Have you been following all the broo-ha-ha about the Governments Strategic Communications Unit (SCU)? Have you been as baffled – and annoyed – as I’ve been at the level of explanation, hand-wringing and buck passing that’s been going on?
Fear not – you are not alone. I just had to write this blog to put my thoughts on paper and share my complete frustration at the mis-management of the Project Ireland 2040 launch by the Strategic Communications Unit, the media and the Taoiseach. Yes – they’re all in the firing line!
The Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) was formed to disseminate information to us, the citizens. According to Mícheál Lehane, political correspondent of RTE “the Taoiseach said it is part of the Governments objective to improve citizens’ understanding of what it is doing on their behalf”. This is admirable, laudable and eminently sensible in my humble opinion. Governments across Europe have been losing the power to engage their electorate. This is a threat to the very foundations of our democracy. I applaud the idea that a central unit would be tasked with telling us, the people, what the grand vision of government is for Ireland, and how they propose to realise that vision. So, I’m confessing at the outset, I’m a big fan of this idea.
The first opportunity the Government had to put the SCU to the test, was the recent launch of Project Ireland 2040. The plan is a vision for Ireland, so it qualifies as something the SCU should be handling. By all accounts, the launch in Sligo was deemed successful and well handled.
Then came the aftermath.
What is advertorial?
The SCU, it seems, retained a number of journalists to write advertorial pieces about Project Ireland 2040 for their newspapers. An advertorial is advertising space, bought by an entity, which is usually filled with an article, written by a journalist (not necessarily a staff member of the newspaper), who is given a clear brief by the public relations person about what to write, how to write it, how many words are needed, what visuals will be used inside this box etc. The text is then carefully reviewed by the PR person and approved, at which point the newspaper has sign off, can publish and invoice. Newspapers have rules about what can and cannot be contained in an advertorial – you cannot make claims that you cannot substantiate e.g. the biggest dog grooming parlour in Ireland…. but their rules are not cumbersome.
I have never, in 30 years in PR, known anyone – PR professional or journalist – to confuse advertorial with editorial. But that seems to be the nub of the problem in this case.
The SCU did not clearly understand what an advertorial was. They appear to have allowed the newspaper to sign off on the text – which is extraordinary. They are paying for it so common sense, value for money and taking responsibility for a spend, would demand that they should proof the copy before it goes to print. The newspapers had no issue with this and I wouldn’t expect them to either. It makes life easier for them.
Getting expert opinion.
The second element of the advertorial, is that people were interviewed by journalists for their comments and these comments were reported in the paid-for text. Some commentators objected to this and said that they had not been told that this was the purpose of the comment they were asked to give. I have no doubt that their comments would have been the same, whether for inclusion in an advertorial or editorial, but I completely understand their reservations. The comments in an advertorial might be interpreted as ‘endorsing’ the government’s plan, and this would affect the perceived independence of their comment. They might be seen as partisan. They should have been told.
Now this issue is one for the newspapers and the NUJ. Should journalists interview people for paid advertorial and not tell them that this is the purpose of the call? Surely that is a breach of journalistic ethics? – if not the letter of the law, then certainly the spirit. Journalists are seen as independent. When they seek your comment for inclusion in an article I think it is reasonable to expect that, if they are being paid to write the article, taking a particular position, for a named client, that they would tell the interviewees. I’d like to hear some comment from newspaper editors or journalists about this. It is not good practice.
Using the banner “in partnership”
The third element of this issue is the fact that the SCU wanted to use the banner “in partnership with Project Ireland 2040, an initiative of the Government of Ireland” to identify the content as advertising. The word ‘advertorial’ is seldom used nowadays because it suggests that, if it’s an ad, you can say ‘anything’ and it doesn’t have the same credibility as text coming from an independent newspaper journalist. More often, expressions like ‘commercial feature’ or ‘sponsored content’ are used. They don’t scream ‘advertisement’ as clearly. That’s fine. But does the text “in partnership” sound like sponsored content? Perhaps to people in the business – but I doubt if it was clear to most readers. The SCU, by simply adding ‘sponsored content’ to the headline, would have eliminated all of this media fuss that we have been going through for the past week.
Co-branding with newspapers
However, the media has another question to answer. If the newspaper co-brands itself in this headline, is this not telling the readers that they are endorsing the content? Has the newspaper now stepped over the line and blurred the difference between advertorial (which its journalists may write for advertisers) and editorial which it stands over? I cannot remember seeing this before – and I’m not at all sure that I like it. Respect for the public, I believe, demands that there should be clear lines between editorial and advertorial – and no co-sponsoring by the print media.
Finally, there is the role of the Taoiseach in all of this. He started so well – great intentions creating the unit, good delivery of the message and then… what happened? Suddenly, I’m listening to the Taoiseach saying things like “editors had editorial independence”. Really? Even they wouldn’t believe that. The instruction was that favourable copy should be written – the Government is hardly going to pay for unfavourable copy. That’s a long way from ‘editorial independence”.
The Taoiseach then defends himself by saying that Bertie Ahern/Fianna Fail did this as well. Honestly, this is the kind of thing that a three-year old says in their defence: “It’s not my fault, and even if it is, she did it too!!!!” Childish in the extreme and most annoying. Fianna Fail didn’t do this. They didn’t have the vision to create a Strategic Communications Unit. (I’m sure they would have, had they thought of it). The idea was good, the application was poor. The Taoiseach should have held his nerve and said that mistakes were made, but it was the first time the SCU had handled a government launch and they could only get better with time
No-one came out of this well. The SCU, the media and the Taoiseach all have questions to answer.
If you’re interested in reading/listening to even more on this topic:
You’ll find Micheal Lehane’s piece HERE
And the Irish Times Podcast of March 1st makes for great listening too!