Tips for Investigating Public Relations

Tips for Investigating Public Relations

1. Understanding Public Relations is at the heart of understanding what is going on in many issues — and uncovering the PR tactics at work behind the news is crucial for good joumalsm. The best book for learning to recognise PR manipulation is John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton's Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies Damn Lies and the Pubic Relations Industry, Common Courage Press, 1995.

2. A lot of public relations reporting is primarily intelligent and sceptical analysis of news and issues. Also PR staff are often happy to pass on gossip about their competitors in other PR companies. But because public relations is inherently secretive, inside sources are crucial for gathering big stories.

3. Never assume that companies are homogeneous, where everyone thinks alike and blindly supports everything the company does. Most organisations contain a mixture of people, including people concerned about wrongdoing and ethics who willing to act in the public interest

4. Sources may be senior or junior staff. Senior staff often treat lower paid workers as if they are invisible, or blind and stupid — but they may well know exactly what is going on and where the files are kept. The most successful way to find people is byword of mouth. Most of my inside sources covering many subjects are people about whom some friend of a friend told me. The key is to start looking.

5. More specific leads can come from someone you know or get to know elsewhere in the same profession (eg. in another PR company), government staff andjoumatists who have contact with the PR people or other people involved in the issues being worked on (eg. other companies, scientists and so on). They may well know about someone who recently left the very place you are interested in.

6. Remember that the particular dassified information you are seeking is usually located in several different places, not just the obvious ones, and that some of these maybe more accessible than others. Possibilities include a range of different sections within a company, outside consultants or institutions doing related contract work (eg research), other companies providing services (eg market research, publishing), other organisations allied to the main PR client and former employees. Imagine different types of interesting information and write a list of where each type might be located.

7. The first thing I try to get when studying an organisation is an internal phone directory or staff list, providing a window into the organisation and showing which staff work on what (even better is collecting a series of staff lists covering many years so that you can see staff come and go).

8. Retired senior politicians, government officials and businesspeople — who might not talk to us while in their jobs — are often very qui.kly forgotten by their old colleagues once they cease to be powerful and useful and are pleased to be interviewed about their experiences and insights. Following changes of government and 'restructuring' in companies and organisations is a good time to find such people.

9. Great care is needed when approaching potential sources. It is their careers at risk and the first priority must be protecting them. If it is possible that someone may become a source, it is essential that right from the start all contacts with them are private and untraceable. Otherwise, when you come to want to use information, the link to that person may already be too obvious.

10. We should assume people want to help. Whle refusals do not feel good, the key to getting information is being brave enough to ask. It is, of course, worth finding out about people before approaching them to check they will not be offended and the approach pointless.

11. A good start for understanding the PR landscape (such as which companies are working on what) is company websites, PR industry publications (in the US, the monthly O'Dwyer's PR Services Report and PR Week), obtaining copies of the company profiles provided to potential clients and — especially — looking at the work of specialist PR watchdogs (eg US publications PR Watch journal and associated website www.prwatch.ora, and the Netherlands-based news group Pandora, www.xs4alLnV eveVpandora and news archive www.ouden aarden.nlllistslpandoral).

12. The best starting point for any new investigation is reading through al the easily available public information. Generally, if you have not done the unsecret slog of getting to know a subject from the open sources, you are unable to notice the good stuff when you find it – and, more to the point, you don't know what to look for. Work out questions you'd like to answer and theories you'd like to test

13. When you're on to a story, all sorts of non-secret sources help to fit it out annual reports, all manner of official reports, parliamentary questions and records, news searches, official websites and industry and professional magazines. I regard these boring looking sources – which often almost no one reads or even knows exist– as researcher goldmines. These sources can be supplemented by interviewing speciaists (business people, government officials etc) on the record.

14. Wherever possible, we should start with original documents (not other people's articles or quotations torn them), as the secondary sources can miss interesting clues or even get things wrong. With articles or books, often the most valuable part is the footnotes at the end. They may point you to exactly the source you need.

15. A good way to save time is to ask around to find researchers, public interest groups or academics who know the topic you are investigating and who can recommend good sources to whist you can go directly. Two or three phone calls are often all it takes to locate someone who can help you on the way to the information you are seeking. They might also point to important angles and key questions.

16. Despite the convenience, don't assume that you only need to look on the Internet It is a wonderful tool (for instance, searching for basic information about individuals, companies and organisations) and provides unexpected dues, but it can also waste heaps of time in aimless search. Most information sources on many topics are not on the web. One reason is that the Internet usually only has very recent information (say, 2.3 years or less): older sources have never been placed on-line or have already been taken off again.

17. Web pages - if you find something useful on a website make sure you download a copy for later reference. It is common for good information to be quickly removed from websites. Conversely, don't rely on websites to include, for example, all media releases. It is common for companies to issue media releases on major incidents but never to load them onto their website.

18. Often spedalst libraries and the files of specialist organisations are more useful. Many companies, government departments, research institutes and public interest groups have their own libraries. A day reading old files in the national archives can likewise be productive. No matter what the institution is, librarians are the researcher's friends.

19. One excellent source of information is PR industry conference papers and even better attending the conferences. Often the most revealing comments are made in response to questions and you can get a better understanding of key individual's personalities. Above all access for interviews, without minders present, is much much easier inside a conference.

20. A key task is encouraging editors to recognise PR companies, strategies and activities as an interesting and important area of news reporting. There are still very few journalists who report on or investigate PR activities and there are almost none, outside PR industry publications, who specialise in it

Investigative Journalism Conference, Copenhagen, 26-29 April 2001

Nicky Hager, New Zealand - author behind the book "Secrets and lies, the anatomy of an anti-environmental PR-campaign." He has turned the spotlight on the industry, where more people work with the media, than in the media itself Nicky Hager would like PR to be a new area of regular reporting – just like sport, politics and finance. The hard part in doing so would be, that it often is old colleagues from the newsroom, which the journalist would be investigating.