How does a man who is convicted, albeit quietly, of sexual assault manage to get his praises sung by reputable outlets such as Forbes?
That was the question many asked after The New York Times started reporting on the rehabilitation effort Jeffrey Epstein ran in New York after getting out of jail for sexual offenses in 2009. Articles in Forbes, The National Review and HuffPost all promoted Epstein as a titan of business and seemingly didn’t fact-check his background at all.
Who was writing these pieces? Why didn’t gatekeepers at these publications catch the dissembling?
The answer reveals the complex web behind many digital publications in today’s media landscape, as well as the threat posed to the PR profession by unscrupulous practices.
Selling out for $600
According to The New York Times, the articles came from a PR firm, and the writer who was credited was offered a lump sum to put his name on the byline.
The article on the Forbes website was attributed to Drew Hendricks, a contributing writer. As The Times revealed in an article last week, he was not the author of the piece. Instead, it was delivered to him by a public relations firm, and he said he was paid $600 to attach his byline and post it at Forbes.com.
Mr. Hendricks said he had not been aware of Mr. Epstein’s history. “All I knew was, this is a guy doing a science thing,” he said. “If I had known otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Forbes removed the item last week “for failing to meet our editorial standards,” it said in an editors note on the page.
The incident has left the publications in question to defend their reputations and records on transparency.
The Times continued:
Randall Lane, the chief content officer of Forbes Media, said an article like the one attributed to Mr. Hendricks should not have been posted and would not make the cut now, because the process for screening outside contributors has been strengthened.
“Our North Star is always transparency,” Mr. Lane said of Forbes’ handling of problematic articles. “What we’ve learned over the last few days is that this is an area we need to re-evaluate.”
Who’s minding the store?
Key reasons behind the chicanery are the hollowing-out of newsrooms across the U.S. and the ways many legacy (and upstart) media companies have responded to changes in digital media consumption.
With essentially no cost to hosting hundreds of new articles and everything to gain in terms of eyeballs and ad dollars, many sites like Forbes turned to outside contributors to beef up their offerings and try to create a community of readers—and writers.
The Times reported:
A staff of roughly 200 employees produces Forbes’s in-house journalism, but most of the 100 articles the site publishes each day come from a group of nearly 3,000 outside writers. More content means more readers, and the number of unique visitors to Forbes.com has surged nearly 70 percent over the last four years, to 60.9 million last month, according to comScore.
While the number of views has gone up, the limited editing of contributors at Forbes has come in for criticism, with some noting problematic posts like one in 2014 headlined “Drunk Female Guests are the Gravest Threat to Fraternities.”
The heavy use of outside contributors has been profitable, said Damon Kiesow, the Knight Chair in digital editing and producing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, but it has come with risks to the Forbes name. “It changed their reputation from being a respectable business publication to a content farm,” Mr. Kiesow said.
Other publications have stopped this model to preserve their reputations.
Policy change at HuffPost
HuffPost stopped allowing guest writers to publish content without editorial approval in 2018. The post it ran celebrating Epstein was published before the change was made.
At the time of the change, HuffPost’s editor-in-chief, Lydia Polgreen, wrote:
One of the biggest challenges we all face, in an era where everyone has a platform, is figuring out whom to listen to. Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy. When everyone has a megaphone, no one can be heard.
However, one cannot escape the fact that Epstein accomplished his facelift with the help of PR firms who were willing to write the pieces, to pay authors to add their bylines, and to promote a man who shouldn’t have been let in the door.
PR pros are already struggling with a public that is skeptical of institutions, dislikes what they stand for and questions their value. News outlets are desperately trying to solve the problem of shrinking reach and ad dollars, and media jobs are getting axed at a higher rate than those in the manufacturing industry.
Combined, PR firms and news sites made a big mistake, and if actions aren’t taken, another Epstein could waltz through understaffed newsrooms unchallenged.
It doesn’t have to be this bleak.
The role of PR pros
Industry practitioners have a part to play in making sure that readers can trust media outlets to get the story right and in building public trust in the communications profession.
Here are some rules you can follow right now to help correct the problem:
1. Commit to transparency. Don’t try to hide the truth about your message. Be honest about who wrote a given piece and where it comes from. If your content is sponsored, make sure you say so.
2. Fact-check. Don’t take your client’s word for it. Some clients aren’t worth the trouble, and being able to pick and choose is a part of your job. Realize that in an age of social media and employee advocacy, some clients are going to cost you far more than they bring in.
3. Hire an editor. If your function is to produce content, even if it’s for news media outlets with their own gatekeepers, make sure you have an internal backstop to keep mistakes from embarrassing you and your organization.
Many of these digital publishing practices are no longer the way things are done, but tactics like guest contributing and penning op-eds are still key weapons in the PR pros’ arsenal. Plus, the industry will keep innovating to expand audiences through new platforms and channels.
The key is to adhere to your principles. For anyone in communications, there should be value attached to your reputation and integrity—not a price tag.