Working in technology, as we do, it becomes very hard not to – at some point in your career – face a point of conflict. Generally this will be via new business, or an acquisition/new development of an existing client. When this occurs we naturally have to look at how to manage this conflict. This post isn’t about PR conflicts mind, indeed if you wanted to read current thinking on this I’d recommend you read Ethan’s views which were shared in PR Week (US) a few weeks back.

However, us Flacks are not alone, conflict is something that Hacks also have to deal with. Some take it very seriously, such as the BBC (a great example) or some other newspapers (WSJE etc) are unable to take any form of gift (paying own airfares and even in some cases buying the products they plan to review). However, in a world where the lines between journalism and blogging are blurring and as the opportunities for journalism diminish (papers are closing daily, staff writer numbers are plummeting), the issue of conflicted hacks, I feel, is only going to increase.

Why? Well many journalists do other things to top-up their income, or to raise their profile. They many run a blog, a website, they may deliver training programs, they may be “expert” speakers or panellists for other media groups (not always, but sometimes, paid) and, as they are often seen as experts in their fields, they write books about technology.

Now an example of this, which has received a fair amount of attention, is David Pogue and the New York Times. A blogger, come technical expert, come multi-media powerhouse that was signed up by the New York Times in 2000 to write a regular technology column, blog and conduct product reviews etc. He also keeps his own blog, and writes technical help manuals (which net him a lot of money), he also runs “geek cruises”. He’s a man with a lot of interests. One of these interests is Apple. He is seen, in the US, as a fan boy. Indeed he even recorded a song – I love my iPhone (it was meant to be a parody – which I get – but a lot of the US audience didn’t).

He has also often been called out for being soft on Apple (a sour apple if you like) when reviewing their products (skimming over, or not reporting on, problems or issues) and for being easy on Steve Jobs during interviews (although to be fair be – if you’re tough with Jobs he would walk out). This all came to a head two weeks ago when David reviewed Snow Leopard favourably whilst simultaneously completing a book on the same product. Is this not an ethical issue, a breach of trust, as it’s in David’s interest (financially) for the product to sell well?

Hopefully you can see where I’m coming from and why this has caused a mini-stir. Indeed the New York Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, came out with an article questioning David and the New York times in this matter.

As David has pointed out in his rebuttal (scroll to the end of the transcript ) he isn’t the only one – it’s an industry issue. Many publishers have journalists on their books that also command high fees for public appearances, write books or run events. David is careful to point out that he has been critical of Apple in the past, and has been as favourable about other competitor products – and blames the “religious” nature of the Apple vs. PC audience for making this an issue. It’s also interesting to see that he doesn’t consider himself a journalist despite working as a reporter for the New York Times. Something Gawker explore here.

Anyway, it’s an issue that I think will only increase over time – the media world has changed, journalists are becoming bloggers, bloggers are becoming journalists. Do the same disclosure rules need to apply? When is a conflict a step too far? Fifteen years ago I’m sure the NYT would have clamped this out straightaway, indeed any “outside” interests would likely be frowned upon or not allowed. However, outside interests help the publication today – it drives awareness, brings in publicity and potentially new readers.

A tricky dilemma that isn’t going to get any easier…

Justin Westcott

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