Call me when I can trust you

I just found an email dated over a month ago from a representative from the agency Atmosphere Communications asking me to contribute to a project that they are working on ‘on behalf of the Economist’ in SA. According to the representative, the project aims to set up a temporary South African “microsite” called www.theunexpected.co.za in order “to build closer links with its readers across the globe” with an especial “focus on the country due to the 2010 FIFA World Cup”.

How, you may ask, is the Economist attempting to build closer links with its readers across the globe? Is it connecting journalists and bloggers to hear the real story about South Africa? Is it really listening to its readers on the ground? It is profiling the work of aspirant local writers in its publication?

None of the above, it seems. The only ‘closer links’ the company wants to build is ‘closer links’ to your pocket.According to the representative, Atmosphere Communications has been contracted by the Economist to get 20 individuals chosen based on ‘previous contributions to thought leadership in South Africa to write a minimum of sixteen blog posts’ over a two-month period. Apparently one should feel proud to be chosen by this global brand (even if they’re not paying you a dime) because:

Although we are looking for voluntary contributions to the project the site will be extensively promoted in South Africa as well as via The Economist’s global website www.economist.com. Each contributor will also be given the opportunity to highlight and link to any project or website they run.

Now, I know that I’m not an English language major, but when I read ‘extensively promoted in South Africa as well as via The Economist’s global website www.economist.com‘, I do at least expect that if I had to go to that site, I might see a link to the project. I am, in fact, an Information Science student but even *I* couldn’t find a link to the project or any of the writing on the main site, nor on the South African page, nor even in a search for ‘theunexpected’ and a search for ‘Johannesburg’. Perhaps the Economist has other ways of ‘extensively promoting’ the site via http://www.economist.com, but if it has, then it hasn’t been too successful in bringing readers to the site. According to the site counter, most of the entries have been read about 100 times (many, since mid-July when the project started).

On closer inspection, the site actually turns out to be a PR campaign.

What do you expect from The Economist? Probably great opinion pieces on the economy and political world events. And you’d be right. What you probably don’t expect however is how much else there is too. Science and technology, literature, art, society, the environment; in fact just about anything that touches and influences our world.Something else you may find unexpected is who reads The Economist.
There are quite a few examples on this site – and they all live in Jozi. They’re people with opinions and views, on the world and especially on this city that’s filled with unexpected things. Have a look and see if you agree or disagree with their opinions and add some of your own views too.
Register on this blog and get full access to Economist.com which includes the full audio edition for three months

I do not read the Economist, and after this episode, I never will. I’d love to know what the writers thought when they realised that their content was actually being used in a PR stint. I know some of the writers. They’re amazing people – amazing people people trying to do great things.

But I for one am tired of the lies and lame, empty attempts to squeeze every last creative drop out of people who give a damn. If someone claims that we writers will receive real recognition of our contributions, or even real publicity, we should demand contracts that put these claims in writing. I am tired of being a pawn in multinationals’ claims about global solidarity and I’m tired of agencies making outrageous claims and not being held to account for their actions.

This is not just about something that is ethically wrong. This campaign (and many like it) are just plain ineffective. They’re ineffective because no PR company can buy the trust that is essential if you want to play in the citizen media space. At least when you pay people, they shut up most of the time.

I’m making a pledge to myself: if I’m going to contribute to a project (whether I’m paid or not – but especially if I’m doing it for free) then I will do it on my own terms and for someone I trust. It’s easy to get sucked into doing things where you think you’re going to gain recognition. I’ve done it before and it’s been a disaster every time. No more.

And to the Economist: call me when I can trust you. I’m doing just fine without your take on my country, thank you very much.

2 thoughts on “Call me when I can trust you

  1. I was also approached to contribute to what was defined as the “Economists Blog” but by a different agency – proximityttp (they seem to be located across the road of Atmosphere Communications). They requested to meet me at their offices and after a brief meeting seemed more than keen to have me on board for this “awareness project”.

    They wanted to use some of my pics on the blog, and also for me to blog a few times a week showcasing a different side of Jo’Burg via my photography.

    I was initially intrigued and happy to freely contribute. Till now I am still waiting for the agency to email me the finer details that I have requested before commencing. I even phoned and got an unconvincing excuse that their email system was down…

    I agree fully with your frustration and general concern about this project. Further I am highly disappointed to be mucked around by what seemed to be a professional communications company that literally wasted my time.

    #fail

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