Watergate 40 Years Later: Shoe Leather vs. Google

It’s vitally important that public relations specialists know how journalists work. PR professionals can’t corral solid earned media results for clients without understanding how editors and reporters go about their daily jobs. 

There’s no better inside look at the reporting craft — a great case study for communications students — than the investigative saga of the Watergate scandal. This June marks 40 years since the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters, the beginning of a gripping drama that ended in a disgraced Richard Nixon resigning as president.

Watergate news coverage, led by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, is a shoe leather story. The reporting duo painstakingly assembled their facts through Interviews with reluctant subjects and stealth meetings with confidential sources. Details of undisclosed Nixon reelection campaign financing and expenses — including discovery of a secret fund — emerged only through tedious sifting of the data.

Watergate took place in that ancient time before PCs, the Internet and Google existed. Yale University journalism students recently were asked, “How would the story unfold in the Digital Age?"

Surprising answers from the students point to a generation gap in the understanding about traditional reporting techniques and the use and role of the Internet’s search capability. Student comments left Woodward quite perplexed when he and Bernstein met with the Yale students. 

The Yale tale is best told in the just-released book "Before 'Watergate' Could be Googled" by L. Gordon Crovitz. He writes about a talk Woodward and Bernstein gave at the annual meeting of ASNE, the American Society of News Editors. 

“Mr. Woodward said he was shocked by how otherwise savvy students thought technology would have changed everything,” Crovitz said in a Wall Street Journal article. Continuing to quote Woodward: "I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm," he said, "because the students wrote that, 'Oh, you would just use the Internet’ and the details of the scandal would be there. The students imagined, as Mr. Woodward put it, 'that somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events.'"

Online Activism Comes of Age

In a display of digital power, millions of Internet users weighed in against federal legislation that opponents claim will limit Internet freedom.Public affairs managers would drool if they could sign up 4.5 million people on a petition and convince a score of U.S. senators to support their cause in a single day. That's what Google did as part of a web-wide blackout this week to protest federal legislation intended to protect the intellectual property rights of motion picture producers, but which critics see as an assault on Internet freedom.

There were also 2.4 million tweets protesting the Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) and Protect IP (PIPA) legislation. More than 162 million people visited the totally blacked out Wikipedia English-language pages, with 8 million of those using its search tool to find out how to contact their congressional representatives.

As a result, the preliminary vote on PIPA has been postponed as Senate sponsors say they needed to go back to the drawing board. House Speaker John Boehner slowed down committee consideration of SOPA, citing a "lack of consensus."

Not a bad day's work for a form of media many public affairs professionals and lobbyists ignore or disdain.

The New York Times called this effusion of online activism "a political coming-of-age" for digital media.

Chris Dodd — a former U.S. senator, now head of the Motion Pictures Association of America and a chief proponent of both SOPA and PIPA — called it an "abuse of power" by Google, Reddit, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Mozilla, BoingBoing and others. In his statement, Dodd said, "It's a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways of information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users…to further their corporate interests." So how is this different than movie theaters airing commercials about the pitfalls of piracy?

Rupert Murdoch, who owns a vast traditional media empire, accused the "blogosphere" of "terrorizing many senators and congressmen who previously committed to support SOPA and PIPA." The pressure was real, all right. But how is it really any different from tried-and-true efforts to line up editorial support for an issue or encourage supporters to write letters to the editor or call into a radio talk show? Or, for that matter, having a TV network dedicated to one political viewpoint?

Integrity is Imperative, Not Optional

Facebook is red-faced about its failed attempt to use a PR firm to plant stories critical of Google's privacy policies. It should be. The PR firm that took the work from Facebook should be more than embarrassed.

While most finger-pointing is directed at Facebook for violating its own rules of transparency, a lot of blame should be heaped on Burson-Marsteller for agreeing to slink around on Facebook's behalf.

Burson-Marsteller is an excellent PR agency, but apparently the account manager who accepted this assignment forgot the Public Relations Society of America credo that says, "I pledge to conduct myself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public."

Facebook said it hired Burson-Marsteller to "focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst." A spokesman for Burson-Marsteller said it approached Christopher Soghoian, an Indiana University graduate student who blogs about online privacy and security issues, asking him to write about how Google's Social Circle collects and uses data about its users.

"The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day – without their permission," one of the Burson-Marsteller emails said.

Burson-Marsteller didn't disclose the name of its client and Soghoian declined the suggestion. Instead, he blew the whistle, which led Facebook to admit it should have been upfront about what it was doing, as it requires of users on its own social media site.

However, the situation never should have gotten that far. Burson-Marsteller knows the rules and should have pushed back on Facebook, even if it meant not getting the gig. Better to be right than on the wrong side of a publicity backfire.

Facebook faces its own critics on privacy. Burson-Marsteller would have served as better strategic counselors by advising Facebook to deal with its own privacy issues, so it could talk about its improvements, not Google's alleged shortcomings.

In a statement, Burson-Marsteller admitted it erred by accepting the work. "Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of this principle."

Our colleague, Jim Hoggan of Hoggan & Associates in Vancouver, B.C., is writing a new book tentatively titled "Duped" that explores how the PR industry has gotten off track, contributing to deeper public skepticism. Hoggan, whose first book is titled, "Do the Right Thing," believes PR professionals need to rediscover their compass and perform the service our profession was created to deliver – giving sound advice to sustain and build reputations over the long term.

Great effort goes into PR campaigns to engage customers, stakeholders and employees. But genuine engagement is undermined when PR professionals aid and abet their clients in dissembling, deflecting criticism and dissing critics or competitors.

As Hoggan says, doing the right thing isn't always easy, but in the long run clients and the public are better served.

[Hoggan & Associates is a member of Pinnacle Worldwide, a network of independently owned and operated public relations agencies in key markets around the world. CFM Strategic Communications President Gary Conkling is president-elect of Pinnacle Worldwide.]