Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Trade Journalism vs. Public Relations: Where is the Line Drawn?

By: Lee Distad

So I was hard at work today when I received an email from a dealer I know with a fairly direct request. They wanted to know if I would write an expose on a now-ex vendor that gave them a bum steer; his experience was in direct contrast with the positive press his nemesis receives, and he wanted his voice to be heard.

As it happens, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this; sometimes an angry CE dealer copies me into an email thread with their vendor and uses it as leverage against them. Not that I condone extortion, but sometimes the threat of bad press gets the dealer what they want.

It’s worth noting that my correspondent pointed to the perception that all we do in the trade media is say nice things about manufacturers. I know that in corresponding with mainstream journalists, many think that we don’t dig up stories, that all we do is write gushing reviews and paraphrase press releases. Yet that’s just not true at all. For example: I was the first to break the story earlier this year about Best Buy recruiting finance professionals to rejuvenate their Venture Capital arm. The story ran in the American CE trade media, and when it broke in a major daily newspaper a week later, the journalists who wrote their own story gave me zero credit for having the scoop. If I still sound a little bitter about that, I guess I am.

I have to argue that doing CE trade journalism is totally different from being a publicist. It’s the job of the PR professionals to promote their manufacturer’s products. It’s the job of trade media to report news. A new Blu-ray player is news for us to report; it’s the publicist’s job to talk up the product.

Certainly, the two professions dialogue and work together, but it’s the media’s job to report on the facts, and that means if a product or a company is in trouble, we report on that too. A struggling company that shall remain nameless has recently been displeased with reports of its difficulties and recently started make angry, litigious noises about the press it receives. My response was that if they’re struggling, that’s news; if they’re doing well, that’s news too. If they want to read something positive, try turning a profit first.

Do personal opinions enter into trade journalism? Certainly. But if I think a product or service sucks, I’ll back it up with facts and experience, and tell readers why. If that opens up a dialogue with people in the industry who disagree, well that’s even better for everyone. The better informed our readers are, the better off we all are as an industry.

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