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The culture of giving gifts to business journalists

It's a thin line; PR and corporate folks must know where it lies

“Isn’t it enough?” the timid voice asked. The public relations executive on the phone had just offered me my first ‘gift coupon’ as a journalist and was incredulous when I refused. At the peak of the initial public offering season in the mid-90s, given that it wasn’t uncommon for corporates to extend high-priced wining, dining and gifting privileges to business journalists, publishing houses had to bring out written guidelines for staff. The diktat was that journalists must not accept anything more than a pen or a notepad at media conferences and a box of sweets during the festive season.

As I aged in the profession, I got used to seeing boxes of ‘gifts’ stacked up near the exit at business press conferences. PR executives sent some journalists on their way with just a goodbye and others with the surreptitious passing on of a box. Journalists who had no qualms in accepting gifts quietly did so.

What took the cake was when one scribe lectured me on the ‘necessity’ of the habit. An electronics major had ferried us to the foundation stone-laying ceremony of a factory in Karnataka that ultimately never came up. A tape recorder was the ‘token of appreciation’ passed around. A senior journalist noticed some of us refusing the gift and took us to task. “You should not have declined. The PR person will take home the gadget meant for you and his records will show you have accepted it. You must not encourage such bad practices,” he said.

Nowadays, gifting has taken more subtle forms. For instance, the PR person arranging a meeting could offer a ride from your office or house to the meeting venue. Of course, these same folks then get cornered by journalists who ask for a cab, use it to attend the meeting, and then retain the car through the day.

Corporate honchos who have the best of intentions do not realise when they cross the line. After my interview with the CEO of a popular broadband provider, I told him I rated their complaint resolution mechanism very highly as a customer. The CEO immediately offered to upgrade my tariff plan. I refused. He argued that I was already a paying customer and that an upgrade wouldn’t cross the line of ethics. I had to explain that an upgrade meant a higher tariff which he would have charged a non-journalist client. He piped down.

This is not to tar all PR and corporate folks with the same brush. Many have set more stringent rules for themselves than media houses have. One PR person told me, “I notice you bring your own pens to press conferences. Good. If you didn’t have such ethics, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable letting you meet my clients.”

Then there are times when you commit a gaffe yourself. At the end of a conversation with the CEO of a car-maker, journalists were offered a model of the car. We refused but the PR person insisted. To avoid unending “please” and “no’s”, I said I would take it as it was not expensive. I didn’t quite understand the PR person’s confused expression till I got home. What I’d thought would be a toy car, like the ones you see in pavement shops, was a sophisticated model costing several thousands of rupees. I called the PR person and arranged for it to be delivered back to the showroom.

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 1:23:38 AM |

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