MONDAY 5 DEC 2016 10:43 AM


This year has seen an outcry against hate speech in the media. Has this fundamentally changed the relationship between companies and publications? Brittany Golob investigates

"You needed a microscope to find the Telegraph's coverage," wrote former chief political commentator for the Telegraph Peter Oborne on the paper's coverage of HSBC's implication in the corporate tax scandal in February 2015. His resignation prompted an exposé of the organisation's advertising and editorial practices. He said in a report in OpenDemocracy on 17 February 2015, that the Telegraph's editorial policies were clearly inluenced by its relationships with advertisers.

For media owners, the relationship between editorial and advertising is one that can be blurry at times. But, for companies that advertise in those media outlets, that divide can also be pronounced. Enda Joyce, head of the corporate & consumer practice at reputation management consultancy Hanover Communications, says comms and marketing teams may not be having conversations with each other about their organisation’s relationship with publishers. Consistency between communications and advertising, he says, is necessary.

If that breaks down, incidents like this February’s disagreement between the Financial Times and Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) can arise. The incident sparked questions about the management of relationships between companies and media owners. The FT’s Lucy Kellaway received a letter from chief marketing and communications officer at HPE, Henry Gomez, disputing what Kellaway wrote about the company’s CEO Meg Whitman. The letter said, “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.” Kellaway responded with a forceful letter of her own. But Gomez’s aggressive initial reaction was possibly an overreaction.

"To me, it was absolutely doing everything that you shouldn't do when you're managing the reputation of your organisation," says Laura O'Connell, managing partner at PR consultancy Instinctif Partners. "At its heart, public relations is all about building the right positive relationships with all of the stakeholders that are relevant to your organisation." That includes the press.

She also says that the relationship between a company and a journalist or publication should be fostered, not tainted, particularly with such an important business title as the Financial Times. HPE, may have been acting to avoid the risk of reputational damage to its chief executive, may have opened itself to other risks including the inability to have its voice heard in a major, international publication. Reputation, O’Connell says, is built incrementally and by taking risks, but typically, they’re considered risks that make sense for the business and don’t constitute a sudden reaction to coverage.

In the HSBC case, the fact that the bank was a major ad partner of the Telegraph meant the paper was uncritical of HSBC’s tax evasion – in direct contrast to most other nationals. This is a situation Oborne says is not unique to HSBC. He cites examples in which favouritism is shown toward advertisers when they appear in editorial copy or when a crisis hits, as it did for Tesco when it announced false earnings statements. In that instance, Oborne says there was no shortage of positive news stories about Tesco in the Telegraph’s archives, but the coverage of the scandal was scant.

For HPE, Gomez implied that, as an advertiser, the FT’s reporter should have been less critical of the company. “The reasons why a relationship might sour are pretty varied and people internally will have different perspectives on things,” Joyce says.
However, reaching the point at which a relationship might break down brings certain questions about corporate reputation, the power of brands and the relationship between communications and advertising within a company to light.

Harnessing the power of advertisers has been the objective of an organisation established in August called Stop Funding Hate. The campaign, led by two charity sector professionals, Rosey Ellum and Richard Wilson, has called on consumers to encourage companies to end their support of publications that use hate speech.
The campaign has thus far encouraged Lego to pull its advertising from the Daily Mail and Specsavers to stop advertising in the Daily Express. The campaign’s Facebook page has over 200,000 followers and it has a 60,000 plus following on Twitter. Ellum says the goal is not to stop people reading newspapers, to boycott companies or to change editorial policies. It, quite explicitly, seeks to end the use of hate speech in the media. The example Ellum gives is the word ‘cockroaches’ used in reference to refugees and migrants – also used during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

“We’re asking [companies] to make an ethical judgement and pull the ads. We don’t want [them] to make an editorial judgement,” Ellum says. With that mission, the campaign has targetted what it considers ethical organisations, like Lego, John Lewis and the Co-operative. Stop Funding Hate’s pressure on John Lewis was prompted, in part, by its social media followers, Ellum says.

In mid-September, Specsavers decided to pull its advertising with the Daily Express. The company had an advert appear on the bottom of the Express’ front page, below a story that customers said was bigoted. They then took to social media to encourage Specsavers to drop its advertising. Specsavers responded to the social media pressure and decided to stop advertising with the publication. On its own social feeds, the company’s statement read, “We do not have prior knowledge of editorial content that our ads appear alongside. This particular ad with the slogan ‘Just what you’ve been waiting to hear’ won’t be used again. It was never our intention for these words to be linked to any editorial. This was purely coincidental and we sincerely apologise for any upset caused.”

As Joyce points out, there seemed to be a lack of consistency between the communications and advertising strategies within Specsavers. “If you’re on the ad buying side of things, you will be buying space as part of that. You may not be able to dictate where you go and on what day, but if you’re spending reasonable sums of money, there is an ongoing conversation,” Joyce adds. Thus, if a crisis emerges such as the one between Specsavers and the Express, it may have been due to a “dislocation” between advertising and editorial, or between comms and marketing.

Stop Funding Hate’s first major win, though, was when Lego decided to stop advertising in the Daily Mail. This decision came in mid-November after its customers pleaded with the company in droves to take action. A statement from Lego says “The main purpose for us as a company is to develop amazing, creative Lego play experiences to children all over the world.

In order to do that successfully, we spend a lot of time listening to what children have to say. And when parents and grandparents take the time to let us know how they feel, we always listen just as carefully.”

It said its decision to stop advertising in the Daily Mail was at the behest of its most important stakeholder, its consumers. The power of consumers is precisely what Stop Funding Hate has relied on to make change within organisations. Ellum says, “The reason we target the media is because the media does shape people’s opinions and how they speak. We’re not asking people to not read the papers, but what we want consumers to do is contact their favourite brands and say, ‘I don’t think it’s right that you’re advertising in these publications. What are you going to do about it?’ That’s what’s worked so far. That’s what happened with Lego.”

The campaign has also been supported by former footballer and current sports broadcaster Gary Lineker, who has used his long-time relationship with Walkers crisps to encourage it to follow Lego’s suit.

O’Connell says the decision to stop advertising from a moral perspective is novel. Advertising exists to reach the audiences a company wants to reach. Ian Twinn, director of public affairs for the association representing British advertisers, the ISBA, says “The impact of an advertiser’s decision not to let its advertisements appear in a publication is of course up to the advertiser. However, there can be a cost in boycotting specific publications; like the loss of the reach to the readers of that publication.”

However, he adds, “If the editorial direction appears to be damaging to their image, it is probably right to stop advertising with the publication. It is a fine line that advertisers must tread.” Twinn cautions against buying advertising space or air time without monitoring editorial content.

Joyce says 52% of voters did support Britain’s departure from the EU, readers of sympathetic publications are likely to be consumers of the companies considering, or having considered a divorce from those publications. But the bigger challenge lies in strategy. “The slight difficulty is when you make judgements whether or not you take a moral stand on one position, how far does that actually go and are you prepared to do the same in other areas? It does create a precedent that might mean you have other decisions to make,” he says. “How strategic is this move? If they support the campaign, have they thought through the various consequences?”

Joyce says similar ethical differences in other channels may emerge and make companies vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy or inconsistencies in advertising and communications strategies. But as Twinn acknowledges, crises such as oil spills or airline crashes will also impact the advertising decisions of companies in those sectors. That requires a consistent and joined up advertising and public relations strategy within the business. “Easier said than done,” Joyce says.

One of the most notorious incidents impacting brand-publication relationships was the News of the World’s phone hacking scandal. Following the collapse of the once-prominent paper, News Corp has seen a decrease in advertising revenue. Immediately following the scandal, many advertisers, including Boots, Ford, Halifax, Npower, Specsavers and O2, decided to stop supporting the publication. Between 2014 to 2015, News Corp recorded a 12% decrease in ad revenue year-on-year. News Corp may still be struggling to recover. Ford said at the time its decision to cease advertising was largely due to the uncertainty of the investigations into the scandal.

And indeed the Sun is yet to recover its former esteem in Liverpool following its coverage of the 1989 Hillborough football disaster.

The risks involved in newspaper advertising may be at times only tenuously connected to corporate reputation, but they have implications on communications strategy and the internal structure of communications teams. Companies should have a clear media relations plan, O’Connell says, that extends to knowing which papers a target audience is likely to read. She says companies cannot minimise the risks involved in media relationships, but a coherent plan can help mitigate them. Joyce adds that consistency is of the utmost importance. “If you do decide to take a big decision like that, be absolutely clear about why you have taken that decision, you have thought through all of the consequences and that your position is consistent.” Ensuring internal conversations take place between advertising and communications can better safeguard against risk as well.

But, Oborne’s missive against the Telegraph also implies that publications may have to reinforce the moral divide between editorial and advertising, while still maintaining a conversation about strategy. Advertisers can use the power their wallet affords them to sway newspapers, but better practice within both advertising companies and publications themselves can make for a more objective, more free press.