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Inside PR at The Guardian in the Edward Snowden Era

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Very few publications have won as much attention or acclaim over the past year as The Guardian.

The British/American paper shared its recent Pulitzer Prize for public service with The Washington Post, but three people are truly responsible: Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and, of course, Edward Snowden.

Since those fateful days in June when the story first broke, nearly every government in the world has faced a moment of reckoning; the revelations gradually revealed by Greenwald and Snowden have shaken the public’s trust in both its elected representatives and the companies producing the technologies it uses every day.

But there’s another side to the story, and it comes from the perspective of the communications team that helped manage what is unquestionably the biggest scoop of the century to date.

We recently spoke to Gennady Kolker, who oversees media relations at The Guardian US, for an insider’s view of the events of the past ten months.

When did you first learn about the Snowden story and when did you realize how important it would be?

Very few of us knew the full extent of the story. For obvious security reasons, the circle of those working on it–comprised of a few key editors and reporters–was kept quite small. But on Wednesday, June 5 (the day we published the Verizon story), my colleague Jennifer Lindenauer and I were invited into the conference room to meet with [Editor-in-Chief] Janine Gibson and [Deputy Editor] Stuart Millar for a preliminary briefing. ‘Right, so we have a story to talk to you about,’ Janine said. The curiosity and anticipation was palpable.

We were told that the Guardian was in possession of a top-secret court order that revealed the National Security Agency’s practice of collecting the phone data of US Verizon customers. We got a look at a draft of the story.

I was, to borrow a phrase, utterly gobsmacked.

This was the first time that top-secret documents had provided incontrovertible proof of the bulk collection of Americans’ phone data. The briefing lasted less than an hour, and we were given just enough information to devise an outreach strategy and prepare our response.

We only had a few hours.

The day after we published the Verizon story, we published another bombshell report that revealed that the NSA collects vast amounts of Internet communications ‘directly from the servers’ of leading technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. I left the office around midnight, and while on my way home I received a text from my girlfriend reading: ‘Why is Good Morning America calling our house?’

But it was not until Sunday, June 9–the day Edward Snowden came forward as the source of the leaks in an exclusive interview with the Guardian–that we learned the significance of the story. Only then did we begin grasp the magnitude of what lay ahead.

How did the strategy to raise awareness of the story develop? How much of it was organic?

The strategy was less about raising awareness than it was about coordinating and managing the response. The revelations were explosive and the journalism would speak for itself. We knew that.

Within hours after breaking the Verizon story, it was effectively everywhere. The next day we broke the PRISM story; most of the major networks carried it as ‘breaking news’, and we had reporters on three networks that night. In those first few days, coordinating media for our team of reporters (who were based on two different continents in two different time zones) was essential.

And it was absolutely exhilarating.

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Glenn Greenwald [AP Photo/Vincent Yu]

But as the scope of the story grew, so too did the number of competing narratives. There was the substance of the revelations. There were political and technological ramifications. There were myriad questions about the role of Guardian US, which, at the time, had only been in America for a year and a half.

There was the (rather silly) debate about whether Glenn Greenwald was a ‘journalist’. There were questions about process and procedures. There were all sorts of accusations and allegations from politicians and pundits. Our team in the UK also faced a dramatically more hostile political and media environment, which posed a whole new set of challenges.

Our task, simply put, was to balance the narratives as well as coordinate and manage the response. We fielded questions. We set-up and coordinated media interviews. We briefed reporters and producers, negotiated appearances and exclusives. We put out statements and releases to combat widespread misinformation as well as irresponsible accusations and allegations. At times, it felt like we were combating a massive misinformation campaign.

Could you elaborate on how you disseminated the information?

At the outset, we devised a strategy to send out short news alerts upon publication of each story. I spent the first few days building a custom database of contacts that included assignment desk editors, bookers and producers at all the major TV and radio networks, as well as reporters covering breaking news, national security, defense and technology.

That was a start. I slept very little that first week.

How was the initial response?

It was overwhelming. We were breaking news on network and cable prime-time TV, on the front pages of national newspapers and on the homepages of news sites worldwide. On the day Edward Snowden came forward as the source of the leak, it felt like most of the world’s major media had descended on my email inbox. It was great for my Rolodex, but it wasn’t so great for my health.

What sorts of requests did you receive from journalists?

Some wanted an interview with Snowden (which we obviously couldn’t accommodate). Others wanted Glenn and Ewen. There were all sorts of ‘process’ questions. Everybody wanted a piece of the story. It was understandable. We tried in earnest to accommodate most requests and answer as many questions from the media as possible. Transparency and accountability was the operating philosophy. As anyone who watched Glenn on TV throughout this story, he was the living embodiment of that–even if it sometimes would almost give me a heart attack.

There was a sense that we all knew this was happening. In those first few months, there was a lot of dismissive eye-rolling. I think that was the general public sentiment, and that’s understandable because these are technically and legally complex stories.

But there were certainly those who felt like we should be having an open and honest debate about the proper balance between security and privacy. It is both an age-old subject and one that had gone unaddressed for far too long.

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When did the feedback turn negative?

There were murmurs of criticism in that very first week of stories. Some were against Glenn, others were against the Guardian. The criticism was all very predictable, but none of it was very substantive. At times, the attacks got personal; that’s when we disengaged.

What was the strangest criticism you received?

The strangest was being accused of ‘sensationalizing’ the stories. They were already pretty sensational on their own. They certainly didn’t need any help from us. The most disturbing response, of course, was when prominent pundits and politicians began calling for Glenn’s prosecution. Some alleged the Guardian had an ‘agenda’. It was baffling. Phrases like ‘aiding and abetting’ were tossed around, and to this today, labeling journalists “accomplices” remains deeply troubling.

Then, of course, there was David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow; there was the destruction of hard-drives at the Guardian’s offices in London; there was unprecedented pressure from the UK government to cease publication of the stories.

The act of watching Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger hauled before House Affairs Select Committee in London and questioned about his patriotism tops the list of the most bizarre experiences in my professional career.

A video grab of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger giving evidence to the home affairs select committee

What was the greatest challenge surrounding the story and the subsequent response?

The unpredictability of the story.

In media relations, we often map out a series of likely scenarios, then plan and execute accordingly. But nearly every day for the better part of ten months, we were presented with a new set of unforeseen challenges. Every day a new set of narratives and questions would arise–and we had very little time to plan.

The scope and magnitude of the story and the speed with which it moved was jarring. There was a lot of thinking on your feet and going with your gut.

In what ways was the Snowden story different than anything else you’ve handled in the past?

Where do I begin? There was a responsibility to the source. There was a responsibility to our brilliant team of editors and reporters. There was a responsibility to the story and to the public that was, at times, overwhelming.

It was nothing like anything I’ve worked on before and perhaps like nothing I’ll ever work on again.

How did the story affect the reputation of The Guardian and its stature among news organizations?

Having broken both the Wikileaks and phone-hacking stories, The Guardian was already an established, well respected news organization known for groundbreaking investigative journalism. But we were relatively new in the US.

One of the most reliable metrics of reputation is what your competitors say about you when it matters most, and the support and recognition among our peers in the US media industry was deeply gratifying: some supported us while others rallied to our defense.

There was no shortage of brilliant reporting and analysis on the back of NSA stories.

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Were there any dramatic late-night calls with Glenn Greenwald that you can discuss?

There were many. Early mornings, late nights and weekends. We largely discussed media strategy and opportunities. But we argued as much as we agreed; it was sometimes fraught, but never uncivil.

I suppose it’s like any professional relationship. I would find myself laying awake at nights rehearsing my arguments. But in the end, I witnessed first-hand his tireless diligence and his forensic thoroughness. It was a privilege to work with him, and unequivocally one of the highlights of my career.

How much of your job every day still concerns dealing with the Snowden story and subsequent developments?

The volume and intensity of work has certainly subsided, but it’s still very much a part of my week-to-week.

What was the one thing that stuck out most throughout this experience?

That’s an easy one: it was the profound courage of Edward Snowden and of the resolve and resourcefulness of our team of editors and reporters.

It was an awe-inspiring thing to witness, and I am honored to have played some part in it.

Gennady Kolker is the Director of Media Relations for the Guardian US, where he oversees media strategy and media relations.

He was formerly Director of Publicity for The Nation magazine. Prior to The Nation, Gennady was the Online Communications Manager at Demos, a national public policy research organization, where he oversaw a wide variety of online engagement and media relations efforts.

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