Advertising Age this week ran a story about a public relations offensive that Chevron has mounted in an effort to tell its side of the story in a legal battle the oil giant is having in Ecuador, where it faces a massive fine for damage it allegedly has done to the rain forest there. Actually, if you read the full story in yesterday's New York Times, the damage was reportedly done by Texaco, which Chevron bought a few years ago. (So much for due diligence when making purchases, but that's another story.)
Back to the Ad Age report... Chevron hired a retired CNN reporter to be the face on a video report it created to tell its story, in response to a "60 Minutes" piece that was being prepared for airing. Chevron was criticized for using a journalist in an attempt to make what some called a "phony" news report. Some are saying it's a danger to real journalism, further blurring lines between real news and "paid" news.
I viewed the video, which runs about 13 minutes. It has a "corporate video" feel to it. And, according to the YouTube stats, it's only been viewed 4,400 times so far -- hardly a match for the eyeballs and impact of "60 Minutes."
When I tried to find it via Google, the Chevron video didn't show up, but a number of anti-Chevron videos did appear.
Ad Age asked several execs at large p.r. agencies what they thought about Chevron's video. No one had a problem with it, as long as it makes clear that it is not a news report from a bonafide news organization. Using a retired journalist for the story is not a problem, in my opinion, as long as it is clear that he or she is not "on the job" as a working journalist. That means not doing anything to identify him with his past news organization.
This "new" p.r. tool is actually almost as old as the press release. Companies long ago put out what were called "mat" mailings to newspapers, with camera-ready stories about a company's product or position on an issue. In the 1960s, Mobil's p.r. chief Herbert Schmertz started buying a piece of the page opposite the editorial page in the New York Times, for what became the first OpEd ads. I remember, in my early days on the job, producing audio and video news releases and B-roll to encourage or enhance broadcast coverage of clients' stories. We tried to make the material in the broadcast style, so it would have the best chance of getting used. But we fully expected stations using it to use their own voiceover or edit or add their own material, just as a good newspaper or magazine editor would do with a news release.
The difference is that organizations and their p.r. people now have access to the intended audience directly, via the web. So was Chevron wrong to make a piece defending itself that's in the style that people are accustomed to getting it?
I'd say no, as long as it's clear the piece is from Chevron and not from a news organization or someone other than Chevron.
Just as with any product one buys, there's the caution caveat emptor. For news consumers, caveat emptor is just as relevant.