Patronage anyone? Not on my watch

by admin on November 8, 2010

in General

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The other day when I digitally gasped at the notion of some marketing wonk writing an accounting firm’s Tweets I wasn’t aware of a growing ‘trend’ in the US. My long time buddy and personal mentor Tom Foremski reports that corporations are hiring journalists to write ‘stuff:’

Intel has put together an editorial team that seeks to use the best journalistic practices to publish high quality news, features and video. It is separate from its newsroom but staffed by some of Intel’s corporate communications team.

Tom has long held the view that all organizations need to be media organizations. I get that. I’ve said as much myself, imploring professional firms to get with the program and start demonstrating domain expertise as a way of aligning themselves more closely with the client groups they serve. I don’t have a problem with journalists helping firms understand how media works. I’ve done it myself and will be doing more of the same later this month. But where I do have concerns is when an otherwise independent journalist crosses over to a company. That’s when life gets tricky.

James Governor has no problem with this, arguing that we’re entering an age of patronage. Patronage is an odd choice of expression. Wikipedia says this:

Patronage is the support, encouragement, privilege, or financial aid that an organization or individual bestows to another. In the history of art, arts patronage refers to the support that kings or popes have provided to musicians, painters, and sculptors.

I imagine that’s what James is thinking about and to that extent I would have no disagreement if the relationship was at arms length. But in the piece that Tom describes, it isn’t. It’s captive. That’s altogether different and gives rise to the thought that what was once independent will be lost. I call it shilling albeit that’s possibly a harsh condemnation. For those that don’t know:

shill or plant is a person who helps another person or organization to sell goods or services without disclosing that he or she has a close relationship with the seller.

His Tweet responses:

@dahowlett shilling, pounds and pence. its the new normal. not many media outlets worth making a profession out of, these days, are there?

@dahowlett Editorial has been viscerated at newspapers and mags as you well know. Writers still need to eat.

I can never agree with the underlying argument of those statements even though there is little doubt the tech media market has changed beyond recognition. But it has changed, not died and I see that as a good thing because it forces everyone to be better and smarter. The moment you accept something as the new normal without thinking about the consequences or only seeing it as an opportunity to take a commercial position then you’re on a very slippery slope. It is the sort of thing that gives way to tyrannies. If that sounds dramatic then contextualize that thought in historical terms. At its worst it ultimately leads to the suppression of important truths. And that is my fear in the world that James describes.

I make no secret of being a sometimes harsh critic. It’s an important role reflected by others like Richard Murphy and Francine McKenna. I may not be as subtle as others but I am what I am and I do what I do. There’s no veneer. Or to use James description: headbanger.

Here’s the surprising thing: when you behave as an independent voice that has authority, the very people you might think would hate what you say become very interested in the why of what you say. Or rather those that don’t have a command and control culture do that sort of thing. There’s a simple reason. It is not a veiled attempt to buy  you off or get you onside because that’s not going to work. It is because they don’t see what you see. Thats 100% understandable. When you’re on the inside of an organization for any period of time, you take on part of that organization’s DNA. In common parlance, you drink the Kool-Aid. It is really difficult to express objectivity because you get imbued with the culture and thinking of the organization. It blinds you to the realité of the outside world so that issues become difficult to grasp and comprehend. That is the basic problem at Sage. They simply cannot see any other reality other than their own. I can guarantee this: it will continue to hurt them far more than anything else.

This is not an uncommon problem and one that hits writers as well. It’s called bias. Here’s an example. If you are following the Oracle v SAP trial it would be easy to come away thinking that the reported facts paint a picture of a company (SAP) trying its best to lose the case. Or at least that is my impression. However, in speaking with someone who is attending the courthouse, it turns out there is a more nuanced view that is not reported. The suggestion is that SAP witnesses are doing a good job of delivering testimony without becoming unduly rattled at attorney’s attempts to expose weaknesses in argument. That’s a different picture.

It is for those reasons I believe that while there is unquestionably a place for media people to be involved with organizations, we should be aware that heavy bias is bound to ensue. The trick is to understand what that bias means. It’s why I make it very clear where my bias lays. That way, readers can decide whether what I say makes sense or is unfairly skewed in a particular direction. It is also why, when an AccMan sponsor comes on board I make it clear it doesn’t give them a free pass on issues that might impact customers.

None of this makes for a comfortable relationship with those that are the subject of critiques. I can’t count the number of times that people have called me up saying: ‘Did you have to say that?’ But in unguarded moments the truth comes out. It turns out that for all the initial pain, those who maintain an independent stance provide a check and balance for the internal BS that gives rise to Kool-Aid thinking. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so.

Having said all that, would I help a vendor figure out what it needs to say? Absolutely. I’m doing that right now with a large ITC vendor. They have something going on that raises many questions. The company needs to have good answers to a multitude of questions or it can expect to be heavily criticized. I have a good understanding of the issues because it relates to a topic area I have been researching for some years. I don’t know what their answers will be but I can at least make the company aware of what it needs to be considering. You might say the company should know the issues. It is precisely because they’re aware of their own problems in Kool-Aid thinking that they called me up. That’s what I call a very good start. Is it patronage? I don’t see it that way, especially as I am not being compensated !! But I do see it as valuable in helping me get a clear understanding of what’s going on so that I in turn can communicate that to potential buyers. I don’t lose my independence along the way. If anything, it gets strengthened.

But then I am equally aware that none of us is perfect. Even so I’d rather have something to aspire towards than sell out.

Does that all make sense to you or am I unreasonably justifying certain actions?

Image courtesy of Rex Brynen

Comments on this entry are closed.

Jon Ferrara November 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Dennis,

When I read your posts I am brought back to my favorite teachers in my Alternative High School circa 1970′s where they filled my head with Thoreau, alternative religions, Fritz Perls and an understanding what the US Government was really up to in Chile and elsewhere.

The posts I’ve read of yours so far show keen insight into the subject matter, people and surrounding landscape. You ability to cut the crap and say real things are refreshing.

I am both excited and a bit nervous to spend time with you and share my Nimble vision and resulting product but I am confident in my ideas and approach so I hope to come through with a bit of hide left on my rear.

Best,

Jon

Jon Ferrara November 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Dennis,

When I read your posts I am brought back to my favorite teachers in my Alternative High School circa 1970's where they filled my head with Thoreau, alternative religions, Fritz Perls and an understanding what the US Government was really up to in Chile and elsewhere.

The posts I've read of yours so far show keen insight into the subject matter, people and surrounding landscape. You ability to cut the crap and say real things are refreshing.

I am both excited and a bit nervous to spend time with you and share my Nimble vision and resulting product but I am confident in my ideas and approach so I hope to come through with a bit of hide left on my rear.

Best,

Jon

VM Associates November 9, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Great post, and I can empathize with your position in-between vendors and clients. It’s shocking how many “consultants” receive kickbacks and kudos for sending clients in a certain vendor’s direction – hardly the objective compass that end-users are looking for.

Similarly, I think it’s a 100% ok of consultants to develop relationships with vendors – in fact, it’s desirable – but we need to be vendor-blind when matching services with business needs.

I mean, I don’t even like Kool Aid. It’s gross :)

VM Associates November 9, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Great post, and I can empathize with your position in-between vendors and clients. It's shocking how many “consultants” receive kickbacks and kudos for sending clients in a certain vendor's direction – hardly the objective compass that end-users are looking for.

Similarly, I think it's a 100% ok of consultants to develop relationships with vendors – in fact, it's desirable – but we need to be vendor-blind when matching services with business needs.

I mean, I don't even like Kool Aid. It's gross :)

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