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Five years after co-founding Twitter, Evan Williams built a new publishing platform for anyone feeling confined by the 140-character limit. Medium, Mr Williams wrote at its 2012 launch, was “a beautiful space” for longer writing, designed for “little stories that make your day better and manifestos that change the world”. But businesses have a way of outgrowing their mission statements, as seen this week when Medium became the battleground for a war of words between a $260bn ecommerce empire and a bastion of traditional journalism.
On Monday Jay Carney, Amazon’s representative, unleashed a 1,350-word volley on Medium entitled “What The New York Times Didn’t Tell You”. He was referring to an investigation the paper published two months ago, which suggested that Jeff Bezos’s supplier of books and birthday presents fostered a “bruising” culture that routinely reduced staff to tears as it conducted “a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers”.
Mr Carney wrote that the Times had favoured “sensational” anecdotes from biased sources over balanced facts; but “when there are two sides of a story, a reader deserves to know them both.” Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, launched a similarly long response on Medium, standing by the “accurate portrait”.
Two years ago Mr Bezos bought the Washington Post, which is still an influential voice in a town that likes to probe things such as “bruising” workplaces. An old-fashioned proprietor might have been tempted to use his own private pulpit in this instance, but Amazon’s novel rebuttal generated more attention than any mere editorial.
Thousands more words were subsequently spilled, from the Huffington Post to the New Yorker, illuminating a potent trend of the digital era: companies that don’t like the headlines journalists write are realising that they can write their own.
This month alone, a much-hyped blood testing company called Theranos issued three online rebuttals after its technology was challenged by The Wall Street Journal. (“Stories like this come along when you threaten to change things,” it wrote.) ExxonMobil similarly rubbished reports that it funded climate-change deniers, steering readers to a blog “setting the record straight”.
Neither could match last month’s 2,000 word “letter to the editor” from Alibaba after Barron’s, the US financial weekly, suggested the Chinese group’s falling share price could drop 50 per cent further. Few papers would run such a long letter from a PR man but this one had a home regardless — on Alizila, an Alibaba-funded “news” site whose “reporters” cover the company and its industry. The letter’s author told PR Week: “We are such a high-profile company that investors, analysts, media and other key influencers will read every single word very closely.”
PR people who once tried to influence the news have discovered they can use the very tools that are shaking up journalism to write it. The strategy is low risk: “influencers” are easy to reach on social media, journalists are held in low esteem and there is every incentive to ensure your story beats a reporter’s critical take in Google’s search results.
Having hired many of the journalists laid off by shrinking newsrooms, the PR industry has turned the clunky advertorials of old into slick multimedia messages known as “brand journalism”, “content marketing” or the innocuous-sounding “storytelling”.
This invasion of corporate news means GE is writing articles about innovation; AB InBev has a website explaining why its SABMiller beer deal is “building a Better World”; and Goldman Sachs’ PR is recording podcast interviews with Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive, about the burden of regulation. From Apple to BP to Coca-Cola, the corporate alphabet is packed with similar examples.
Mr Carney learnt the value of digital media’s brand-buffing as Barack Obama’s press secretary, pumping out “candid” in-house Instagrams of the first family to polish the US president’s image even as he cut back news photographers’ access. He is one of several Washington veterans now managing reputations at companies such as Goldman, McDonald’s and Uber. Few understand modern media messaging better than political campaigners — Donald Trump’s success as a Republican presidential candidate owes more to his 4.6m-strong Twitter following and television talents than to any outlay on election adverts — and companies want in.
Public concern about media power once focused on the moguls who promoted their interests through their own papers and TV networks. The more common complaint today is that clout lies with content-hosting tech titans from Amazon to Facebook. But as companies and politicians get the message about Medium and other megaphones, will the noise of their one-sided narratives drown out the real story?
Medium’s mission statement said it would create “a level playing field” for ideas. In practice, such tools may only tilt the field further in favour of those already winning the game.