Reporter Ratings Key At Pr Agencies -- Northwest Firms Use Analysis Of Products, Media Coverage To Gain Edge In Promotions

The art of spin control has become a science.

Public relations officials, hoping to give their companies a shinier image and a competitive edge, are increasingly relying on sophisticated statistical tools to assess - and in some cases report on - the reporters who cover them.

Some companies, like Sierra On-Line and Waggener Edstrom, have turned to media-analysis firms such as Carma International, the Washington, D.C.-based company hired by the Department of Energy to rate reporters.

Waggener hired Carma on behalf of Microsoft to look into Windows 95 coverage in trade publications before the launch of the new operating system.

Unlike the DOE, Sierra and Waggener said Carma did not analyze individual reporters for them.

But other companies operating in the area, such as US West, have gotten ratings of the reporters who cover them. US West also regularly purchases biographical information about reporters from companies such as the TJFR Group, based in Ridgewood, N.J., company officials said.

"I wasn't terribly shocked at the revelation," said David Brewster, editor of the Seattle Weekly. "This is a formal version of an informal trend that's become a fact of life.

Formalizing media analysis, though, and rating individual reporters, could lead to dangerous consequences.

On the one hand, companies could decide to cut reporters off based on poor ratings, news officials said. On the other, the scoring system could backfire if reporters who are embarrassed about scoring too well decide to go negative because of peer pressure.

"We're not trying to control the press, we're just trying to make sure our side of the story is also being told," said Jerry Brown, US West's director of media relations.

Brown said US West, which hired The Delahaye Group to do its media analysis last year, did not do one this year because of budget cuts, but will do so once there's more money.

For the past six months, Sierra has paid Carma to do a monthly three-page analysis of news coverage about the company.

In September, Carma found that reviews of Sierra software games remained extremely favorable while news coverage dipped slightly in favorability due to reports surrounding CompUSA's decision not to sell Sierra's new game Phantasmagoria because of violent content.

Carma found that the Bellevue company was able to deflect most of the negative press when it highlighted the fact that the game could be censored by players. It also found that Roberta Williams, the program's developer, typically garnered extremely favorable press.

So, Sierra began sending out Williams to market the game in person.