The rights and wrongs of gifts for journalists

Receiving gifts is a perk most journalists enjoy. But when does the giving of gifts become inappropriate, asks Steve Wrelton

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By  Steve Wrelton Published  April 30, 2006

The rights and wrongs of gifts for journalists|~|Barrage200.jpg|~|Barrage... ‘The root of the problem goes back to the old gift culture of the Middle East’|~|The custom of giving gifts between family and friends is well known in the Middle East and, as most journalists in the region will say, that generosity is regularly extended by companies wanting to show thanks and appreciation for attending a press conference or doing an interview with a visiting executive. While this practice of giving relatively low value gifts has been the accepted norm for many years, there are growing concerns that it is getting out of hand. Stories about brown envelopes stuffed with cash being given to journalists in exchange for prominent and extensive coverage are commonplace, although rarely proven. As reported on the front page, the decision by Philips to offer some journalists the chance to win an all expenses paid trip to the World Cup in Germany by giving “greater attention” to Philips news over the next two months, has re-ignited the debate on how far companies can and should go in their media relations. Sadri Barrage, chairman of the Middle East Public Relations Association and boss of Headline PR, says that such behaviour should be condemned. “I say it time and time again — this is a no-no,” he says, “It goes against our [MEPRA] code of conduct and any member caught doing such things will be immediately excluded. The root of the problem goes back to the old gift culture of the Middle East and some journalists have been used to receiving things in return. It started as a problem with the Arab media — they used to call it ‘appreciation of services’ if you went to cover an event. “Things have changed a lot in the last five years in the UAE, although outside of the UAE it can be a nightmare.” Barrage also raises the question of why it is that journalists might feel the need to accept gifts in the first place. “There are good people and there are bad people, just like anywhere in the world, but there is the question of whether journalists are being paid enough. Why should they feel the need to receive a mobile phone or a microwave oven? There can also be an attitude problem. I have seen journalists fighting over five dirham T-shirts before.” Hamad Malik, director of marketing and corporate communications for LG Electronics in the Middle East and Africa, says the region’s media and marketing industries have grown up alongside an older culture of open generosity. “In the West you have to be in an intimate relationship in order to give and receive gifts. If you go to someone’s house in the West you might take a bunch of flowers, but here the culture is to take something more than that. “It’s predominantly from that cultural perspective that brands, including ourselves, do give gifts — but we do not think that it is being given in order to influence editorial or produce certain outcomes. It is just a gesture to say, ‘thank you for coming’. You also get a lot of people who will take the gifts, but won’t give any coverage.” Forward-thinking brands, Malik says, also want to establish relationships with journalists who can give opinions on the usefulness, or otherwise, of their products. “In the IT media, if you give a product out, they can then come back to you and tell you what’s great and what’s crap. It’s a very good way of getting feedback.” However, there is a line over which companies should not cross. “If you create a direct link and say that if you do this, then you will be rewarded, that’s the problem, that’s the area that I would not step into,” he adds. “What needs to be done to regulate it is for publishers to put in place directives and procedures to say that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to accept anything that’s over, say, US$50.” Nick Leighton, managing director of NettResults Media Relations and Integrated Marketing, says that the gift culture in the Middle East is stronger than it is in Europe and that clients here often assume that gifts should automatically be given. “It is definitely more prevalent here, and also in Asia,” says Leighton. “I can give you examples of where a client has said to us ‘well, what shall we give to the press’ — meaning gifts — and we say ‘how about good news?’ “Often it is just naivety from the client and so we just say that it’s not necessary.” Leighton, like Malik, draws a distinction between the giving of free phones and baseball caps, to outright backhanders. “For example, if there’s a new mobile phone coming out, then they have to get them into the hands of the editors because they want people to use them and to get them to talk about them,” he says. “You can give journalists products because you want them to use them, but that is completely different from saying, ‘if we see you with this phone then we’ll send you on a holiday to the Bahamas. “It is important that the PRs are strong enough and stand up to clients, and that the people in marketing positions on the client side know what they are doing.” Mazen Hayek, managing director at PR firm MS&L, says that both clients and journalists are guilty. “It is a double-edged sword. “You have some clients going that route, which is wrong, and some journalists going that route, which is also wrong. There are journalists who say ‘what’s in it for me?’ not ‘what’s in it for the readers or viewers?’. “I had a friend who was assassinated in Beirut, a journalist. He had a joke. In the Arab world there is saying ‘let’s have a coffee’, which is practically let’s talk about it over coffee, so I can sell you my idea. So his usual response was ‘I don’t drink coffee’”. Hayek adds that clients, journalists and PR companies should come together to discuss issues of ethics for the benefit of all. “All of us have had this short-term approach to things. It is high time a collective body of good clients, good journalists, and good PR agencies sit together and say where are we heading in the next three years.” But for the time being it doesn’t seem as if the Middle East’s deeply rooted tradition of giving is going to go away. And perhaps it shouldn’t. As long as companies understand that a freebie doesn’t mean guaranteed coverage, and journalists are in the job for the right reason, the baseball caps and mobile phones can keep on coming. It is when the relationship becomes conditional that the problems arise. ||**||

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