We take a backseat to no one when it comes to spewing forth venom at the public relations industry. But we feel compelled to stand up and make this point: PR people doing research on what reporters have written and making a file on that topic is not a scandal. It is the same thing that reporters do, okay?
PR Watch today has a long story detailing what happened when Huffington Post Investigative Fund reporter Danielle Ivory decided, in 2010, to write a story about Syngenta, a huge chemical company that manufactures the herbicide atrazine. What happened, according to PR Watch (whose reporting is based on internal Syngenta documents released in connection with a lawsuit), was this: the evil chemical company had its PR firm create "a secret dossier on her," for the purpose of "assessing her motivations regarding her coverage of [a]trazine." The contents of this "secret dossier?" A list of Ivory's past work and places of employment, followed by some laughable right wing pop psychology conclusions like "[Ivory's] professional reputation and ego are tied to the effectiveness of the attack on the chemical."
Now. What does this all tell us? A few things.
1. Big corporations will pay PR firms many thousands of dollars to perform simple tasks that they could have done themselves, such as Googling "Danielle Ivory."
2. PR firms' most valuable talent is convincing big corporations that this bullshit is worth many thousands of dollars.
3. Though Syngenta may be evil and their PR firm may be full of shit, they did not do anything wrong to Danielle Ivory.
That last point is very important. It is not unfair for a PR firm to research publicly available information about a reporter, then put that information into a file, and draw conclusions from that information. We're not talking about private eyes and phone hacking and black ops. We're talking about normal research. You know who else does this exact thing? Journalists. Fair is fair, reporters. Calling it a "secret dossier" does make it sound much more ominous, but it doesn't change the fact that what we're talking about here is basically a file folder containing a printout of Google results.
Five years ago, New York PR man Drew Kerr got himself in trouble for keeping his own "dossier" containing snide remarks about various reporters. It contained notes on who he thought was incompetent, or reckless, or "a dork." In other words, it was full of the exact sort of things that reporters say to each other when discussing the various PR people they deal with.
The only reporters entitled to be outraged about these things are those who have never privately called a PR person an asshole. I haven't met those reporters yet.