How Google Controls the Media. No, Seriously.

 
 
By Steve Bryant  |  Posted 2006-12-13 Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

When announcing the pre-brief schedule for its new stock options plan, Google forbid reporters from talking to experts that had not been already selected by Google. Most reporters followed Google's instructions.

"On the call will be a few people from Google who are substantive experts on the topic. Also, we'll give you a list of names of independent (not working for and have no special relationship with us) outsiders, the latter of which you may contact on your own," read the instructions from Google, which came in an e-mail. "But you would not be able to discuss it outside your publication other than with those outsiders until the embargo lifts. You should also know that the outsiders were cold-called and we will provide you with the full list of people (we're not going to cherry pick them) we have spoken to about this under NDA (at least those who will allow us to share their name--only one has asked that we not) and we will release them from the NDA for the purpose of speaking to you."

The original list that Google provided consisted of Stanford professor Joseph Grundfest (a former SEC commissioner), Arthur Levitt of the Carlyle Group, James Glassman of the American Enterprise Group, Nell Minow of the Corporate Library, and Ted Buyniski of Aon.

Given that foreknowledge about Google's changing stock options could directly affect markets, Google's restriction during the embargo period is understandable. And oftentimes, companies will provide access to industry experts who are familiar with the company's products, and thus can give informed responses.

What's unfortunate, however, is that in this particular case, almost every single major publication used the sources that Google handpicked for them, and few strayed beyond the list. For example:

-- The San Francisco Chronicle only sourced Minow and Grundfest

-- The Los Angeles Times only sourced Buyniski

-- Bloomberg only sourced Glassman and Buyniski

-- Reuters only sourced Glassman and Grundfest

-- Forbes only sourced Buyniski

-- The New York Times only sourced Minow, Grundfest and Buyniski

-- The Associated Press sourced Glassman and Buyinski, but also Brian Hall, a Harvard University professor of business administration.

-- CNET sourced Minow and Buyniski, but also Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, and James J. Angel, an associate finance professor at Georgetown University.

Now, a few caveats. First, I'm under no illusions that Google's stock options plan requires an onerous amount of in-depth reporting; i.e., there's no conspiracy here that needs unpacking, and each story gets the point across regardless of sourcing. Second, I realize that each of the pieces above could contain background reporting that was not directly sourced. Third, I've taken embargoes myself. And fourth, the sources Google provided are great sources that ostensibly don't have any connection to Google.

However. The media's lack of non-Google-vetted sources is troubling and demonstrates several things. One, the reporters might be too lazy to find other sources (I don't think that's the case) or too constrained by Google's embargo rules. But that leads to number two: The reporters may be too scared that Google will revoke their access to pre-briefings. That's certainly a possibility. I know Google has threatened to cut my access on one occasion, and threatened a few colleagues with the same a few times.[1]

Third: By playing along with Google's game, we the media are allowing ourselves to be simple mouthpieces.[2] Which then begs the question: Why does Google even bother with the press? Wouldn't a press release or a blog post from Google do the same job?

Almost. Google PR knows that everybody doesn't read blogs and press releases yet. And what's more, "news" coming from the press still carries a semblance of legitimacy. Of course that's sure to change if we keep using Google sources and don't do our own legwork.

So yeah, I know everybody's ga-ga for Googley Pants. I hear some schmoes even have an entire blog dedicated to the company. And no, I don't think this is a scandal. But the least we can do is find our own sources. Just to show them we're not mindless whuffie monsters. Hello? Anyone? Bueller?


[1] Public relations staffers have a job to do. Their job is to protect their boss first, and disseminate news second. I understand that. But it's obnoxious when Google PR people treat reporters like they're Oliver Twist asking for more soup. Wait, is Google the Soup Nazi?

[2] You could argue that business press, especially since the advent of blogs, is nothing more than rejiggered press releases, but that's another story.

 
 
 
 
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