In the era of fake news it’s hard for reporters to know whom to trust and where to source reliable information. Whether or not a company should be noted in an article can be a difficult ethical decision for a journalist. Is this source an expert? Can a vendor be an impartial source and an expert?
The ethical implications for reporters can be difficult when it comes to selecting industry experts. Excluding vendors because they sell products or services may not be the answer – they often provide compelling insights. But quoting vendors is an ethically gray area for some reporters.
Paying for placements without disclosing that money has changed hands is never gray. Any time a brand or PR agency pays a writer for placement simply must be disclosed. That’s not media relations – it's paid advertising. Similarly, when a brand pays an influencer that too must be clearly disclosed, per FTC regulation.
The Ethical Gray Area
Recently, Buzzfeed News called attention to a regular contributor to some of the best-known online publications – Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc. – for including mentions of his paying clients in his pieces without disclosing the relationship. Buzzfeed documented 20+ instances where the contributor referenced and linked back to his agency’s clients without disclosing a relationship. The Buzzfeed article had a biting headline summarizing the problem: “If public relations is too hard, you can always just pay a journalist to write about your brand.”
In this instance, a PR pro was using his position as a contributor to get high-profile mentions of his paying clients. These publications are highly respected outlets assumed to have neutral, if not at least fair and balanced, content. While not a reporter per se, his repeated use of his contributor status makes for an ethically gray area. At what point is a contributor abusing his position versus creating quality content?
As noted above, what’s not gray are FTC rules that influencers and content creators must disclose paid relationships. And that’s a key reason why this issue is so upsetting for many PR professionals.
The Value of Relationships
PR is not just about how many clips you can get for a brand. Yes, we like to see the brand mentioned favorably in print, but that’s an outcome or result of our “real” job. Our actual job is to build brands and reputations – for the company at large, or its executives, thought leaders and customers. Part of this brand/reputation building stems from our being masters of media relations. And, it’s the relations part of the phrase that really matters. Building a strong relationship with a reporter happens over time – after having connected him/her to credible experts, opinions or data they need to write powerful stories. By providing reporters with valuable information, we start to gain their trust and build a relationship.
There is a clear line between paying for mentions as opposed to offering quality insights from a trusted source. And that’s why the role of a PR practitioner is vital – we build that relationship between our brand experts and media. The expectation is not that the media automatically will include our brand in an essay, but based on our previous relationships our media contacts should know they can trust us as a resource.
Melissa Zipin is managing director at LPP