My monthly Media Uncovered column published in Bold Magazine, August 2013

The PR Press Nexus

By Habib Battah

“Can you kindly confirm that you are happy for us to review and make any necessary changes to the CEO quotes before publishing?”

So read an email from a public relations executive representing one of Lebanon’s telecom operators in response to my request for an interview.

Not only did she suggest it was possible to manipulate the content of our discussion, she also assumed it was a routine request only to be rubber stamped by my “kind confirmation.” But when I said no, the interview never materialized and the CEO was suddenly “out of the country.”

Of course PR firms operating in Lebanon call in “small favors” from journalists all the time. It’s an unwritten principle of quid-pro-quo: dinners, trips and cocktail parties in exchange for “positive” coverage.

I remember once being invited to a rooftop hotel bar for a press briefing with a managing director of a major American software company. Sitting next to me was the technology page editor at a prominent local newspaper. When asked if he had received the latest press release by one of the director’s PR handlers, the editor answered almost without thinking.

“I will publish it tomorrow,” he said nodding nonchalantly, although the briefing had not even begun.
How did he even know the press release contained news worth publishing? Sometimes I wonder how many journalists know a press release is just another word for propaganda – announcements written by and for a company that are carefully worded to make it look as wonderful as possible, regardless of the reality.

Recent email from a leading Beirut PR firm

 

And yet the Lebanese press is dominated by news releases and their live equivalent: the press conference. These events are peddled every day in our papers and TV screens as newsworthy events when they are completely orchestrated propaganda exercises by both companies and politicians. And it’s not just locals who engage in the practice. I remember once reading an article in a Lebanese daily that was a verbatim copy of a press release from the US Embassy in Beirut. Not surprisingly, the embassy was also paying the paper for a sponsored page at the time.

Even more worrying is the self-censorship politicians are encouraging by maintaining “friendly relationships” with Lebanese journalists, and increasingly, bloggers.

For example, when dealing with “a blogger who is 100 percent negative,” the current telecom minister recently told a magazine he would arrange a meeting with the individual “to tell him the whole reality of what we are facing.”

“We found they would leave the meeting completely transformed, blogging positively or at least neutrally,” Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui told Ragmag in an interview published earlier this year.

But in addition to meetings Sehnaoui has also been busy giving out prizes, such as iPads and iPhones, even an all-expense paid trip to Silicon Valley, awarded to his favorite blog post. The blogger, one of Lebanon’s most popular, would later publish extensively and informatively about the trip – detailing dozens of meetings with VIPs, some potentially interested in Lebanon. But absent were any thoughts about who was paying or what was the purpose or how exactly would these tech giants even do business in Lebanon.

Curiously Sehnaoui’s extensive Q&A with Ragmag didn’t make any mention of the minister’s shrewd patronage campaign, which he has successfully coordinated with tech companies like Samsung to arrange several promotional events and free giveaways.

Samsung is a frequent sponsor of telecom ministry events

 

In fact, the mammoth 2,500 word personality profile and photo shoot contains five full-page images of the minister in casual wear. But there’s very little on why Lebanon continues to rank among the countries with the world’s slowest, most expensive and most limited internet connections.

Instead of asking tough questions about why this is happening, the author turns the interview into a nine-point list of the minister’s glorious accolades: 1. He listens, 2. He responds, 3. He is “one of us,” 4. He is transparent…etc.

On this last point, one wonders why the Telecom Ministry’s failure to release any firm dates, cost figures or detailed progress reports on the rollout of new fiber infrastructure – which has been mysteriously delayed – did not figure anywhere in the piece.

Should we be surprised that the same author recently collaborated with the minister as a fellow judge in a media award show – which her magazine sponsored – or that she excitedly tweeted the interview from the minister’s own cell phone after the meeting? A few weeks later, a picture of her was tweeted at the minister’s birthday party, held at his palatial 19th-century mansion.

Journalism or PR? Recent profile of a minister in RagMag

 

Of course Sehnaoui is not unique. From The Grand Serail to the White House, the lure of access has always been a powerful tool of manipulation in the hands of politicians. It would be unrealistic to expect anything less of them. Those in power often seek to sustain themselves.

That’s where journalism can play a role in holding leadership accountable. Not by keeping things friendly or “positive,” but by asking very specific questions about the public’s problems. By digging deep for answers that won’t be found in the press release.

Unfortunately, investigative journalism has been sorely lacking in Lebanon. At the same time, new camera and social media technologies make it difficult for officials to shape the message. And citizens are increasingly unsatisfied with the secretive and authoritative decision-making of decades past.

This presents a great opportunity for a new generation of Lebanese journalists and bloggers. But they should know good reporting rarely makes the powerful happy. It is hard, underpaid and often thankless work.

Good journalism is about putting the public first and asking serious questions, even if that makes it hard to sustain friendships with those on top.

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Habib Battah
Habib Battah is an investigative journalist and founder of the news site beirutreport.com. Battah has covered Lebanon and the Middle East for over 15 years and teaches journalism and media studies at the American University of Beirut. He is a contributor to Monocle, The Guardian, BBC World, Al Jazeera and others, a former fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and two-time recipient of the Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award. Battah's investigative work was recently recognized for outstanding local reporting by the Columbia University Oakes Award for Environmental Reporting. Battah earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. in Near East Studies and Journalism from New York University.

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