About News

A Universal Action: When PR’s Goal Is to Hide the Truth

Dr. Chris Roberts is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama.(Source: UA)

Very few people knew just how devastating was the June 2008 fire at the Universal Music Group’s archives that destroyed the master recordings of thousands of musical artists – from Count Basie to Snoop Dog, Chuck Berry to Nirvana.

The company made sure.

In fact, it took 11 years before the public began to fully understand the loss. The New York Times revealed the losses in its story published June 11, 2019.

The story is worth reading for many reasons – as an accounting of what happened, and insight into the magnitude of the losses that go beyond the mere millions of dollars and cents.

But there’s another way to read the story — as an example of public relations scheming. The Times’ story points out many places where Universal’s public relations staff did its best to hide the extent of the losses — to itself, to the music makers who entrusted their original master recordings to the company and to the public. Only with insurance filings did it seem to reveal the losses.

Times author Jody Rosen wrote that the fire happened in 2008: yet the news has never reached the broader public. In part, this represents a triumph of crisis management. In the days following the fire, officials at UMG’s global headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., and in New York scrambled to spin and contain press coverage.

The Los Angeles Times called it a “cover-up.” In fact, some of the artists whose master recordings were destroyed didn’t know until after The Times story was published.

Washington Post columnist Eric Wimple discussed the story in the context of what matters for media ethics: Universal’s public relations people did their best to make sure no one outside Universal fully understood the extent of the loss. Media columnist Eric Wemple noted: “The company fed journalists a bogus line about what had happened to the recordings. They even boasted about it — privately, of course.”

As journalism ethics dictate, The Times asked Universal for comment before publication. The man who ran the company at the time, now retired, would not comment. And although the story does not say it, it appears that Universal made no executives available for comment.

Instead, it provided a statement to The Times saying it couldn’t comment on the 2008 fire, but never saying why it couldn’t discuss what happened: “In this case, there are constraints preventing us from publicly addressing some of the details of the fire that occurred at NBCUniversal Studios’ facility more than a decade ago,” the statement read. “However, in the intervening years, UMG has made significant investments — in technology, infrastructure and by employing the industry’s foremost experts — in order to best preserve and protect these musical assets and to accelerate the digitization and subsequent public availability of catalog recordings.”

After publication of the story in which the company would not cooperate, the company complained about the story. Variety reported that Universal didn’t agree with all that was published. It’s an annoying approach for journalists, who think about it this way: “You don’t want to help us as we report the story, but then you complain when the story is published.”

Later, a memo written to staff by the company’s leader was, of course, leaked. It complained again about information in the story being incorrect (again, without addressing specifics) and promised answers (only a decade or so late) to artists who may have lost their master recordings. After lawyers for artists threatened lawsuits came a June 18 memo in which Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge said: “Let me be clear: we owe our artists transparency. We owe them answers.”

Public relations teachers and practitioners talk a great deal about the goal of PR in creating two-way symmetrical relationships, “educating ” the public and getting out your message.

But in the real world, PR is sometimes as much about hiding information as releasing it.

Dr. Chris Roberts is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Alabama in the late 1980s, and he worked at newspapers in Alabama and South Carolina before earning his doctoral degree at the University of South Carolina in 2007. At UA, he heads the department’s Master’s Graduate Programs and chairs the Media Planning Board for the Offfice of Student Media.  He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee.

 About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.