WaPo: Blackmailing by Journalists is Seen as Frequent

In the Hutong
Spitting Mad
1428 hours

Edward Cody has done a genuine public service in his article in today’s Washington Post that calls attention to the problem of journalists (and I use the term with great license) in China who demand payment for their services – and their non-services.

The focus of the article is on a case where a Shenzhen reporter was blackmailing a local health clinic, threatening to write a damaging article if the clinic didn’t pay off. It alludes to the bigger problem – that Chinese journalists are used to supplementing their income with a stream of revenue from the subjects of their stories.

The Business of Black Journalism

For foreign businesses, especially those in the tech space, here is how the vicious cycle typically works:

1. You or your PR people want an article written about your new product, the Frodo SuperWidget 3000. You contact somewhere between 30 and 50 journalists, invite them to a press conference, hand them a bag with a press kit and an envelope for their taxi money. If you and your PR people are smart, there is just enough cash in the envelope to cover the reasonable cost of a taxi, maybe RMB 100. If, on the other hand, your PR people are either lazy, stupid, or incompetent, there will be several hundred RMB or more in the bag. That’s not taxi money, that’s a payoff.

2. The next week, one of the enterprising reporters from the press conference says he’ll do a cover story on the Frodo SuperWidget 3000, but he needs you to buy a full-page ad in each of the next 10 issues.

3. Some time later, the same reporter says he’d like to do a follow up story, and, because you don’t have anything new in the pipeline, you figure it would be good to do a follow-on. You’re concerned, of course – you can’t afford to cough up for more advertising. He says no problem, but since he’s going to be spending extra time on this, it would be helpful if you could cover his lost income at the paper. You come up with RMB 1,000, a veritable bargain, and the story comes out, and it’s superb. This continues for six months.

4. At the end of six months, the reporter calls you and says that his editor is furious that he’s been writing so much about the Frodo SuperWidget 3000 and nothing about the Gandalf XP88, a superior competing product. The editor is demanding an article comparing the two, and your machine is going to suffer. However, a modest payment of RMB 10,000 that the reporter can split with his editor will make the story go away. Hmm. A thousand bucks? Hell, you pay the agency more to write a single press release. Sure, that sounds fine.

5. A month or two later, another reporter from the same publication calls you and asks you to comment about a horrendously negative article both about your company and the “miserable” poor performance of the Frodo Superwidget 3000. In the course of the discussion, he suggests it might be possible to postpone the article, and in the meantime he sends you a copy. It’s nasty, but with just enough truth to keep him out of the courts. He calls your PR agency with an offer: RMB 15,000 and the article goes away. After much internal discussion, you figure it’s a bargain to avoid having to clean up afterward. You pay it.

Sauve qui peut

Now, you’re toast. By this point, word is getting around the industry that not only will you pay for positive stories, you’ll pay to keep negative stuff out of the news as well. Every bottom-feeder with a journalists name card that covers your industry is starting to call.

There’s only one way to avoid this:

Repeat after me:

“No matter what my PR people, my PR agency, or anyone else tells me, OUR COMPANY WILL NEVER PAY FOR COVERAGE, either directly or indirectly.”

Say it.

Live it.

Stick to it.

Or be prepared to spend ever-increasing sums of money buying off the jackals.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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