It's been a long-accepted assumption that quality media maintained a line between editorial content and advertising. Newspapers and better magazines seemed to consider that line uncrossable. Radio and TV might let it blur a bit, especially with the rise of product placement in reality and game shows. But it rarely crossed the line when it came to news content.
Some trade publications, especially those published by small independent publishers, have for years been blatantly open about pay for play, or "buy an ad and we'll give you some nice coverage." Most publications that did that were know by p.r. people as media whores, and generally don't have a lot of credibility in the industries they serve, with some exceptions of course.
But the fact that editorial content could not be bought and would be included based on its own merit has been a key difference between advertising and the media relations, or publicity, part of public relations. It's why we public relations professionals -- or at least those of us who behave professionally -- have a straddle a few functions while serving our client -- part marketer, part communicator and part journalist. If we don't think and act like a journalist by pitching stories that are blatantly self-serving and have no redeeming value to the media's audience, then we won't succeed as publicists. We won't get the ink or the air time.
So it's troubling to read the results of a recent survey by Manning, Selvage & Lee, one of the top p.r. agencies and one I worked for some 20 years ago. The survey of 252 CMOs and marketing directors indicated that 19% of their organizations had bought advertising in exchange for a news story. That's up a bit from 17% who reported buying news coverage the year before.
Mark Hass, CEO of MS&L, quoted in Advertising Age today, said, "I'm not saying it's a huge problem, but 19% of senior marketers saying they do it constitutes a problem."
Maybe it's not huge, as Mark says, but I'd say it's a pretty big problem.
If more media outlets allow "pay for play," what will happen to credibility of news coverage? Those with the biggest budgets will get coverage, and if the line between editorial and news disappears, media will allow their dependence on advertisers to cloud their news judgment. We may never see true investigative journalism anymore, since the media won't want to offend those who are paying the bills. It's a very dangerous direction we're moving in.
Part of the problem is that our ad agency cousins are used to buying everything, so why shouldn't they be able to buy news coverage? You pay and then you get play -- simple as that.
MS&L's Hass is quoted, telling a conversation he had with an ad agency executive, who told him, "I don't understand what you guys in PR do all day, because if I need a story for one of my clients, all I need to do is ask a publisher or ad rep and I get it." Well, it might work sometimes where an editor is doing a roundup and it's just as easy to include one company or product in it as another. But it won't -- and it shouldn't -- work if what you're asking for is just off-base for what an editor sees as of interest to his or her audience. I know this firsthand -- any media outlet worth its salt will not cross the line. A publisher or ad rep may try to give a little help, but if what you're pitching is off-target, the editor won't do it.
Let's just hope, in these challenging economic times for many media, that money doesn't start to talk.