Motor Trend's Jessi Lang says she is a journalist who wants to help "build relationships" between that publication and its readers while covering the auto industry. She's also being paid to represent oil company Phiillips 66 as a spokesperson who is trying to help influence young people to buy their gas, something Motor Trend doesn't appear to be telling its readers.
Taking payment from a potential newsmaker is a generally frowned upon practice, but Lang, and the PR firm representing Phillips 66, say Motor Trend approves of her simultaneously representing an automotive publication and a company that's part of the automotive industry.
Last month a PR firm hired by Phillips 66 — which sells gasoline through brands like Phillips 66 and Conoco — reached out to reporters with the results of a survey designed to evaluate the buying habits of 21-to-30-year-old "millenials" and offered up a quote from Jessi Lang, who they identified as a spokesperson and host of Motor Trend's weekly automotive news roundup "Wide Open Throttle" on YouTube.
Here's the quote from her:
"Millennials think they're saving money by seeking out cheaper gas, but what they don't realize is that the unbranded gasoline they're buying actually can cost them money in the long run by compromising their fuel economy and causing build-up in their engine," said Jessi Lang, host of Motor Trend's "Wide Open Throttle" and Phillips 66 spokesperson. "By using branded TOP TIER gas like Phillips 66, 76 and Conoco, these drivers can clean up their engines and accrue significant savings over time – especially now that these brands have had the detergent additive treat rate increased by more than 25 percent in all fuel grades."
In the pitch from Jessica Zecchini, an account representative for Formula PR, the article being suggested is "a Millenial and Fuel Purchasing topic, having Jessi demonstrate to your readers the value and benefits of the new detergent additives in Phillips 66, 76 and Conoco branded fuels —"
To the credit of the editors who received this pitch, I haven't seen anyone from a major publication write anything about it.
I requested an interview with Lang to discover what insight she may provide and also to find out why she might think working simultaneously for Phillips 66 and Motor Trend was acceptable.
"Well, basically, millenials are a really interesting demo because they're the voice of today but the game changers of tomorrow," Lang told me. "The way they're socially integrated… they're sharing the opinions of everything including fuel, and we believe that will help… influence buying habits."
Lang is currently working on a PhD in Cultural Studies at George Mason University and has a Masters in English from the same institution. Since 2009, she's worked in the auto industry formerly writing for Roadfly.com. So, where does this interest and expertise in fuel and fuel additives come from?
"My understanding of additives came from my grandfather, who taught me the importance of additives," said Lang.
I asked her if it was proper for her to take money from Phillips 66 and work as a journalist for Motor Trend at the same time.
"I get paid by Motor Trend to be a journalist and to help educate others and that doesn't at all call into question my integrity as a writer."
Lang also said that "anyone within a capitalist society" should be compensated for their work.
At that point she admitted that Motor Trend was aware of it and added that "I understand what your story truly is, I'm not willing to feed into it."
Shortly thereafter I received a call from Formula PR's Tara Reid (she was unwilling to give me her last name when she realized she would be quoted, but I was able to determine it after learning her email address). She was upset that I had asked those questions and wouldn't confirm if Lang was being paid directly by Phillips 66 or by Formula PR.
"This has nothing to do with her work with Motor Trend," explained Reid, even though they frequently used Motor Trend as the proof of her expertise. "This has to do with additives and Philips 66, it's about fuel and the additives and our campaign is about Jessi sharing these interesting millennial fuel purchasing behaviors."
I sent a follow-up email with questions Reid was unwilling to answer on the phone, but as of publication I haven't heard back.
I also reached out to Motor Trend's Editor-in-Chief Ed Loh both through email and on Twitter to ask him if this is standard practice, to confirm that he approved this campaign, and ask whether he saw it as a conflict of interest. Loh has, so far, declined to acknowledge the questions.
There's also video of Lang visiting online tire retailer TireRack for Motor Trend, which feels very much like an ad for the TireRack, but we're never told if there's any editorial-advertising tie-up, although the TireRack is the official tire and wheel provider for Motor Trend and promotes "editorial" content that's also basically advertising.
With all the grey areas in modern automotive journalism, and with Motor Trend's many advertorial tie-ups, is Lang's behavior actually wrong?
"It's a very blurry line... but it certainly gives you pause," says Tom Appel, President of the Midwest Automotive Media Association and Publisher of Consumer Guide Automotive. According to Appel, to the best of their knowledge they've never had a member take money from an auto-related industry while also reporting on it.
The Associated Press Managing Editor's ethics statement clearly says "The newspaper and its staff should be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers. Even the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest should be avoided."
However, the APME guide also says "Newspapers should accept nothing of value from news sources or others outside the profession. Gifts and free or reduced-rate travel, entertainment, products and lodging should not be accepted."
Motor Trend, Jalopnik, and most other automotive publications accept free or reduced travel frequently. Though we disclose the travel we receive, it's still not a commonly accepted practice in most journalistic circles outside of automotive and lifestyle.
"if you think about buff books, especially Car And Driver and Motor Trend, they've done a great job covering the petroleum industry and you'd hate to see that compromised in any way even by simple finger pointing," says Appel.
You could also argue what Lang does isn't journalism, but infotainment, yet Lang asserts she's a journalist and mentioned journalistic integrity when I spoke with her.
There's also a revolving door between PR and journalists with writers and editors going back-and-forth between auto companies and auto publications, although I can remember no case where someone was working for an automotive company and an automotive publication simultaneously.
An exception is also frequently made for race car drivers who write for publications because their other job requires working with sponsors, typically automotive ones — Motor Trend has this issue with Justin Bell and we have it with Robb Holland, Alex Lloyd and Bill Caswell, although we try to make it clear when they're writing about sponsors (and Lloyd isn't currently racing).
The exception in this case comes because we value the insight they have as race car drivers and people generally understand, even if it isn't disclosed, they have sponsors just like any other athlete.
Motor Trend hasn't made clear that one of their employees is taking money from a company in the automotive space and won't even comment on it. We don't know if Motor Trend made an exception for Lang or if other writers also take money from organizations the publication covers or could potentially cover, because no one there has answered our questions.
In their article on the industry last year, the American Journalism Review review dinged the magazine for parroting the marketing campaigns of the automakers they were supposed to be objectively covering:
"[W]hile car reviewers like to see themselves as independent critics, carmakers see them as pawns, or maybe knights, in their marketing campaigns."
In the case of Lang, Motor Trend, and Phillips 66 it seems they've skipped ahead from trying to woo car writers with free trips to paying them outright.
(Correction: In the original version of this article Phillips 66 was referred to as ConocoPhillips. The company separated from ConocoPhillips earlier this year.)