Putting lipstick on a pig

The phrase putting lipstick on a pig is probably unfair to pigs. For a generation brought up on Miss Piggy it might even be incomprehensible. But it does sum up a public relations innovation which resulted in a man who had been convicted of sexual assault getting positive coverage in the US magazines Forbes, HuffPost and National Review.

The scam, revealed by the New York Times (21 July 2019) described how Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender and friend of both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, began a PR campaign to brush up his image.

The NYT said: “The effort led to the publication of articles describing him as a selfless and forward-thinking philanthropist with an interest in science on websites like Forbes, National Review and HuffPost.”

“The Forbes.com article, posted in 2013, praised him as ‘one of the largest backers of cutting-edge science around the world’ while making no mention of his criminal past. The National Review piece, from the same year, called him ‘a smart businessman’ with a ‘passion for cutting-edge science.’ The HuffPost article, from 2017, credited Mr. Epstein for ‘taking action to help a number of scientists thrive during the ‘Trump Era’,’ a time of ‘anti-science policies and budget cuts.’”

Ted Kitterman, in an article in Ragans PR Daily (July 25, 2019) asked “who was writing these pieces? Why didn’t gatekeepers at these publications catch the dissembling?” His explanation: “a complex web behind many digital publications in today’s media landscape, as well as the threat posed to the PR profession by unscrupulous practices.”

What happened was that a PR company wrote the articles and that the writer who was credited got a lump sum for using his byline. In the Forbes case it was attributed to Drew Hendricks a contributing writer. His fee by the way was $US600 although the PR company would no doubt have charged the client much more.

The contributing writer designation is often used for former staff members who are effectively freelance. The Financial Times and other papers have a number of such contributors who had long-established careers with their former employers. But it is unimaginable that any of them would take a fee for attaching a byline to a PR puff piece. Instead they would have revealed the background and snared a good story.

Hendricks defence was that “All I knew was, this is a guy doing a science thing. If I had known otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.” Well that was OK then. And every PR person is aware of journalists putting together stories based on material they have provided reproducing some of the material word for word. The daily front page leads in The Australian are often a political version of exactly that. Whether the sources also suggest the headlines is unknown although they probably know there is no need.

Kitterman said: “..one cannot escape the fact that Epstein accomplished his facelift with the help of PR firms who were willing to write his pieces, to pay authors to add their bylines and to promote a man who shouldn’t have been let in the door. “

The hollowing out of newsrooms is a factor in more puff pieces being published and contributions from think tanks, business leaders, academics and others are welcomed as cheap – or free copy – to fill out op ed pages. In this case there is normally no subterfuge – particularly in terms of the transparency of the views they are advocating. One look at a byline and the associated institutional name is usually enough in many cases to predict the content and avoid the need to read the piece.

Advertorials are also more common and most days The Age, for instance, has one or two pages of ‘advertising features’ in which the top half includes editorial copy and the bottom half is a conventional advertisement. Whether readers recognise the reality of what they are looking at is unknown. How much value they provide the advertisers is not known although many of them seem to be on offs which might be explained by the fact that the appearance of significant editorial coverage may be enough to make the investment worthwhile – just as a PR placement in the news pages can generate revenue or interest for the client who wanted it placed.

Epstein is back in jail. The offending pieces have been taken down. Hendricks journalistic career – all for $600 – could well be over and the likelihood of him even getting a good PR gig are probably slim.

But given the state of some of the media it’s not a given that something similar won’t be happening in a publication you read some time soon.

On the other hand if you want to see how newspapers can do something different see this.