Thursday, April 4, 2013

Down the rabbit hole of Canadian Journalism: the curious case of Denise Deveau, BlueSky Communications and the Financial Post



What started off as a criticism of yet another somewhat misleading real estate article in the newspaper may well have become a trip down the rabbit hole of Canadian journalism.

Last Thursday we began asking if Denise Deveau, a freelance reporter, was actually working on behalf of a communications company when she submitted what amounted to a glorified advertisement for a Vancouver mortgage brokerage company to the Financial Post.

The formula pulp piece appeared March 27th and was titled "Home is where the retirement money is"


A subject is introduced, background given (with requisite problem/issue) and then a company was profiled.  This particular article caught our eye because sharp eyed blogosphere sleuths noticed the subject happened to work for the company profiled in the article.

This fact wasn't originally revealed to readers, a simple white lie that rankles given the litany of media manipulation we've seen from the real estate industry recently.

Was the article 'news' or was it 'newsvertising'

As we dug a little deeper, some disturbing facts surfaced. 

The freelance reporter, it turns out, is listed as an employee with not one, but two communications companies.

On the website of one these companies, the public is told clients can obtain "continuous media coverage" from the PR firm:
Whether we are securing regular media coverage for you, making you the topic of online discussions or developing impactful marketing pieces, our integrated, big-picture approach is intrinsically linked to where you want to bring your business... Our outstanding results speak for themselves. We are particularly talented in getting continuous media coverage for our clients that communicates directly to the target market. And after engaging us for a period of time, you will see the impressive impact media coverage has on your business.
In another section of the website we discover Denise Deveau, the freelance reporter with the Financial Post, works for the firm.  From the profiles of BlueSky Communications employees:
Denise has over 20 years of journalism and corporate communications experience. She handles a wide variety of writing and research assignments in the high tech, financial services, retail, government, education, oil and gas, and consumer sectors Whether it’s a thought provoking article, or compelling marketing collateral, Denise is able to deliver an effective piece that will meet your business objectives.
Awfully convenient having one of the Financial Post's regular freelance contributors on staff to potentially bring these website claims to life, isn't it?

If this is actually what is happening, we asked if there wasn't an inherent conflict of interest (or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest) when a member of a communications company (who specialize in gaining access to media for their clients) writes for the Financial Post?

Shortly after asking this, the online profiles of Denise Deveau began disappearing from the websites of both communications companies (see here and here).

Naturally this raised eyebrows and we felt compelled to take a closer look at what is going on here.

BlueSky Communications has an interesting website page where they talk about their clients appearances in the news, a sort of self-congratulatory promotional page for their past success stories.

(At least the webpage exists as of last night, we'll see if it stays there much longer).

For kicks and giggles we took a look through to see which clients BlueSky has in its stable. Next we poked around the internet to see if Deveau may have had any articles published in the media profiling those same clients.

BlueSky seems particularly proud of the work they have done for the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, so we started there (click on images to enlarge):


Sure enough it didn't take long to find an article from Deveau.

On January 19th, 2013, Deveau contributed this article to the Financial Post (which was picked up by the Edmonton Journal).

It follows the same formula as the article for the Vancouver mortgage broker company.  Someone is profiled, background given (with requisite problem/issue stated) and then a company was profiled. This time it is the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. Here is the initial shout-out to them:


Coincidence?

If it was just one article, perhaps. Let's face it, BlueSky promises to obtain "continuous media coverage" for its clients so one article is hardly a smoking gun.

But a little more digging and we come across this February 4th, 2013 article which appeared on Canada.com. 

Same formula again. In the body of the article is this shout-out to the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University:


Another coincidence?

What about this one? On November 17, 2012, there was this article for post media news (again picked up by the Edmonton Journal). Same formula and in the body of the article is this shout-out to the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University:


Google actually reveals quite a few articles that Deveau has written which happen to mention the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University:


On a case study page for various clients, BlueSky offers this testimonial from the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University:
"Working with BlueSky Communications has been instrumental in generating awareness of our programs while raising the profile of our instructors as experts in their fields - contributing to increased enrollment and positioning us as leaders in continuing education."

- Marilou Cruz, Marketing Manager, The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University

BlueSky Communications seems to have quite the track record of successfully placing their clients front and centre in media stories. BlueSky's case studies page boasts of their numerous achievements.

For Bread and Butter Skincare, BlueSky secured 45 media stories (averaging 13.5 articles a month) from october 2009 - April 2010:


LifeSpeak Inc., a company that designs customized workshops for corporations, hired BlueSky for its national launch. BlueSky's efforts resulted in
front-page media coverage in the National Post and profiles in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, CBC Radio and Canadian Living. BlueSky’s ability to generate pre-launch buzz and build anticipation proved successful in attracting new business calls for LifeSpeak. Ongoing profile in the media has not only helped LifeSpeak continue to attract new clients nation-wide, it’s also helped the company attract new speakers for its roster.
Clearly BlueSky Communications is very effective at their job. 

But as we asked at the start, is there not an inherent conflict of interest (or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest) when a member of a communications company (who specializes in gaining access to media for their clients) writes for a given media outlet?

These 'news' articles appear to be nothing more than advertising features for the companies that are profiled.

Don't the rules of disclosure demand the public is told this fact up front? Exactly how widespread is this practice anyway? Does government have to mandate that "ADVERTISING FEATURE" be stamped across these newspaper articles so that our press is transparent to us?

More importantly, is there any real journalism being done by our nation's written press anymore?

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26 comments:

  1. Pimpin' ain't easy....

    Especially when all these %@&*$#!! damn bloggers are watching!!

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  2. Keep it up. I am waiting to hear what the major news papers have to say - or any news paper for that matter.

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  3. If the govt controls what newspapers will print, then the govt will control what bloggers can print. Don't go there.

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  4. This is really interesting. Nice job on the follow up research as well!

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  5. Thank you for all your work on this and other 'media watchdog' posts you've prepared. I have a graduate degree in journalism and it appears to me that Deveau posed as a freelancer while being paid by clients to plant stories. I was once approached by a marketing company to do this and said no as it is a clear breach of integrity. Media circles are small and word travels fast so it's important to guard your good name.

    Yes, there are a lot of advertorials and advertisers do get special consideration on occasion, but this most definitely crosses a line and most editors would be livid to find out they'd been duped like that.

    I'd be surprised if I saw Denise Deveau's byline in the Post again.

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  6. I can't wait for this whole industry to collapse. It will be a great day when the scum of the RE industry is wiped out because of their corruption. Hopefully this happens soon, this crap is getting old.

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  7. Don't agree with the last sentence, you raked some good muck there, but don't throw it away with broad statements about whether " any real journalism being done" any more. There is, even by papers like the Vancouver Sun. Let this specific issue with this particular media firm stand on its own right.

    Also, small point, you use "it's" as a possessive. It should be "its". We on the blogosphere don't care too much but this type of work deserves proper grammar ;)

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    Replies
    1. +1. Whisperer, this blog is carving out some really interesting territory, and in the process it dabbles in both speculative (some might say insinuatory) and investigative elements. I think a clearer delineation between fact and suspicion would help (along with proofreading -- congratulatory, not congradulatory).

      Going full-on investigative would be marvelous, but would represent an enormous commitment and I fully understand if that's out of the question!

      Delete
    2. It's a blog guys, not a formal investigation or grammar school. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I got lit up yesterday, and I could care less today as I'm sure everyone else does.

      The problem is who pays the bills for the media (check out a local daily, it's the real estate industry), and because of that why wouldn't everyone be suspicious?

      It's very opaque, kinda like the government, and that's the problem!

      Delete
    3. What Whisperer is forging, and what I think he/she has to be particularly careful with, is a relationship with the media. The other RE blogs, after years of solid coverage and some really good analysis, are graced with little more than the odd snide comment from Cam Muir. This one in its comparatively brief existence has landed itself in the media several times, and even gotten commentary back from a few editors. I think a slightly more journalistic bent, both in style of coverage and in craftsmanship, would build that relationship. That's constructive criticism and Whisperer is free to take it or leave it; I'll enjoy this blog either way.

      There are plenty of blogs out there that give professional journalists a run for their money. It's a perfectly respectable format.

      Delete
    4. Yeah, create another blog and set it to invite only. I'm sure a lot of us would be happy to collaborate / review / help with research before you post in full.

      Delete
    5. I'm really not sure where all this criticism of Whispers is coming from, either in terms of content or style. The Sun's largely a Fraser Institute-led rag, with often poorly written and poor researched articles and almost no investigative journalism. I fully agree with Whispers on the state of journalism today, which is rife with the sort of newsvertorial we saw with Deveau. As someone who used to teach political economy of Canadian media industries, I find it's pretty commonplace to observe that advertising and other corporate interests have materially damaged the integrity of news journalism. The Globe isn't much better than the Sun, either. I mean look at Gary Mason's inference, poor research, ideology over fact, and sometimes uninformed opinionatedness. As for style, Whispers is writing a blog and not for a paper, of course, and blog writing affords many liberties papers do not including speculation. But Whispers' research looks pretty sound to me, and the inference mostly held in check, more than I often see in the official news media. As for giving "the other side" a chance to respond - the other side has already captured news media. And Whispers does not claim to be a national newspaper doing journalism; I see Whispers as an anonymous corrective to a distorted media. It's a sign of our loss of faith in the official news media that that everyone here is wanting Whispers to be a substitute newspaper! But really, that's both too much to ask and perhaps not what's really needed. Let trained journalists feel shamed into taking over where Whispers leaves off.

      Delete
  8. I agree with Jesse. Also, I think you should always give 'the other side' a chance to respond to your article before you post it. Or, so says the old journalist in me :)

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    1. I think Bo Xilai said he's been waiting almost a week for a response from the National Post editor on this?

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    2. Well, I guess I would set a reasonable timeframe (ie: 24 - 48 hours) for a response and if you don't get one, then at least you can report that you tried.

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  9. The Financial Post should publish an examination of this. Every time you see an article like this now you're going to think it's a shill ad piece.

    Who knows... maybe they all are.

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    1. Exactly my point, but much better stated

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  10. This is the story post i've been waiting for regarding this scam. i'm not 'spamming' the internet with the link to your blog. thanks for your work and being a great communicator.

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  11. Hey blog dogs, don't forget to vote. (pun intended)
    http://blog.buzzbuzzhome.com/2013/04/most-trustworthy-expert-vancouve-real-estate-market.html

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  12. Shocking, Whispers,the dog, got most of the votes:

    http://blog.buzzbuzzhome.com/2013/04/most-trustworthy-expert-vancouve-real-estate-market.html

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    1. That's great just voted for Whispers now leading with 73% of the vote.

      Keep this up Whispers you're blog refreshing compared to the stories in the media.

      Thanks for digging into the facts.

      Delete
  13. Whisperer, I don't know if this is the case with Denise Deveau, but years ago when I worked for the customer service section of a large company, we used a fake name to respond to complaint letters. The name was Denise Martin, or Diane Dumont or something like that. We used that name to sign letters and other communications, but nobody with that name ever worked for the company. Callers asking to speak to her were told that she was on vacation, and then were routed to other representatives. It deflated a lot of complaints, and if ever there was any trouble, the name would change, and the fake name (and reputation) would cease to exist.

    The tip off is a name that sounds authentic in French or English.

    I'm not sure this is the case with Denise Deveau, but I doubt that anyone would be so brazen as to stake their livelihood on such fragile credibility.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for the tip, smaralox.
      This is not ethical, I think.

      Delete
  14. Stop picking on the Whisperer's grammar. People on vacation are allowed to let sand in the keyboard impact their typing.

    Definitiely ethical issues here, but why does this surprise anyone. Open up google maps, focus on downtown Yvr and a few Kms around and search for "Public Relations". See how many firms turn up. They will all in some form or other make placement claims similar to the incumbent firm here. Take everything you get from the press with a grain of salt. It has always been this way. But the awareness is growing. An excuse that was made a few days ago was that there is intense pressure to compete with online sources which have much lower overhead and fewer standards. I would suggest stooping lower to compete with these will only lead to a death spiral for the MSM as one person at a time turns away from what is offered up. But there is no great alternative, so we have to continue to do this type of work, the whisperer's work, to get a better product for ourselves.

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  15. If you search for Denise Deveau on the National Post archives in the past several years you see the same formula for many many stories. Its frankly obvious whats going on. Either her editors are stupid or liars or stupid liars....

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  16. This is a troubling trend in our new media but hardly a new development. For years press agencies have offered media exposure for companies willing to pay. This was much more common in the magazine world. I worked for a company that hired the services of a press agency and ended up being featured in the Robb Report. It's a way for magazines to get content and be paid for it at the same time. Plus the company usually runs an ad alongside their 'feature'. With newspapers struggling to find new streams of revenue it's not surprising they are emulating this model. It seems the lines of news/magazines are being blurred even more. They are no longer 'news'papers but merely a cheap magazine that sells out to whoever is willing to pay.

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