The story of the missing journalist

  • Opinion – Last Friday, we tripped over some information that we felt could be used as great material either for the next James Bond movie or a cheesy TV soap: An American tech journalist tangled up between two big Taiwanese companies and suspicions of industry espionage. We did not end up with a James Bond story, but with a pretty interesting soap opera that provides some insight about the fine line journalists have to walk when dealing with 'embargoed' information, privileged treatment and to what great lengths tech companies go to secure coverage for their products.  
    In its very core, the chain of events that happened at the end of last week in Taiwan are nothing special for many tech journalists. But you may be very surprised to learn what happens at the backend of today's journalism.
    Gigabyte, best known as a motherboard manufacturer, held a Computex preview event last week in Taiwan, with the goal to brief tech journalists about the new products that will be released in the near future. Most of those products covered Intel's upcoming chipsets and apparently some unique power saving features the company has developed for its upcoming products.
    Such media events are pretty common in this industry and it is also common that companies occasionally pay for travel expenses, such as flight, hotel and transportation. Some large publications never accept such offers, as it exposes them to bribery accusations. But smaller websites simply don't have the resources to pay for the travel that sometimes is required for comprehensive reporting and building a relationship with the companies we write about. For smaller websites, the choice often is to either not to travel to an event or to accept a "sponsored" trip, which is generally accepted as being ok in this segment of the media industry - as long as there is a clear understanding that these free trips don't automatically buy any articles in return and it remains at the discretion of the invited journalist and publication if and what type of content will be published as a result of the invitation. I also need to mention paid media travel is something that is often expected in other geographies of the world, for example Europe and Asia.  
    Gigabyte apparently invited 47 journalists from hardware tech sites with the offer to provide information under a non disclosure agreement (NDA) and provide an opportunity for the invitees to "play" with new hardware. We heard that 31 journalists showed up for the multi-day event for which Gigabyte shelled out quite some cash, obviously in the hope of multiple articles published by those 31 publications. How much? Only Gigabyte knows for sure, but our credible sources mentioned that the budget for this briefing, involved travel and entertainment program was about $150,000.
    We are often asked by readers what "NDA" or "embargo" means – it is basically a written (or often verbal) agreement between a company and a journalist that information provided will not be published until a certain date. These agreements give companies an opportunity to provide information to a larger group of journalists, who have actually more time to prepare their coverage about an event, such as a product launch. Also, some companies are using embargos to make sure certain information does not leak out before a product launch: If you brief a journalist and put him under embargo, he basically agrees not to write about this topic anymore until the embargo lifts. This practice can be very useful to PR departments and can go a long way. However, it can backfire as well as it actually has prompted many journalists not to agree to embargos that exceed a certain time frame, typically six weeks.
    There is nothing unusual here and in fact I am not aware of any tech publication that does not agree to embargos and does not honor them (and yes, even The Inquirer agrees to embargos). These embargos and NDAs are usually kept and most tech editors are under one or the other NDA at any given point in time. Occasionally, you see an NDA being broken: Typically this is not the result of malicious intent, but the result of a human or technical error instead.

    The drama unfolds
    While TG Daily was not invited to this event, we heard from several colleagues that the event went well, until Friday evening, local time. One editor of a larger U.S. hardware website did not show up to attend a sponsored dinner and an after-dinner-party. He was simply gone and at some point, Gigabyte's staff got concerned, tried to contact him via cellphone (which was unsuccessful) and began to investigate where he might be. Eventually, Gigabyte found out that he had taken a cab with a very delicate destination: The headquarters of Asus, one of Gigabyte's key rivals.
    Put yourself in the shoes of Gigabyte's PR team in this moment and you can imagine that this is a very uncomfortable situation for many people. Why would he go to Asus?
    Crazy ideas can surface and, believe me, we heard quite a bit. We actually came into the information loop somewhere at this point and heard lots of rumors, ranging from Police being sent after the editor, PR people getting fired, the editor's decision to hide at Asus, his refusal to return to his hotel and advertising on the affected website being canceled. The concerns and hefty reaction were not really a surprise, given the tensions that exist between Gigabyte and Asus. In a recent presentation to journalists, Gigabyte accused Asus of flat out "lying" about their products and their benefits.
    After one weekend of phone calls with our sources, we still don't know what exactly happened (and I don't think there will ever be a single person who will have all the details). Common sense suggests that there was no plotted secret handover information to Asus, but there have been some pretty bad judgments on both sides, highlighting unusual realities in our industry and cultural differences that are emerging in global relationships.

    Read on the next page: PR habits, Lessons learned 


    PR habits  
    Of course, the editor should not have gone to visit Asus. Clearly, that was rude and a decision the editor hopefully regrets. However, even if this was a very special case, similar events have happened in the past and were not really accepted, but somehow tolerated. For example, AMD used to hold an "anti-IDF" event just a few blocks away in a hotel room during every Intel Developer Forum. These events always were a bit strange, especially if you consider the fact that Intel often paid for international journalists to attend an IDF (which is actually expected by some overseas publications) and that AMD sent limousines to pick up journalists right in front of the IDF conference hall. Originally, AMD's anti-IDF provided some information about upcoming products and just took advantage of the presence of a few hundred journalists. But in its final years, AMD was simply looking for journalists providing some insight and their opinion on Intel technologies presented at IDF.  
    So, in a way, this Gigabyte-Asus case is nothing special. However, what got Gigabyte really ticked is the fact that this editor received what we were told was "preferred treatment." Preferred treatment is common in this industry and provided to only certain and typically large publications. It is not something that is openly talked about: Often, such "preferred treatment" has simply to do with the fact that a company does not have the resources to invite many publications, but sometimes has to do with personal relationships and the fact that larger publications create more visibility for a certain product, person or event. Give a publication an exclusive bit of information and there is the chance that you can land an extra bit of coverage and opportunity to make headlines for a product in return. Check news aggregation websites and you will see signs of "preferred treatment" every day. Preferred treatment, however, is usually kept under wraps, as it creates tension among a company and competing publications, which, of course, want to hear answers why they did not receive the same treatment or information.
    There is conflicting information if and what preferred treatment was provided in this case. We were not able to verify if there was actually some sort of preferred treatment and the website owner actually denied that there was any such thing. However, apparently there was the perception at least with some Gigabyte employees that preferred treatment was given and this fact alone was enough to amplify the company's overall reaction. One source told us somewhat cynically that Gigabyte considered the event successful, since "only one out of 47 editors" was "running off" to a competitor. However, the reality is that the company was "disappointed" since this was the first time that the company "opened" itself to the media "to this extent" and was confronted with what some writers consider business as usual, but what clearly violated the general rules of conduct:  This special case may have only raised eyebrows in the U.S., but the same behavior translated into an insult in a different culture and  sparked the most dramatic reactions I have seen in my 13 years as a tech journalist.

    Lessons learned
    I had a discussion with the owner of the website, who, on Friday evening local U.S. time, was not aware of what had happened. On his side, I am sure that the events will or already have been discussed with the editor. But in my personal opinion, such an event is not only a wake-up call for the affected website, but for every other website that not necessarily employs only highly-educated and highly-trained journalists with lots of experience how to deal with such events, confidential information and especially the expectations of different cultures.
    Of course, that not only goes for U.S. journalists representing their publications in Asia, but also foreign journalists representing foreign publications in the U.S. Being German, it took me some time to adjust to certain expected behavior patterns in the U.S., which may make me more tolerant towards certain behavior that is shown by foreign journalists at tradeshows in this country – behavior that is perfectly fine in one country, but considered an insult somewhere else.
    There are many great writers out there, but the plain fact, whether we like to hear it or not, is that the times of journalism have changed dramatically in the past 10 years and most tech publications or tech blogs do not employ (only) writers that were mainly trained to become journalists. Granted, in a lot of cases you do not want a "traditional journalist" to do a certain job and there are reasons why you want engineers, gaming aficionados or social networking enthusiasts to write about a certain topic.
    Sometimes, stories that are created by someone who is very knowledgeable and very passionate about a certain topic can be much more useful to the reader than a story that is created by an "all-purpose journalist" who has a much greater distance to such a story. But there is a reason why "journalism" is a profession that is still taught in university and takes years to learn and understand in the real life: Writing talent is only one side of the story and of course there is more to this job than posting any scoop you come across and "just" translating marketing brochures into articles.
    For example, journalism ethics and rules of conduct are part of the equation. In my experience, an appropriate judgment sometimes can get lost, usually not maliciously, but unintentionally or simply because of inexperience. There can be a lot of "perks" in journalism, one of them being travel (if you really enjoy flying and staying at hotels these days) and others being "free" products that are provided by companies as review or evaluation units or even "long-term loaners." Occasionally, it seems the purpose of being a journalist and the possible impacts of actions are unknown or aren't taken serious enough. You can see examples of this in published articles, not just blog posts, virtually across every topic every day.   
    In this specific case, the clear problem was that Gigabyte paid for the trip. There may have been questions, but no one would have complained about the visit to Asus if the website had paid for the trip itself. Sure, this is a Catch-22 for smaller publications, but I believe it surely is time to reconsider under what circumstances paid travel is accepted and what rules apply if that is the case.   
    Gigabyte and other companies may also find themselves in a situation where they re-evaluate their PR approach towards U.S. journalists. A Gigabyte representative told us that the events in Taipei "will make it harder to justify these events in the future". In my personal opinion, some reactions at Gigabyte could be considered as being out of line, but could be justified given their cultural environment. The PR department seemed to be overwhelmed by the events and it may have overreacted. Within one day, different sources indicated a trade secret violation, others retracted from that story a few hours later, others said that nothing had happened and others claimed they had not heard anything and needed to get more information. Until today, we have not received an official statement from Gigabyte about what did or what did not happen.  
    We heard that some managers threatened to fire PR staff over this event and several sources heard that "advertising and sampling" to the affected website "will be canceled." We haven't received evidence for either claim and quite frankly, what would such decisions achieve anyway? Gigabyte is a very visible advertiser on U.S. hardware web sites and I doubt Gigabyte can afford to drop advertising from this specific website. Also, other journalists confirmed that the Gigabyte PR staff on site "has done a great job" overall and quite frankly, what went wrong in the end, was out of their control.
    Could Gigabyte have prepared itself better for such a case? Probably. Besides enforcing their NDA, such overseas events may come under scrutiny and if they are approved, PR staff may look for more detailed agreements and tighter monitoring of people attending an event.  
    Writers and editors representing publications need to permanently revisit what behavior is acceptable what crosses a certain comfort level. In any case, publications need to ensure that information will be treated as neutral, even if an event or trip is paid for. And, of course sales and advertising arm need to be kept separate from editorial.
    In the end, journalists don't write for themselves or a company that pitches a story to them. It seems that sometimes we journalists forget that we write for you, the reader.