I am not one to blog political, so please don't take this post as a political statement. I do think that this soliloquy from Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged is more relevant today than it was in 1957 when it was written. I also believe that this passage and the entire book is an instructive read for modern marketers and PR folk. If you'd rather read this, here's a link. Please share this.
I have no objection to adverting sales people selling into content. For example, if a medium is planning to run a piece on golf, then approach golf courses, equipment manufacturer, retailers, etc., about adverting in that issue or during that episode. Also, I think it is smart marketing to copy your advertising sales rep with any press release you are sending to a particular medium. (I don’t mind another voice bringing a good story to an editor’s attention one more time.) What I do fervently object to is the creation of seemingly editorial content strictly for its sales value as well as tolerance of the unfettered quid pro quo where advertisers get positive and pronounced editorial coverage despite the quality of the product or service in question. Running editorial and advertising as one unit where advertisers are “partners” is ethically dubious and it destroys the credibility of real PR in that medium, and perhaps across all media. The wall between editorial and advertising has always had a degree of fluidity, but I fear it is now no more than a gauzy veil. Editors, producers, journalists-rebuild this wall!
Check out this segment from NPR’s On the Media for an example of such a conflict.
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Creating a thought leading presence is one of the best ways for a firm to position itself and its products against its rivals. The primary vehicles for doing this are articles, case studies, and white papers written by a firm’s experts or experts outside of the firm. It’s no surprise that these documents, when well produced, enhance the credibility of a company and its wares. None the less, there has been a growing concern over the use of ghostwriters when producing these pieces. That is, the stated author of the article is not the person who actually wrote the piece. An article on Scientific American’s website illustrates how this issue has come to a head in the pharmaceutical industry, and how there is a call for an outright ban of ghostwriting in that sector. Ghostwriting is not limited to the pharmaceutical business, however.
Now, if the availability of a good writer, with good industry insight can get a firm to embrace writing articles, case studies, and white papers as a means for promotion, that is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. There are some inherent pitfalls in the process though. First is conflict of interest. If an article seems to be written by a known industry expert, but it is actually written by a firm that will benefit from the content of the piece, there is, in my opinion, a clear ethical problem here. The second issue is a bit more subtle, and is a little more concerning to me as a marketer. That is, when the articles and their content are completely foreign to the claimed author. Invariably, someone will ask the expert about the article, and if the expert cannot answer, there will be egg on the firm’s public face. Additionally, I’ll argue that this is akin to deceptive advertising. This is especially true when we are talking about services, as we make our decisions of whether or not to use a service provider (financial advisor, lawyer, auto mechanic, etc.) based on what we perceive to be their expertise. If what we perceive as that person’s expertise actually belongs to someone else, then we are being defrauded.
Yes, I know that experts are busy people and they don’t always have time to write. I am also fully aware that some people with great expertise in their fields are not necessarily good writers. So, what to do? YFind a good writer within your firm or from the outside and have them talk to, exchange emails with, and perhaps even job shadow the expert you’d like to showcase. Then have the writer draft an article and have it approved by the expert (yes, that means they have to read it), and publish the piece with a by-line that errs on the side of transparency. That can range from something like: “By Ellen Expert and William Writer,” to “By Brian Brainiac as told to Anna-Marie Author.”
Remember, good MPR is always authentic!
Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning something for something. I mention this because recently I saw a Twitter post from Richard Laermer (author of 2011: Trend Spotting for the Next Decade & Full Frontal PR) stating, “Another topic colleges never seem to teach kids: ‘quid pro quo.’” So, I figure I am the person to right this wrong, at least from a public relations standpoint.
When I hear this term it usually has a negative connotation and often has to do with a marketer trying to use the fact that his or her company advertises with a particular medium in order to get some publicity.* Any editor or journalist with a shred of professional credibility will tell you that this is never to be done and breaches the church-state wall that exists between editorial and advertising. They believe this when they say it, because they should, and I applaud them for it.
The problem is the wall is often more like a veil. Frankly, media companies like their advertisers. Ads pay the bills, and it’s nice to give some legitimate mention to deserving customers. What’s more, media sales folks love feature stories they can “sell into.” When a medium is running a piece on golf, you can bet that the sales team is dialing golf courses, golf retailers, and golf equipment makers as soon as they know the feature is going to run. Is the former scenario any more or less ethical than the latter? Is there not some form of quid pro quo at work in both instances?
Is there much difference between receiving editorial coverage as a reward for placing advertisements and just paying cash for editorial coverage? How do these practices differ from paid product placement?
Is it unethical for an MPR professional to copy their advertising sales representative with a press release and pitch letter being sent to the editor of their medium?
*Another, more basic, example of quid pro quo is commercial broadcast media. Viewers and listeners get access to television and radio programming with the understanding that there will be advertisements mixed into the content.
So, in this month’s edition of Forbes, there is an article entitled “Blogola” about Ted Murphy and his company, Izea Entertainment. The article describes how Izea compensates bloggers to write reviews of its clients’ products. Clients include some heavy hitters like HP and Sears. Since it seems that the payment is made for favorable reviews, the watchdogs are baringtheir teeth. Companies, however, seem to still be on board to some degree. Consumers are standing in the middle of all this.
This poses an interesting question for marketers: Is this ethical? If you’re like me, your first reaction is “no way.” It is my belief that bloggers and other social media connectors are like journalists and their opinions should be their own unsullied ones, not veiled advertisements.
OK, with that out of the way, we do need to realize that bloggers are not exactly like journalists, and the blogosphere and other social media are still in their wild, wild west phase. That is, some people just do whatever they want, and truth be told, there aren’t strict ethical standards woven into the fabric of social media like there are with traditional journalism. So, let’s put this argument aside.
Here’s the real rub. Despite the church and state wall that is supposed to exist between the editorial and advertising functions of traditional media, do you suppose that some stories get picked up to support an advertiser, or that some get squashed to protect an advertiser? I’m not saying this is the rule, but the exception rears its head more often than the average consumer would think.
So marketers, what to do about this? This is likely the marketing ethical dilemma of this decade, if not the century. Bloggers and companies that walk this line well and keep their audiences in mind will be the winners in the race for the hearts and minds of consumers.
Gaetan Giannini is an Assistant Professor and the Chair of the Department of Business, Management & Economics at Cedar Crest College. He is also the author of Marketing Public Relations (Pearson-Prentice Hall) and a speaks and writes frequently on sales and marketing topics.
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