Who Spins for the PR Agencies?
Is bribery still considered unethical?
When the UK tabloid, News of the World broke the story that Michael Phelps was photographed using a bong, two things immediately came to mind that confirmed, rather than shocked, my worldview. First, despite all of the hype and hero worship that typically surrounds sports superstars, this marvelous swimming specimen is still a young, immature kid in a world of highly permissive morality. Second, as is often the case in such an environment, this guy needs to find better friends and advisers.
I wasn't quite prepared, though, when I read the article that broke the "story," to hear that the agency that represents Phelps, Octagon, was accused of trying to bribe News of the World to keep them from publishing the photos.
From News of the World:
Phelps’ aides went into a panic over our story and offered us a raft of extraordinary incentives not to run the bong picture. … Phelps is represented by marketing giant Octagon, which works with huge brands such as Mastercard and HSBC. They admitted proven cannabis use would be “a major taint” on Phelps’ character.
Spokesman Clifford Bloxham offered us an extraordinary deal not to publish our story, saying Phelps would become our columnist for three years, host events and get his sponsors to advertise with us.
In return, he asked that we kill Phelps’ bong picture. Bloxham said: “It’s seeing if something potentially very negative for Michael could turn into something very positive for the News of the World.
Is it true? In a prepared statement that really took some chutzpah, Octagon denied the allegations, claiming News of the World, who broke the story that proved true, is a tabloid, and that tabloids are not to be believed.
Not only that, but Octagon wouldn't address the issue further, claiming:
"[W]e have no intention of getting into a shouting match with a tabloid."
No one is asking for a shouting match. Just an explanation. I want to know if the PR world thinks this sort of statement, in light of such accusations in a story that otherwise proved accurate, is sufficient. So far, I've only read one story on it, from a New York Times blog, "Notes on the News."
Obviously Octagon thought enough of the tabloid story to issue a statement on behalf of Phelps and to contact the publication respecting the story. Yet, when they became a part of the story, they claim they don't respond to tabloid stories, and that at least strains their credibility.
I'm not a PR professional, so I'd love to get your feedback.
What do you think? Should Octagon ignore News of the World, or does this situation require a more complete response? - Cam Beck