Tech site The Verge has announced a new policy ending its use of unattributed PR ("on background") unless explicitly agreed to in advance. It also complains about the industry's public relations departments for their increasingly unethical efforts to influence coverage. EIC Nilay Patel:
We're doing this because big tech companies in particular have hired a dizzying array of communications staff who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with.
Patel lists a few of the things he's had to deal with recently as the site's EIC:
• More than one big company insists on holding product briefings "on background with no attribution" which means no one can properly report what company executives say about their own new products during marketing events.
• A big tech company PR person emailed us a link to the company's own website "on background."
• A food delivery company insisted on discussing the popularity of chicken wings on background.
• Multiple big tech companies insist on having PR staffers quoted as "sources familiar with the situation" even though they are paid spokespeople for the most powerful companies in the world.
• A large recruiting company claimed it was an unethical double standard for us to attribute a statement to their spokesperson because we asked the company to respond to allegations from former employees who spoke to us anonymously.
• A big tech company insisted on describing the upgrade requirements for its new operating system on background. Details which it then repeatedly changed… on background.
• A major car company's head of communications told us an April Fools' joke was actually real on background. The joke was not real.
• A major platform's head of communications would only explain a content moderation decision attributed to "a source familiar," tried to refute our characterization of that decision after we published, and then threatened to cut our reporter off from further communication.
• A big tech company sent us a statement "on the record" with the caveat that it could not be attributed to a specific individual.
• A major delivery company spokesperson, asked when the company would be profitable, insisted that the following statement only be paraphrased on background: "We're investing in the enormous opportunity to enable omnichannel commerce for local businesses."
• A major video game company gave a briefing "on background." After we used that information in our story, attributing it to the company generally, a PR person tried to renegotiate what "on background" meant after the fact to avoid any attribution whatsoever, even going so far as to imply to our reporter that her editor had agreed to change specific sentences. (The editor had agreed to nothing of the sort.)
My favorite trick is when smalltimers send stuff "EMBARGOED" knowing that journalists are under no obligation to honor this unilateral declaration, in the hopes we'll get mad about the presumptive arrogance and run it to spite them.