Peter Williams: 'The silence of the guilty' from EY over business journalism awards fiasco

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If  they teach a course called "Anatomy of a PR Disaster" for one of those communications degrees, then the fiasco surrounding the EY Business Journalism Awards will surely become the poster child.

Source: istock.com

In short, the story goes like this.

The New Zealand arm of one of the world's biggest accounting and business advisory firms, formerly known as Ernst and Young, sponsors awards for high quality business reporting and appoints a judging panel which includes EY executives and a distinguished business journalist, Rebecca Macfie.

The National Business Review's Karyn Scherer enters her series of stories on the multinational business machines conglomerate Fuji Xerox. It's a series which exposed questionable accounting and sales practices and resulted in the Serious Fraud Office starting an investigation, as well as Winston Peters calling for an inquiry.

But Ms Scherer's entry is not accepted because Fuji Xerox is an EY client.

Rebecca Macfie resigns from the judging panel in protest, NBR withdraws all its journalists' entries, and in a move of solidarity virtually every other media organisation and independent journalist joins the NBR in the boycott.

And what from EY?

Nothing.

It's the silence of the guilty, the red faced and the shamed.

It appears the awards may now no longer exist. The EY website has no link to them under the "PR Activities" page.

Calls from various media to the EY PR and Communications Manager Jenni McManus have not been returned.

The irony is that Ms McManus, in a former life, would have been breathing fire and brimstone over a situation so fraught with conflict of interest and corporate bullying. She has been a feisty, intelligent and award winning business journalist and commentator who used to appear often on former TVNZ early morning Business shows.

But needs must, and like many in her former profession she found that the grass was greener, and the pay much better, in the world of corporate communications. 

Now she knows she cannot defend the indefensible, so she hasn't.

EY must have known that high quality business reporting is bound to put a few noses out of joint"
Peter Williams

EY have made a massive blunder. 

Do they suspect that some of the company's work was not up to standard when looking at the Fuji Xerox accounts in recent years? Did they not want possible shortfalls in their processes exposed by what is, by my reading anyway, a high quality piece of investigative journalism?

Rule number one of sponsorship in the media industry - whether it be a programme, a sports event or  awards - should be that the sponsorship is editorially at arm's length.

That's the ideal world. Sadly the economics of media now mean the lines are very, very blurred.

Content concepts like the Kiwibank sponsored "Mind over Money" will become more commonplace, but then they seldom deal with controversy - and can hardly be accused of investigative journalism.

Awards in most fields are usually sponsored in some way or another these days. 

EY must have known that high quality business reporting is bound to put a few noses out of joint. So it should have gone out of its way to ensure Karyn Scherer's stories about Fuji Xerox were accepted with alacrity.

That they weren't reflects badly on the company.

EY's way of dealing with it is to stonewall, say nothing and know that they have more resources than any media organisation to see off what they will consider a minor blip.

In the wider public perception, they will win - because outside the media not many will care. 

But journalists have long memories. 

Coverage of EY's other big sponsorships - the Women's Rugby World Cup and the Entrepreneur of the Year - may just not be so sympathetic as a consequence of this arrogance.  

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