Not entirely omniscient
19 April 2014 05:23 (South Africa)
Opinionista Herman Manson

Why 'It's only advertising' doesn't cut it

  • Herman Manson
The ad industry makes a lot of economic wheels go round. It plays a significant role in popular culture and the economy, and importantly, the commercial press could not exist without it. HERMAN MANSON rebuts “It’s only advertising” – the stance taken by Boniswa Pezisa, chairperson of The Loerie Awards, in a recent Daily Maverick column.

Boniswa Pezisa, chairperson of The Loerie Awards, has gone on record on the issue of my non-accreditation at the awards event which aims “to promote creativity and innovation as primary business tools in the brand communication industry” and commits to “serving the best interests of the industry.”

Pezisa responded on the Daily Maverick after reading an Opinionista piece published by Mandy de Waal on the issue titled “Groundhog Day at the Loeries".

It is interesting to see the Loerie organisers put so much effort into trivialising what has become a major PR headache for the organisation.

One of the Loeries’ primary sponsors, the City of Cape Town (through Executive Mayoral Committee Member for tourism, events and marketing and Cape Town DA Metro Chairperson Grant Pascoe) has gone on record as saying that it stands for a free media and that "we would want any journalist to have free access with every event that we are associated with, and we will definitely not take this lightly that there are journalists that are barred from any event that we are associated with."

Then there has been critical coverage in the several business publications (including the Daily Maverick and Finweek). Numerous senior agency and marketing professionals have criticised the Loerie organisers on social media platforms like Twitter. Respected marketing commentator Chris Moerdyk has publicly declared that "until the Loeries organisers get off their paranoid high horse, I will not be attend (sic) any more of their functions." 

Storm in a teacup or a tempest in a teapot, no matter how hard the Loerie organisers try to downplay an issue which is years in the making, an issue of media freedom it is. This is why it is raising so much concern and debate! The Loerie organisers (fortunately) don't get to frame or dictate what is or isn't public discourse.

The primary claim made in the Loerie response is that "He [that would be me] is not being censored in any way." This is because I will have access, says Pezisa, "to all the information he needs to report on the winners." 

Later Pezisa writes that "As we’ve made clear, Manson has not been denied access to the information he requires in order to report on the awards – that is, the judge’s seminar and a detailed list of winners." 

What the Loerie organisers are saying is that I have full access to information that has been shaped and presented by the Loerie organisers. Instead of forming my own, independent view of the event as it plays out on the night, I am given “full access” to a press release with canned soundbites.

Advertising works off scripts. It has copywriters who spend days creating and massaging the messaging a brand wants a certain target audience to receive.

Pezisa is arguing that by giving me access to a script (all those press releases) I have all the information at hand I need to do my job as a trade journalist in reporting on the Loerie Awards. 

Spin isn’t truth, nor is it the foundation of what critical and independent journalism is created on.

On the matter of accreditation – I do not dispute the right of the events’ organisers to set fair and transparent criteria for accrediting journalists. This can include requesting applicants provide proof that they are bona fide representatives of the media (which despite Pezisa’s refusal to acknowledge my status as a journalist, preferring to refer to me as a blogger, I can) or that the applicant have an established record of having written extensively on advertising and marketing communications issues (again, I can). 

Liking a journalist (or not, for “having gone negative”, in the words of Loerie CEO Andrew Human, as the case might be) should not be the basis for accepting or declining media accreditation. Nor should having to present a media plan or a firm commitment that you are going to deliver the type of media organisers find pleasing enough to open the gates.

Why do events and conferences provide accreditation to journalists in any case? As the response of Grant Pascoe already hints, it is partly a matter of good governance. It recognises the importance of well-informed stakeholders and partners and the role the media plays in this regard. As Pezisa indicates – the Loerie organisers were happy to host a media contingent of more than 113. Providing tickets to journalists does not seem to be an issue for them. How they choose who to give tickets to and the implications of sidelining specific journalists is at issue. 

Pezisa is saying the Loerie Awards are happy to provide accreditation to a celebrity magazine but not to an established advertising journalist writing about the industry on a daily basis. It seems to serve as a warning shot across the bow of the trade media to behave or risk being systematically denied access and engagement by a body that is endorsed by virtually every significant advertising industry organisation and association. This has serious implications for how journalists covering the ad industry do their jobs. 

Pezisa fails to clarify claims by the Loerie organisers that they are simply copycatting Cannes Lions by requiring a “media plan” to be submitted as a prerequisite for journalists applying for accreditation (Cannes Lions makes no such demand in its publicly available guide to journalists applying for accreditation). 

She also fails to clarify why cherry picking from the small pool of dedicated advertising industry trade journalists, based on past media coverage of the event (as opposed to covering the industry), is not a fundamentally flawed and biased accreditation process. Already one senior industry journalist has stepped forward to confirm to me that no “media plan” was required or submitted to receive accreditation in that instance. There is obviously no consistency in how the accreditation process is handled by the Loerie organisers. 

There is a media principle involved here – fair access to representatives of the media relies on consistent implementation of clear accreditation procedures. 

Pezisa, suddenly speaking out on behalf of journalists "who could face jail time because they report on information the government doesn’t want you to know," mocks the social contract between industry and commerce and the broader community, between her trade and its stakeholders and constituents. Journalists can interrogate issues of governance as it long as it’s in the political sphere, but don't touch commerce, she seems to be saying.

A final thought on context – which Pezisa calls for when she quotes me asking the Loerie Board to ensure media accreditation does not depend on journalists having to tow the organisational line and produce sunshine journalism (i.e. regurgitating PR copy). "We’re talking about advertising awards," Pezisa responds.

The advertising industry deserves a vibrant, diverse and critical media. The Loerie Awards are the public face of the advertising and communications industry. A lot of people are staring up to that face – kids looking for career options and considering our industry, marketers, businesses leaders and government looking for a serious driver of economic growth, the public. Let’s not trivialise our own industry with the “it’s only advertising” argument. 

“It’s only advertising” does no justice to the disproportionate contribution this industry makes to the economy or the cultural and social impact of its services. 

While the consumer press (Pezisa mentions how much heat magazine loved the event last year) might not be geared towards interrogating issues affecting the industry and its relationship with award shows, including its impact on work for clients, human resources, cost structures, reputation building and management, its impact on account wins etc., the press dedicated to covering this industry can, should and will.

That really is serving the best interests of the industry. DM

  • Herman Manson

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