How to get news coverage — for a price!

Posted: August 1, 2008 in PR and News
Tags: , ,

Perhaps I am naive, in this age of flogs (fake blogs — see a list of some of the more infamous fakes at the Wikipedia article here), Pay-Per-Post, content syndication, paid placement masquerading as content and other forms of hidden influence, to believe that there is a wall between editorial and advertiser when it comes to news organizations, whether offline or online.

No, not perhaps. I am naive. I believe it when a media rep tells me that regardless of my media buy, he can’t guarantee that our press release will end up in the same issue. And if that’s the case with a PR, I’m floored by the idea that you can buy your way into actual editorial, if you’re big enough and have enough money.

MarketingVox had an article yesterday that quotes a PR Week survey saying that 19% of senior marketers admit that their companies have bought ads on a news site in exchange for a news story.

Even worse, this isn’t really new: last year that number was 17%.

My outrage is a year late. But better late than never.

I believe that the only reason to cover a story is that it is newsworthy. For me, the definition of newsworthy is so broad — virtually every story is of interest to somebody — that it is rarely a barrier to coverage.

I also understand that news organizations are businesses. But, like doctors, hospitals, lawyers and law firms, police officers, accountants and their firms and other businesses, journalists and editors and news organizations operate according to a set of agreed upon ethical principals, some backed up by laws.

Is news coverage in return for payment illegal? I don’t know. Is it unethical? In my opinion, it’s unethical, immoral and any other pejorative I can throw at it. It is certainly contrary to any claims of fair and balanced journalism, journalistic integrity, or trustworthiness that all news sources proclaim as loudly as possible. Where is the ombudsman? The ethics committee? What right do these organizations have to cast doubt on independent journalists and bloggers when their own practices are so… compromised?

I am reminded of that famous quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw. “We have established what you are, Madam. Now we are merely haggling over the price.”

So now, let’s turn to the “johns” in this equation.

Is it unethical for the marketers who bribe their way onto the news sits and into the papers? Well, they are willing participants in this unethical process. But some business people will take any advantage they can (in this case, 19%), just as some athletes take steroids and other performing enhancing drugs. When it’s illegal, that’s an issue for the courts. When it’s unethical, that’s an issue for the public.

In keeping with the naivety of this post, can someone please explain to me why this story isn’t getting more press coverage than it is?

Comments
  1. josef katz says:

    Maybe you should pay someone in the press to write an article about this issue….

    Do you think this has anything to do with the decline in readership and paid advertising? Maybe the papers have reached their breaking point. I know it doesn’t explain the ethics issue.

  2. jlsimons says:

    I think you’ve got something there, Josef. Maybe the increase is due to harder financial times across the board for news organizations. The article also said that the previous year, only 5% of marketers had paid or given gifts for coverage. So there does seem to be a relationship between rising graft and falling profits.

  3. […] Posted by jlsimons on October 19, 2008 A while back, I posted about companies buying their way into the news. […]

  4. david basch says:

    jeff
    I discuss this topic all the time in my advertising class at New Paltz. I believe it is even more insidious than you suggest. The traditional wall between ad and editorial has been braking down for about 10 years as media seeks to generate added revenue sources in a shrinking budget environment and advertisers seek to find more effective ways to reach skeptical and disloyal customers. This is all happening in an increasingly skeptical universe of consumers who now do not believe or trust commercial messages of any kind.

    At least, one could formerly trust that the edit you were reading, listening to or watching was created independent from the pressures of advertisers. This is less and less the case as product placement and PR has taken over from traditional advertising, but in an unannounced fashion. It is now no longer “This show brought to you by …” but rather “This show is about…!”

    When P&G created daytime soaps in the 50’s at least they kept their ad messages exclusively in the advertising. Advertisers may argue that they have no choice other than to compete in a tough marketplace but what I see as the long term upshot of this behavior is the inevitable killing of the advertising and marketing goose and her golden eggs.

  5. jlsimons says:

    David:
    Thanks for the comment and the perspective. Because you are one of the most ethical advertising professionals (and people) that I know, what you say is even more troubling. You say this all started breaking down about 10 years ago. So it was better before that? Was there a specific change in advertising or media that you think started the process? I wonder what your students think of this — did they ever even trust news, the way we older types did? I remember when I thought, if it was in the NY Times, it had to be true. If Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings told me it happened, I took them at their word. In many ways, it was more comforting.

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