Avoiding #PricelessSurprises on social media

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The Brit Awards 2014 enjoyed a bit more than the usual hype when Tim Walker, a journalist at the Telegraph, shared an email from MasterCard’s PR agency House PR with the Press Gazette.

The email detailed certain conditions attached to the journalist’s Brit’s press pass, including a request for pre, during and post-event tweets using the hashtag #PricelessSurprises, with one even helpfully drafted up as an example.

The furore that followed was no doubt the kind of priceless surprise that MasterCard would have preferred to avoid. Amplifying the situation was the promotion of the hashtag on Twitter, which would no doubt have trended anyway - albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Difficult client conversations

While many practitioners may have laughed or sneered at the idea of a PR being so bold with journalists about what they wanted from the agreement, publicity in return for hospitality is nothing new and many may secretly (or even openly) have wished it was that simple a transaction. I’ve certainly been privy to difficult client conversations about the lack of coverage following a journalist’s invite to an expensive freebie.

Turning to the CIPR, I spoke to director of policy and communications Phil Morgan, who acknowledged that while House PR’s actions might not have broken the Institute’s Code of Conduct, the approach taken boils down to a question of integrity.

Phil said: “It is important for PR professionals to respect the codes of conduct of other professions, which didn’t happen in this case – the transaction falls foul of NUJ rules. Equally, as Telegraph writer Tim Walker noted himself, a lot of today’s journalists may not realise that inducements are unethical so there is work to do on both sides.”

The move could have backfired in a different way

The CIPR’s independent regulatory consultant Martin Horrox also points out that arguably the agency did nothing wrong - and that in fact agreeing to the accreditation criteria could still have seen House PR’s move backfire, but in a different way.

Martin said: “This was a clearly stated commercial transaction, like free holidays for travel writers. Journalists can always refuse to accept the condition and can make public the conditions of their accreditation (i.e. state a potential conflict of interest, just as travel writers acknowledge who provided the flights and hotels). They can also do exactly what Tim Walker has done - complain in public about the practice.

“If forcing the hashtag on journalists results in no publicity or bad publicity for the event, who is the loser?  Journalists who have been critical of an event or a company in the past have been refused accreditation to future events: that might be stupid on the part of the organisation, but I'm not convinced it is unethical.”

Whatever your view, it’s clear that this has not been a good week for House PR or MasterCard, but some sympathy has to go to the agency. The email was professionally written and Tim Walker was the only journalist to come forward to complain.

However, what’s done is done and if this opens the debate about expectation versus reward and helps others decide how to tread the social media tight rope, maybe that’s a good thing.

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