Following recent allegations that a contributor to Forbes.com 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.
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 Forbes.com 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.
Image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net