Don’t scoop the reporter who interviews you, and other PR basics

Last Wednesday, the 21st, the IT news channel of giant Chinese portal Sohu published the transcript of an interview of Sohu CEO Charles Zhang by Hong Kong-based BusinessWeek journalist Bruce Einhorn. All well and good, you might think. Chinese portals regularly translate and run foreign media articles, and it makes sense that a portal might want to run a high-profile interview with its boss. But there were two problems. First, the interview was on the rather sensitive topic of the dueling IPR lawsuits between Sohu and Youku. Second, BusinessWeek hadn’t run the story yet.

Alerted by YouKu, BusinessWeek presumably put pressure on Sohu because the Chinese interview transcript vanished by the next day, along with many of the reprints on other Chinese websites. If you’re curious, and read Chinese, a few instances remain online. The BusinessWeek story by Mr. Einhorn is also now available online. It is interesting to compare the two, although Imagethief suggests reading the transcript with some caution for reasons that shall be explained below.

Imagethief has no idea what transpired between Mr. Einhorn and Sohu in arranging and conducting the interview, but I’d bet actual money that an agreement for Sohu to publish their own transcript of the interview was not part of the deal. Another Western business journalist told me today that such a move was pretty likely to piss off a publication on any number of levels. Really, I didn’t have much trouble guessing that on my own. In general, Chinese companies have a lot to learn about working with Western media, but I can’t imagine the Economic Observer, 21st Century Business Herald or Caijing (even with its current woes) sitting still for such a move either. The fast removal of the transcript from Sohu suggests that publication took BusinessWeek by surprise.

There were a couple of problems with what Sohu did. First, and most basically, they used a journalist’s interview to create and publish material that pre-empted that journalist’s story. That’s just plain rude, and probably won’t be soon forgotten. As a media organization itself, Sohu, of all companies, should know better. But it goes beyond that. Mr. Einhorn is an experienced journalist writing for a publication with a reputation to protect. As you would expect, his story on the lawsuits between the two companies is balanced and includes quotes from both Sohu and Youku.

The transcript published on Sohu, however, included only brief questions and Mr. Zhang’s responses. Sohu’s introduction presents the transcript as “an interview with BusinessWeek journalist Bruce Einhorn”, which is literally correct, but appropriates BusinessWeek’s credibility for a one-sided view on a contentious issue. That same introduction characterizes Sohu rival Youku extremely negatively, saying that the discussion would, “reveal the details of Youku’s piracy and rights infringement.” Not much balance there. BusinessWeek might run executive Q&As, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t stake out such a negative position in an article that didn’t give Youku space to respond, and that wasn’t backed up by copious facts and extensive reporting. Interviews are raw material. A transcript of a single interview is not a story, and putting BusinessWeek’s name on the interview is a misrepresentation.

Readers also have no way of knowing if the transcript is accurate or how it may have been edited. Any Q&A interview is likely to be edited, but a publication editing a Q&A for tightness or focus is not the same thing as a company editing a transcript to better present its point of view. Imagethief knows from experience that editing of interview transcripts by PR teams is common practice in China (many journalists expect a transcript by e-mail following an interview), and a reading with a critical eye is well advised. However, the imprimatur of BusinessWeek on the transcript implies that BusinessWeek itself had the final cut, not Sohu. That looks like another misrepresentation.

It’s sensible policy for companies and PR teams to record their own versions of interviews with journalists. A recording enables you to check the accuracy of final quotes, provides leverage if you need a correction or clarification, and can help out if the journalist has a problem with their own recording (it has been known to happen). Recorded interviews with experienced spokespeople can also often be good source material for messages, sound-bites and other content. However, publishing or leaking recordings or transcripts in their entirety is a bad idea if you want to preserve your media relationships.

There is only one situation in which I would suggest to a client publishing verbatim portions of an interview transcript. If a story has already run with an inaccurate or wildly out-of-context quote that I feel misrepresents a spokesperson or client company, and if I can’t get the publication to correct the quote or issue a clarification, I might suggest that the client publish an appropriate excerpt of the transcript on a PR page or company blog. I would only recommend an excerpt, and I would include an explanatory note of why the excerpt is being published and a link to the original article. I would also notify the publication that I was going to do this.

Running the transcript also hints at a deeper issue. It would have been simplicity itself to have a Sohu journalist interview Mr. Zhang for the exact same responses (or to put the same material on Mr. Zhang’s blog, which appears to have been fallow since July). An admittedly cursory search of Sohu today didn’t turn up any such articles since the founding of the Alliance last month. Why not?

News organizations are generally disinterested (as opposed to uninterested) in the news they are reporting. When reporting on issues in which they have an interest, such as the fortunes of their parent companies, good news organizations take pains to be balanced in order to preserve their reputations. There are op-ed pages and blogs for points-of-view (not to mention the occasional leaked letter to ownership). Sohu is hardly a disinterested party in the lawsuit with Youku or in the fortunes of the Online Video Anti Piracy Alliance, which it founded and largely speaks for. Running the transcript of the BusinessWeek interview might just have been a mistake. Or it might have seemed like a way for Sohu to have the best of both worlds: A splendidly one-sided interview that carried that authority of a respected, international business magazine and that didn’t seem to compromise their own newsroom.

But in the long run you can’t have it both ways. And for a company listed on America’s NASDAQ, annoying Western business media in attempt to have it both ways is probably not a great PR strategy.

Disclosures: I found out about this episode from a friend who works for Youku. In my job I also regularly work with journalists from Sohu’s news organization, all of whom are completely professional. I have no opinion on the merits of the various lawsuits flying back and forth between Youku and Sohu.

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