'Post' event blunder a lesson in planning for other outlets

WASHINGTON: It's no secret that most media outlets are looking for additional revenue streams to make up for some of their declining print advertising, circulation, and classified bases. A natural place for them to look is in expanding their events.

WASHINGTON: It's no secret that most media outlets are looking for additional revenue streams to make up for some of their declining print advertising, circulation, and classified bases. A natural place for them to look is in expanding their events.

But they're likely to be careful in planning and marketing their own events from now on, in light of The Washington Post's public scourging after planning “salons” at the home of publisher Katharine Weymouth. According to a flier advertising the events that was disclosed by Politico, sponsors willing to pay a hefty fee of $25,000 per event or more would get to meet government, advocacy, and industry decision-makers, as well as the Post's reporters and editors.

Weymouth apologized for the fiasco on July 5, and executive editor Marcus Brauchli renounced it repeatedly, saying bluntly that “you cannot buy access to a Post journalist.” Weymouth added that "the flier was not approved by me or newsroom editors and did not accurately reflect what we had in mind."

A Post spokeswoman referred requests for comment to Weymouth's June 5 apology.

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, says that outlets can conduct events that do not “undermine their core relationship with the core audience.” The Post could have done so, if it had not promised to keep conversations at the salons off the record or charged exorbitant prices for access. She added that a high-ranking newsroom official would have likely expressed extreme discontent with the tone of the flier.

“It's not that the idea was absolutely terrible, but in the process of executing this, the right voices were not in the room, and the newspaper created something that was intolerable to its core mission,” she says. “If they had a better process, they probably could've come up with a product that would've withstood scrutiny.”

Media outlets will take the lesson the Post learned the hard way seriously in planning future events, adds Don Goldberg, partner at Qorvis.

“Clearly you have to troubleshoot this with people who understand the implications moving forward,” he says, adding that outlets “need to find ways to monetize their assets, and they're assets are essentially their reporters and editors.”

A wide range of media outlets (including PRWeek) host events or conferences, such as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Atlantic Media, the publisher of The Atlantic. That magazine's chairman, David Bradley, said in a letter published this week that he's hosted 2,000 people at salon-type events in recent years but maintained that his magazine always controlled the content and the guest lists.

Goldberg added that an on-the-record Post event or conference inviting a wide confluence of individuals to hear the expertise of reporters and editors, instead of one for the purpose of influencing them, would have avoided the controversy.

“The way that they framed this, and unfortunately they didn't do it well, they've created a backlash that they don't do these sorts of events. Also the amount of money they were charging was so much that only a well-heeled lobbyist could afford to attend,” he says. “Again, if you create it in a way where it looks like it's available to a lot of different people and in the public interest, than it's a different issue.”

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