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Facing the music. Did The Brits' PR campaign go too far?

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You may not have noticed, but they held the Brit Awards last night. You may not have noticed because the TV coverage attracted fewer viewers than any Brits this century. Whether this is a failure of broadcasting, marketing or pop music will remain a matter of conjecture - but the pre-show PR is certainly being flagged as a disaster. Why? Well, here's the story ...

House PR is the outfit tasked with the job of whipping up some enthusiasm for the musical ceremony. Unexpectedly, earlier this week they found themselves in the eye of an unwelcome storm, when it was revealed they had been offering press passes in return for promotional tweets. A guy called Tim Walker from that bastion of rock and roll The Telegraph, let it be known his accreditation appeared to be dependent on his willingness to send out positive messages on social networks. Which is when the media crowd erupted in a cacophony of outrage. How dare a PR agency attempt to influence the reporting of an event by offering rewards to writers? What an affront to press standards, what an assault on freedom of speech!

House PR, countered by saying they considered it their responsibility to “pursue all coverage opportunities”. And they're right, it is. I'm not sure what their detractors think a PR agency does. Perhaps they imagine PR involves baking tasty cakes and delivering them to old ladies. Or re-homing unwanted puppies. Who knows? But getting all flustered when it is discovered showbiz journalists are offered freebies (in this instance a press pass is essentially a free night out), smacks of naivety at best and hypocrisy at worst.

I'm not a journalist, but in my capacity as freelance writer I regularly cover a summer music festival in Oxfordshire. I receive free tickets and backstage passes as part of the deal. These documents are offered by a PR agency, without any pressure to 'big-up' the event. However, there is an unspoken expectation that I will at least provide the festival with some exposure and am unlikely to rant about its awfulness. Happily, it's always a tremendous, well-organised weekend so my ethics remain unstrained.  But my point is this: publicity has always depended on a symbiotic relationship between the media and organisations seeking a profile. I'm sure there are some journalists who have never accepted an invitation, service or product as part of a PR campaign, but they'd be few and far between.

It's so easy to become all puffed-up with indignation when this mutually convenient relationship passes across the public radar, but it's a ridiculous reaction. PR has operated in exactly this way for decades. I'd be amazed if the Brit Awards didn't capitalise on reporters' desire to attend, by asking a little something in return. Bribery? Maybe. Unusual? Not in the slightest. Indeed, as you read this, invites and packages are landing on the desks of journalists across the world in a bid to capture some limelight. What's more, most of those journalists are delighted to receive them.

Of course, it's important the arrangement doesn't become utterly corrupt. Paying a reporter cold hard cash to favour a particular brand would be unhealthy, if that reporter claims to be independent and writing freely. That's more the realm of the copywriter, and copywriters don't claim objectivity.  It's also unsavoury when a journalist covering serious matters - politics, finance, law - are swayed by gifts. Safe to say, nobody thinks The Brit Awards have any consequence for the wellbeing of humankind, so why the hullabaloo?

Indeed, if the marketing and PR campaigns surrounding The Brits can be said to have failed in any way, it's in the low TV ratings and generally poor reviews for the show. The fact that journalists were invited in exchange for tweets is nothing more than PR business as usual.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant

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