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Paid vs editorial coverage – where is the line?

Following recent allegations that a contributor to asked a PR for £300 to write and place a story on the website, on top of their regular fee, Gavin B Harris, a freelance PR Manager and copywriter, blogs for Influence about the dangers of blurring the line between paid for and earned media.

It’s never right to pay for editorial coverage. No matter what the story or who the client is, news should be news and it should be earned on merit because of its value to the audience.

It’s all kinds of wrong to dupe audiences into believing that a story they read, see or hear is there on merit rather because cash has been paid on the sly to write or place it.

If you want controlled messages and images, that’s what display advertising is for.

Any PR worth their salt knows this and those with integrity abide by the principle when promoting their clients via the media.

Influence vs control

Of course PR, specifically media relations, involves influencing journalists and editors to get clients coverage to contribute to, and sometimes lead, news agendas.

Essentially, by building good relations to curry favour and learning what works for the newsgathering process (and what doesn’t) us PRs generate media coverage by exerting influence.

The fact that the majority of the general public doesn’t really have ANY idea how PR or journalism and newsgathering works is itself a huge problem we an industry have failed to address yet.

We must take action to change this. Interestingly Andy Green put forward some bold and very credible ideas to try and remedy this in his CIPR presidential election manifesto last year.

But that’s a slightly different issue for another blog post on another day.

Blurred lines

There’s no doubt that sponsored/branded content is blurring the distinction between paid and what we consider ‘pure’, news value and news angle driven editorial coverage.

But if it’s always clearly marked and explained for any audience member who wants to understand then I think that’s acceptable. It’s a fair shout to expect a degree of agency from audiences.

Sponsored content on the Guardian website is a good example of this.

But when Rich Leigh and Company, a Gloucester and Manchester-based PR company, got an email from a freelance journalist claiming to be a digital contributor asking for money in exchange for editorial coverage, their Spidey senses and proper professional values kicked in.

The email they received was in response to what the agency describes as a “perfectly targeted pitch” on behalf of a client.

You can read about the story on the Guardian website here.

Rich Leigh and Company acted with real professionalism and integrity and politely declined the offer.

Forbes has said it is investigating the situation and that: “Under the terms and conditions of the contributor contract that Forbes has with each of its contributors, no contributor should be requesting or receiving funds from third parties to write on specific subjects.”

Agency founder Rich Leigh told the Guardian: “As a PR company you would expect us to want coverage for our clients, but I want it to be on merit.”

Hear! Hear! Rich – you sir are the type of pro that our industry and our clients need.

(FYI He’s also a cracking writer)

‘Lone wolf’ or a wider issue?

Perhaps this is a ‘lone wolf’ type of issue concerning a rogue individual? Or perhaps it’s endemic of wider trends and practices in the media industry? We need proper investigation and solid evidence before we can turn anecdotes into matter-of-fact assertions.

But in the meantime where does this leave us as an industry and the CIPR as a professional body right now?

Personally I think as PRs we probably don’t advise our clients to advertise enough so that our prized target publications can actually make profits rather than seeing too much of the pie (aka marketing budgets) going into PR activities.

Publishers are businesses after all.

‘Can I have a ‘p’ please Bob?

I think we need to really change our attitudes here and make sure we don’t bite, nay, completely chew off the hand that feeds before it is too late and more media outlets shut.

So my message here is don’t forget the advertising please folks – there is a ‘p’ in PESO after all!

And publishers and journalists are finding times tough to say the say the very least (think never ending redundancies, former staffers going freelance, reduced editorial production budgets for publishers, etc).

That said, from what I’ve seen the majority of the news media industry has been too slow and too inept at converting web traffic in particular into commercial revenue.

We can chip in ideas to help change this but ultimately publishers and their owners need to drive that process and be more innovative, braver, cleverer and quicker in order to make it happen.

Plenty of bread on the table

Even so I’m of the opinion at the moment that there is enough marketing money coming from clients and organisations for everyone in our symbiotic industries to earn a living. Well, save for the chancers who we can probably chase out of town en masse if we try hard enough.

And if there isn’t enough budget then we need to tell clients to find the money or lose out to competitors that will. Cream does rise to the top doesn’t it?

However, PR and media business models will have to be very canny and keep evolving with professionalism and editorial integrity at the heart of what we do.

That’s exactly what our clients and our clients’ clients need from us.

I’m sorry this blog has thrown up more questions than answers but maybe that’s OK – I believe the important thing is to bring the issue back into centre stage and open up the debate. Right now!

We need to form a consensus and decide what we as an industry, and the CIPR as the professional body, are going to do about it.

Where do we go from here?

I for one would love to get involved in working with fellow CIPR members to produce a fresh best practice guide about how we remain professional and keep our integrity in these types of situations.

You know, ‘rule 1, never ever pay for editorial unless you’re an idiot and want to get booted out of the CIPR, etc’ type of thing.

In a media landscape that seems to shift so rapidly that if you put your phone down for half hour to let your eyes stop bleeding from constant screen reading you’ve missed a major development, these guides are as precious as that little gold band of metal that Gollum loves in The Lord Of The Rings.

Some of the ideas/points/perspectives in this blog are crowd-sourced.

Thanks to Jason MacKenzie, Sarah Pinch and Stephen Waddington for engaging with me on Twitter and briefly sharing their thoughts on the situation.

And lastly thanks to Laura Sutherland and Claire Curzon for also sharing their views on the matter on Facebook.

As an industry we really are stronger when we work together.

Gavin B Harris is a a freelance PR Manager and copywriter who specialises in sports, construction and property and food and drink ingredients. He lives by the sea and loves sport, follow him @gavinbharris.

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  1. Hmmm.

    Very interesting topic and some of the examples in the thread are concerning. Andy – will look forward to reading your blog in the coming weeks. And Gavin, we’ll make sure that we keep you in the loop about any similar ‘commercial’ approaches.

    The CIPR Best Practise guide you are suggesting will be very welcome here, and I’m sure widely across the industry. Louise.

    1. Hi Louise. Thanks for your comment. Glad you’ve found this blog interesting. And please do let me know if you get any similar ‘commercial’ approaches – my Twitter is @gavinbharris.
      Production of the CIPR Best Practice Guide about Paid vs Editorial Coverage Ethics is now underway, myself and another CIPR member are putting it together. It should be launched in June (fingers crossed!).

  2. Thanks for the comment Andy. It’s great to hear about the theory being put into practice to achieve the right result for your brand and your audiences

  3. As an expert now in the difference between ‘advertising’ and ‘public relations’ I’ve taken up Gavin’s call to comment.
    Once upon a time it seems there was a golden age when people who called themselves ‘Public Relations professionals’ used to imagine they disseminated unbiased, impartial objective information to a wider world. In contrast to the other people, who were called advertising professionals who paid for their message to be delivered, and therefore seemed to have less moral standing, despite being overt,transparent and operating to a clear public code of standards.
    Yes, it irks me that old days ways of doing seemed to be undermined and a future of murky relationships seems to be emerging as the norm.
    But was there really a ‘Golden Age’?
    1. the myths of our message was ‘unpaid’. Well, who the heck was paying the messenger? Isn’t that using a resource to deliver a message?
    2. there isn’t such a thing as ‘objective’, ‘impartial’ information: everything is biased and subjective.
    3. the business models that supported a media platform for ‘public relations professionals’ to operate within is screwed; there’s no going back.
    4. advertising is now increasingly being characterized in practice by viral, shared and earned media and public relations in its seeding strategies for social media is increasingly buying space -so can we define the two disciplines by the former distinction of earned and paid-for media?
    So, what needs to be done?
    1. We need to really define our profession as a matter of urgency, and move away from defining ourselves by not ‘how’ we do what we do, but ‘why’ we do what we do.
    2. We need to seize the chance to move up the food chain – but only if we seize the opportunities in brand, brand storytelling and narrative planning. At the moment it seems I’m pushing water up hill on these fronts.
    3. Champion the cause of transparency – that amidst complexity it is impossible to regulate and control, open accountability is the only feasible route for creating an ethical media world.
    4. We have to recognize the realities of of changes in our media environment and not clinging to anti-diluvian straws, pining for a lost past.
    Lastly, please do read Brooke Gladstone’s ‘The Influencing Machine’ – who concludes ‘we get the media we deserve’.

  4. Great advice Gavin.

    We don’t charge for publishing news stories or press releases. If I think our readers will like stories, I publish them. If I think they are too salesy, or not newsworthy, I don’t – I can’t see why you’d want to do it any other way.

    Publishers can make more money in the short term by charging a fee, and calling an advert news, but long term I think it makes subscribers leave and the quality of the publication suffers – and then who would want to pay to advertise in it anyway!

    1. Thank you very much Lisa.
      I applaud your stance on advertising and editorial – if it’s not newsworthy who actually wants to read it? Audience aren’t stupid. Why does anyone (ever!) buy and read a publication? It’s for the content (apart from the odd gimmick like free CDs and DVDs with Sunday national papers).
      That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading the ads in National Geographic, for example, but that’s not why I read it and love it.
      Unbeatable stories that are very well-written and researched, and beautifully crafted with amazing photography and images is what makes me consume it as a product.
      I think quality content will always shift copies, creating and sustaining good audiences that advertisers are interested in reaching out to.

  5. As a small boutique PR agency, we are also seeing similar behaviour. This week alone we have had two such ‘suggestions’, one shockingly from a national newspaper where the journalist is already a full time employee (suggesting that if we hired them to do some ‘creative’ work we could be assured a story in that title), and a well known online consumer platform who was suggesting a fee of around £150 to secure a client mention. We declined both, and would welcome some guidelines from CIPR on how to tackle this when it happens, as both titles are key to our clients and we have to be careful about alienating the journalists in question. We on both occasions had good solid content on offer.

    1. Hi Tweed.
      Very sorry to hear this. Shocking.
      Myself and two other CIPR members are currently planning to produce a CIPR skills/best practice guide for practitioners in this area.
      Can you contact me please so I can pass on details of what you’ve experienced to an appropriate person at the CIPR in order to help give you some advice and support and consider the wider implications (for you and the CIPR and its members and the industry as a whole).
      I firmly believe us PRs need to stand together on this issue and take appropriate action now.
      My Twitter is @gavinbharris, or if not Influence editor Rob Smith has my contact details if you want to get in touch with me via him?
      I think he’d be fine with that.

  6. After receiving a speculative approach from a ‘proven wikipedia editor’ asking for payment for a ‘publish guarantee’ for a wikipedia article, I spoke with Gavin who pointed me in the direction of various CIPR materials cautioning against such payments.

    Sound advice from Gavin the result of which is that I will not be paying for editorial content on wikipedia or anywhere else!

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