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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

New public relations: Beating back bad press with Google AdWords

The New York Times reported on its front page in September that hoki, an unattractive sea creature best known as the primary ingredient in the Filet-O-Fish, is at risk of depletion. Naturally, the New Zealand companies that farm hoki by the metric ton weren’t pleased by the article, which pointed to “ominous signs of overfishing.”

Time was, the subject of a critical news story could write a letter to the editor, issue a press release, maybe demand a correction. Not content with those options, the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council took an approach I hadn’t seen before: buying Google ads for keywords like new zealand hoki and hoki new york times.

The ads sought to target people discussing or searching for more information about the story. Here’s one that appeared in Gmail atop a message about hoki and the Times:

Now, I don’t really care who’s right in this dispute, though I should note the Times only apologized for using the trade association’s photograph without permission. The ads linked to a page that purports to set the record straight about hoki fishing and includes emails exchanged with Times science editor Laura Chang.

That was itself a feat of public-relations genius: Because the council’s hoki page was originally a straightforward description of the fish and its uses, the Times had linked to it in the third paragraph of the article (at right), and 78,000 people clicked though, according to Sarah Crysell, a spokeswoman for the council. Taking advantage of that incoming traffic, the group transformed its hoki page into a rebuttal of the Times story.

The man behind the effort — and similar campaigns for other clients — was Jim McCarthy of CounterPoint Strategies, a boutique PR firm in New York and Washington. He’s an aggressive guy who will run your ear off about “holding the media accountable for their deliberate falsehoods” and “arrogant reporters who have a one-sided agenda.”

That animus turns out to be a key element of McCarthy’s strategy: In addition to buying Google AdWords for combinations of keywords like new york times, hoki, and new zealand, McCarthy also targeted searches for the story’s author, William Broad.

“When you include their name in the search, it draws attention to it and lets the reporter know that you mean business and you’re going to hold them responsible,” McCarthy told me over the phone. For another seafaring client, the National Fisheries Institute, he bought Google ads against the names of three Vogue reporters — and their editor, Anna Wintour — who wrote about high levels of mercury in fish. “Someone inside of Condé Nast tried to outbid us for those search terms,” McCarthy said, though I can’t confirm the story. An example of one of the ads is at left.

Targeting reporters where they hang out online is McCarthy’s grating specialty. He went after ABC News, on behalf of the Formaldehyde Council, with ads (like the one at right) on Mediabistro’s TVNewser. “It was virtually a guarantee that they and all their competitors were going to see it,” McCarthy told me with more than a little relish. He has attempted to place similar ads on Romenesko, but the Poynter Institute declined to run them. (Crysell said the council hired McCarthy, in part, because “New Zealanders are far more modest in the way we express ourselves.”)

McCarthy calls his strategy “media accountability.” That’s spin. He’s representing his client’s interests like any other PR firm. But doing it with Google AdWords and links is a novel strategy that feels more effectual than a letter to the editor.

Hoki photo used with the permission of the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council.

                                   
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Ken Doctor    Aug. 13, 2014
If newspapers are going to have to survive on their own, the first numbers aren’t encouraging. In southern California, we could see big movement fast.