Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Telegraph: misleading its readers again

It was hardly a surprise to read today that the Telegraph is again in trouble for blurring the distinction between its editorial and advertising departments.

This is only the latest in a series of instances in the last year which have exposed this trend. Of course commercial organisations and governments do try to exercise their influence over editorial content – it is though a scandal when a newspaper is so ready to acquiesce.

In this instance the Telegraph has been reprimanded by the British advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, for running a “misleading” advertorial for Michelin tyres.

It ruled that the advertorial could not appear again in its original form, saying that the Telegraph had failed to make it clear enough to readers that it was a paid-for advert as the overall layout and look of the advertorial was too similar to a standard Telegraph article.

Some might see this as an unintentional error. But the Telegraph itself gave the game away earlier this year when it referred to its “advertising partners” which implied an intimacy that would have been unacceptable in the newspaper industry only a few years ago.

The Telegraph is not alone in doing this and the corporate world is only too keen to exploit this news weakness in the media. I have traced the way in which the meaning of the word partner has been corrupted and distorted in an earlier blog.

In the case of the Telegraph, the relationship between the paper and the international bank HSBC so enraged its distinguished political commentator Peter Oborne that he resigned.

He argues that the “coverage of HSBC in Britain’s Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.”

The Telegraph’s response is revealing. “We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business. We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary.”

It is impossible to reconcile the two halves of the paragraph. By referring to those they have a commercial relationship with as “partners”, they are saying they are on the same side as them. To preserve the integrity of a media organisation from allegations of favouritism, every part of it should be firmly on the opposite of the table to those it deals with.

How indicative of the modern Telegraph it is that the words they use to defend their independence actually have the effect of reinforcing Oborne’s argument.

And anyone who is blase about the dangers of too close a link between commercial and journalistic coverage should look at the Telegraph’s regular Russian and Chinese sections. Mihir Bose noted in a tweet in April that “The Daily Telegraph’s Russian pull out has articles praising Stalin, including his pact with Hitler and press freedom under the Soviets.” He warns that “The Telegraph may say thè views are those of the supplements but would most readers understand that?”

The message is clear: you can no longer take it for granted that any article in the Telegraph is based on news values alone.



Southern Health’s integrity?

A review into Southern Health NHS Foundation has found that it failed to investigate more than 1,000 unexpected deaths and most other papers

The review, commissioned by NHS England and carried out by audit firm Mazars, was launched following the death of Connor Sparrowhawk at one of the trust’s treatment units in Oxford. He suffered an epileptic seizure and drowned in the bath – the coroner ruled the death had been preventable.

It is not for me to comment in this blog on the merits of the report but to look at the public relations techniques the Trust has used to respond – and to wonder whether their approach actually does their case more harm than good.

Southern Health’s statement – which has the smell of something drafted by the public relations department overseen by lawyers – is a classic response used by all bureaucracies facing similar challenges.

In some of my earlier blogs – under the bureaucratic evasion tag – I have traced the way these techniques are used. Here are two examples.

If you look at Southern Health’s statement (which is at the end of this blog) you will see that they follow the predictable path.

The strategy is always the same: stress the commitment to the highest standards; undermine the credibility of the report; say that improvements have already been implemented so the report is also out of date; and absolve individuals from responsibility by suggesting that the problem is to do with procedures.

Look at how the statement starts. In the first par, they say that “we want to avoid unnecessary anxiety amongst the people we support, their carers and families as their welfare is our priority.” It is a classic statement of the obvious that means nothing.

Then they move on to undermine the credibility of the report by saying that “there are serious concerns about the draft report’s interpretation of the evidence.”

This may or may not be true in this case – I would merely point out that this is also a hugely effective way of deflecting attention from the core comments of the report, and it would be more credible as a comment if it wasn’t used on almost every occasion.

The following paragraph is particularly interesting.

“We fully accept that our reporting processes following a patient death have not always been good enough. We have taken considerable measures to strengthen our investigation and learning from deaths including increased monitoring and scrutiny.”

Not another comment made by the Trust: “The outcome of the inquest evidenced that Connor’s death was preventable and, as a Trust, we have taken learning from this to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

This combines two public relations strategies. It accepts criticism of “reporting processes” – in other words accepting that procedures are flawed, but that individuals should have no responsibility.

And it says that “considerable measures” have been taken to improve matters – again a tried and tested response to make the report seem out of date.

Note too that the response is full of the vacuous “we.” It is not entirely clear who the “we” are.

There is no mention of any individual names in the response even though, according to at least one newspaper report, there was specific criticism of “a failure of leadership” under chief executive Katrina Perry.

Leadership is carried out by individuals not institutions yet the Trust’s response avoids any comment on personal responsibility or accountability.

The vacuous “we” is also a slight advance on the passive voice which is often used by management in this situation. Using the passive makes it easier to avoid linking an executive to an action – though using “we” with an active word can only be the most marginal of improvements.

I have no idea whether Southern Health’s defence is reasonable or credible. But I am certain that by using hack PR techniques and legalistic evasion makes their case sound less credible and plausible.


The Southern Health statement

Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust said: “We would not usually comment on a leaked draft report. However, we want to avoid unnecessary anxiety amongst the people we support, their carers and families as their welfare is our priority.

“There are serious concerns about the draft report’s interpretation of the evidence. We fully accept that our reporting processes following a patient death have not always been good enough. We have taken considerable measures to strengthen our investigation and learning from deaths including increased monitoring and scrutiny.

“The review has not assessed the quality of care provided by the Trust. Instead it looked at the way in which the Trust recorded and investigated deaths of people with whom we had one or more contacts in the preceding 12 months. In almost all cases referred to in the report, the Trust was not the main provider of care.

“We would stress the draft report contains no evidence of more deaths than expected in the last four years of people with mental health needs or learning disabilities for the size and age of the population we serve.

“When the final report is published by NHS England we will review the recommendations and make any further changes necessary to ensure the processes through which we report, investigate and learn from deaths are of the highest possible standard.

“If you are directly affected by this issue, call this NHS number: 0300 003 0025.”

Can Lord Coe regain our trust


Later today Lord Coe appears before British MPs who will question him about the athletics’ doping scandals. It is possibly his last chance to restore his reputation.

I urge everyone to read Matthew Syed’s superb article in today’s issue of the The Times.

He traces how he built his professional reputation when he took the reins of the London 2012 Olympic bid;  explains what scintillating company he is; and argues that his political machinations were forgiven because he was trusted as much as he was admired and was “motivated by the right things.”

Yet, as Syed documents, he has in the space of a few short months lost s reputation once described as bulletproof and has appeared less than short-footed. As Syed says, “he is sleepwalking towards calamity.”

Syed’s analaysis is correct. But I would go one stage further. For me it is the public relations strategy orginally designed to protect him and his campaign that has directly lead to the collapse of his repuation.

Coe made a terrible decision in August when he decided or was persuaded (we will never know) to adopt an aggressive stance and attack the Sunday Times and ARD for suggesting that athletics was riddled with drug taking.

It was a key element of a public relations driven strategy which I have tracked since August in my blogs

This sort of approach – that aggressive assertive public relations is the best way to deal with the media – used to work well, particularly in a crisis.

But the fact that it has failed so disastrously – and has indeed done profound damage to the man it is meant to protect – shows how out of date it is today.

Hopefully, Lord Coe will return to the approach that made him so trusted and respected – and jettison anyone who designed the third rate PR campaign that has brought him so low.

As Syed concludes: “Athletics and perhaps sport itself needs a Damascene moment. It is not just Coe’s fragile reputation nut the credibility of the sport that is on the line.”

Let us hope that Lord Coe listens to Syed.