest and this is going to be dead in the water. And they let it drop. And that’s how we were able to get out of promoting news that did not exist.
The learning from that was, this was the last time we ever subcontracted to another agency. This was a global client and this was their agency of record in their home country who would then hire agencies in another countries. It’s not an uncommon practice at all, but the thing that you encounter with that is when you get an unusual or a crazy or an unethical request, you never know if it’s coming from the company or if it’s coming from the agency. And you never know where that pressure is coming from or where the unreasonableness lies.
In every other instance we’ve ever been contacted by another agency from another country or even here, we say we are always willing to talk, but we’ve got to go direct to the client. We are willing to sign whatever you want us to sign that says we won’t steal the business from you. But you got to have that direct line to the client to provide situations like that.
The next one is about billing practices. At one point in my life I was on a team that while you were traveling for one client you were encouraged to do work for other clients and bill the same hour to two different accounts. This is the practice that I think a lot of agencies do called value billing. And I always thought, yeah, that’s valuable to the agency, but is it really valuable to the client? And on the flip side of this, I once had a client of my own tell me that I was acting unethically because I always bill for travel time. I’m always transparent about that and I bill it into every project that requires it.
She said, “We don’t pay people while they’re sleeping on a plane.” And I actually had to argue that I can’t sleep on planes and I spend that travel time working on that account. What I wanted to say was, I’m sure when you’re sleeping on a plane, you’re getting paid for it because you get a regular paycheck from a company. And I don’t, that’s what you want to say. But you have to say the other thing. So that’s story number two.
What is another example?
The third example is something that happened very recently, which is, what accounts do you not take? And this was a new business inquiry that came in through someone that I have a lot of respect for and worked with in the past. It was a genetic database, was looking to cure a major disease. And I turned it down because the idea of genetic databases freaked me out personally. And having done things with data and security and things in the past, you know that even companies that have the best intentions of saying this data is secure, it will never go anywhere or be shared with anyone.
But stuff happens all the time for that data that you just can’t predict and you can’t predict how that stuff will be used down the road by someone who might not have the best intentions and get their hands on it. So that was something that we passed on. You know, just because it wasn’t something that I was comfortable working on, even though the reasons all seemed right.
How do you work through that? You know, what’s the first question you ask?
The first question you ask is do I want to spend my life working on this? This is a portion of my life. It’s not just what’s going to pay the bills. This is my time. And you don’t get that back. And can I feel good about this? Is it doing good in the world or maybe it gives me an opportunity to be creative. If it touches on something that you just find that you’re squeamish about just in theory or on principle, you can take a pass on that. And say, I support what you’re doing. It’s a noble cause. It’s just not something that’s right for me at this time.
Putting you on the spot here. Do you believe that every brand has a right to PR counsel?
They think they do. And it’s up to PR people to make that call for them.
Any other stories?
The next story I have is PR being the ethical voice for journalists, which is something you don’t always get to see. There were a few times where this has happened in my life where I was like, Geez, as the PR person, this is unusual. I never thought to find myself giving this advice to the journalist, but it’s happened. One time is when we had a client that had to lay off a portion of its staff.
A news outlet had a source within that company who wasn’t very happy at that time and was naming people who had been let go, who weren’t necessarily even in the C-Suite and their names were making it into the article. People were literally coming out of their offices in tears because they were being named in the story. And I had to tell the reporter that he was going out of his way to do unnecessary harm to their reputations. I had to say, “You’re not balancing the public’s need for information against the potential harm or discomfort that you’re causing.”
I reminded him of the SPJ’s Code of ethics. And he told me, this is almost a direct quote, I’m not accustomed to receiving a lecture on ethics from PR People. But he ultimately changed the story and took their names out of it. And him saying that was one of the greatest things any reporter has ever said to me.
I was very proud of that.
One of the reasons I asked to interview you is because I saw you have some concerns over impressions – both the way the industry counts impressions or the way vendors report impressions. Will you shed some more light on this topic?
Yes. I’m calling it PR’s addiction to fake news. Reporting press release “pickup” is an ongoing ethical problem that we have. PR Web for instance, calls it pickup. Business Wire calls it syndication, PR News Wire calls it distribution. And what that means is the services have content partnerships where press releases run verbatim on backdoor areas of major news sites like Market Watch, but that the public will never see them because these never appear on any kind of homepage or any navigable place that anyone can click to. So what happens is they start pumping up all these numbers and using the unique visitor numbers from those sites and calling it potential audience when we all know that potential audience is actually zero because these articles are never displayed to anybody. And they’re often purged after a month or two.
I’ve been on the brunt of this where one time a global client came to us and said, but when our PR agencies and other countries send a press release, each of them gets at least a hundred results within a day. Why aren’t you getting us a hundred results in a 24-hour period?
I had to carefully explain the difference between automatically generated garbage partner content and real articles and they thought I was lying to them. It’s extra hard when agencies transition and you have to explain from the outset that you take a more conservative approach to measurement and outlet reporting and how the reporting grid and the numbers given by their outgoing agency were inflated without appearing like you’re speaking ill of the outgoing team.
Ultimately, this practice cheapens the perception of earned media and it makes it look like someone that you can get automatically by the truckload at the push of a button and it makes what we do look commoditized.
I think it encourages in-housing because it makes it look like anyone with a News Wire account think that they can generate real coverage. And I’ve even seen companies use those fake results from real news outlets mastheads on their landing pages for products, which gives the appearances that those products had been covered there when they hadn’t.
This lie just keeps on going down the line. Now, a former Business Wire rep who we both know commented on my post about this and she said, “When they tried to end that practice, they were met with a lot of resistance from PR professionals.” And it’s like, wire services got PR pros hooked on a fake drug. And when they tried to do the right thing and stop selling it, they were getting punished.
I agree with you, I have pointed out, I used to see pickups on the National Hispanic Corporate Council and I’m like, great organization, but they do not care about object oriented relational databases. You know it’s fake. And I think the other thing you didn’t even touch on is the reporting. There’s UVMs where even if it could be seen, you’re not going to be seen on Yahoo for one month. You’re going to be on it for 10 minutes.
What’s your solution to the problem and what do you think we need to start doing?
Like diversity and inclusion, the only way this will be changed is through client pressure. The only way that this can change, I think, is clients have to be smart enough to see that those two million impressions from Yahoo Finance are not real and raise a red flag. They have to make the PR pros knock this off. So, PR pros will stop wanting this from wire services. So wire services can finally kill that practice.
I spoke with a wire service rep about this too, and she said that they’d love to stop it, but if they did, their competitors will continue selling the lie and they’d be put out of business because it’s an attractive lie. And I wish PR professionals would stop hanging their hat on this kind of smoke and mirrors so we can give newswires a leg to stand on and take another crack at ending it.
I think it’s a great call to action and I definitely join you in recommending against anybody using those metrics because I think they are fake metrics. Are there any other key ethical challenges you’re seeing for today or tomorrow?
Yes, and this involves news media as well and it’s given me a lot of discomfort – it’s the fact that consumer media outlets these days are all shilling for Amazon at this point. Every site doesn’t want to back link to your client’s website. They want to give you the Amazon link so that they can get a kickback through their affiliate program. And part of me says, well, we can’t really blame them because brands aren’t spending their ad dollars with more than a few of these consumer news sites. Brands are pumping all their ad money to Google and Facebook, which is making life hard to exist.
Meanwhile, Amazon hoards all that inbound sales and conversion data, and when the client can no longer track their inbound traffic and conversions on their own site, the data supporting PRs impact on sales gets cut out of the picture and PR is going to get a lot harder to quantify and tie back to sales than ever.
For example, let’s say your client’s like Black and Decker and you’ve got a new drill. Black and Decker might be trying to sell that through their own site through e-commerce, but they probably also have it listed on Amazon as one of their retail partners. Now, let’s say it’s reviewed by a major blogger. They will not link back to the Black and Decker site where that product is, or even backlink to Black and Decker.
They will insist on using the Amazon storefront link to that product in our article. And what happens is the client now, Black and Decker, can’t track any of that stuff. And yeah, their Amazon sales are doing well, but they don’t know what that’s from. It could be from their ad campaign, it can be from their PR agency. And Amazon, you know, probably doesn’t share this stuff with anybody. It’s their data, you know, so as PR is like, well, web, inbound traffic and conversions is a holy grail, right?
Unless if you’re doing like a business feature, sure, they’ll link back to the business website. But if you’re doing a consumer product feature on a specific item, they all want to use Amazon at this point. So that’s making life really difficult and it’s only going to get worse in terms of measurement.
Another area that’s of interest to me is kind of what I call the ethics of surprise and delight. I see a lot of brands getting in trouble with surprise and delight, in terms of they’re not disclosing who is behind it. Do you have any thoughts in terms of how you should be ethically disclosing when you’re doing a creative activation?
You need complete disclosure. For instance, there’s an organic cafe chain where we brought influencers into the picture to create new menu items that were based on their diverse backgrounds and the foods that they ate growing up. We named these menu items after the influencers’ social media handles. A portion of proceeds go back to the wellness nonprofit that each influencer got to choose. So that’s an example of complete disclosure.
When you’re thinking about doing activations and influencer engagement, what are your recommended guidelines in terms of disclosure?
I think it’s always up to the media outlet to make sure that disclosure happens. They always need to ask, who are you with? If it’s not obvious, right? And if they don’t, I think it’s their fault because they have a responsibility to report this stuff. When you’re pitching in a client, you know, let’s say it’s a safety expert for a particular product, and you’re saying, she will come in using this new safety ladder you’re not hiding the brand. You’re saying that she will be bringing a Stanley safety ladder onto the show.
I think any reporter who’s ever had more than a month’s worth of experience knows that you’re working for Stanley at that point. And if they let you onto the program, they don’t disclose and they say, well, you never told us you were working for Stanley. I really think it’s their responsibility to have asked that up front. It’s the same thing with influencers too. You can’t always tell an influencer what to do unless you’re paying them and there’s some kind of a contractual agreement. I think the influencers have a responsibility to their audience to disclose what is paid and what’s not, at the risk of losing the trust of their audience.
Thinking back over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I grew up in a scouting family as a second-generation eagle scout. And scouting grinds ethics into you from the start. It’s part of who I am and it’s part of the practice that I’ve built over the last 12 years. And going back to when I drew the logo back in 2007, that compass point is a callback to scouting.
The agency’s mission is to bring out the best in brands by helping them grow, communicate, and do the right thing. Now, doing the right thing can mean a lot of different things and it can mean maybe the most creative thing or it could mean the bravest thing or the most efficient thing or the smartest thing or the most ethical thing. And sometimes it means stepping back and looking at a company’s actions through the lens of a scout leader and asking, is this right? It wasn’t a specific lesson that I was given, but more something that was ground into my bones going back to Cub Scouting, when you’re like barely eight years old all the way through the whole Scouting program through high school.
The first part of the Scout law is a scout is trustworthy, which is the underpinning of most ethical foundations.
The Scouting model treats ethics in a very black and white way. We all know a lot of this stuff is very gray. It helps when you’re in the middle of that grayness and you’re kind muddling on which way to go, to take that step back and go, okay, thinking back, I’m back in the troop. What would the patrol do in this situation? And you can’t go wrong if you do that.
Is there anything else you wanted to highlight I haven’t asked you about?
I hope through this and through other work that we do, we get the word out about the press release metrics and we can make a change or at least call attention to this. I think it undermines some of the best value of the profession when it happens.
There’s nothing wrong with press releases, and I’ll go on the record with saying that they can be great and they add a lot of value in terms of SEO. Like there’s a dress for every occasion, there’s certainly occasion for them. I’m not knocking press releases as a tool or a tactic, I would just like to see this aspect of them change for the better.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:
- This Week in PR Ethics (10/22/20): Disinformation, Misinformation and Deepfakes - October 22, 2020
- What Ethics Lessons Can You Learn from 50 Cases of Beer, Football and Food? – Jay Baer - October 19, 2020
- This Week in PR Ethics (10/15/20): Making tough choices and avoiding bad ideas - October 15, 2020