Gini Dietrich

Journalistic Ethics: What Every PR Pro Needs to Know

By: Gini Dietrich | December 5, 2013 | 
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Journalistic Ethics- What Every PR Pro Needs to KnowBy Gini Dietrich

A couple of weeks ago, we received a phone call from the editor of one of our client’s biggest trade publications.

She wanted to write a feature cover story about the client’s organization and pull in interviews from the executives and people on the manufacturing floor.

The catch? The client had to buy a year’s worth of advertising.

While an interesting tact – particularly at the end of the year when you have sales goals to meet – it made me angry enough that I advised my team to tell her where to stick it.

What happened to church and state?

I know, I know. Pay-to-play happens in the trade publications all the time, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s Not Just the Trades

There was a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who wouldn’t cover you or your clients – no matter how newsworthy – if you didn’t “bribe” him.

Mostly it was dinners out at fancy restaurants, but he would also accept gifts – at his home, not the office – in the form of liquor or baked goods.

This went on for years after it became widely known that journalists accepting gifts was a big no-no. They couldn’t even let you buy them a cup a coffee.

He didn’t care. He just found a way around the ethics rule and everyone knew, if they wanted to be in his column, they had to pay to play.

This used to make me really angry. I called him out on it several times and he just laughed at me and called me a cute little naive thing. When he retired, I danced a jig because I knew I no longer had to play by his rules.

Enter Politico

Because of my staunch, “We keep church and state separate” beliefs and because of journalistic ethics and disclosures required by the FTC, I was shocked when Howie Goldfarb sent me a link about Mike Allen, the chief White House correspondent for Politico, participating in a payola scam.

Billed as native advertising, some of Allen’s peers did a review of “Playbook,” the daily newsletter Allen distributes, to prove anyone who plays for a slot in the newsletter gets adoring coverage in the editorial space – without disclosure or attribution.

That said, every story I’ve read – from the Washington Post to New York Magazine – has been completely one-sided.

Allen hasn’t sat down for an interview or released a statement explaining his side of things.

We don’t know if he really believes the things he’s writing and it just happens they advertise with him or if he’s being influenced by the $35,000 per week check they’re writing.

And he’s on the hot seat because of who he is…and the popularity of his daily mail.

Journalistic Ethics and the PR Pro

As lines begin to blur even further – and PR pros look to things such as native advertising and sponsored content – it’s important to keep our ethics in check.

Yes, you will get editorial coverage if you also pay for ad space. Not in all publications, but in most trades.

Yes, you can invite journalists to lunch, but they have to pay for their own meal.

Yes, you can buy a slot on the home page of BuzzFeed for your client’s story on the 10 things The Three Stooges can teach you about personal finance.

Yes, you can even insist on an in-depth interview with your executives if you have ads running with the media outlet.

But is it right?

It is our job to present our clients – or bosses – in the best possible light. It is our job to help manage their reputations.

By playing by these unethical rules, we create the opportunity for slander, investigative reports, and negative stories. All things that not only are bad for the organizations we represent, but can get us fired.

We know bloggers have to disclose relationships with organizations when they’ve received something in exchange for their review.

Why not insist the same when we’re working with the media?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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67 Comments on "Journalistic Ethics: What Every PR Pro Needs to Know"

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HeatherTweedy
2 years 5 months ago
Fantastic article!   I, too, believe in a bright line when it comes to compensating journalists.   I think that it would be interesting if every time a news publication wrote about an advertiser, it had note it before or after the article.  I wonder if you would have to distinguish between pay-for-play and just strategic advertising.  Would legitimate reporting ever get caught in the crossfire of looking like it was sponsored?   I am not sure that I am that shocked about the Politico scandal (if there ends up being anything there) because I don’t really hold newsletters up… Read more »
AmyBishop
2 years 5 months ago

Gini, great post. I think the importance of this cannot be stressed enough — especially when it comes to receiving benefits from payments and relationships that are not properly disclosed. I would love to know more about your thoughts on how PR pros can ethically integrate sponsored content into their strategies without crossing the ethical line.

MosherMullen
MosherMullen
2 years 5 months ago

Thanks for this post!  This drives me absolutely bonkers. My heart breaks when I work with clients to develop a relevant, thought provoking pitch for trade pubs and I’m answered back with ad rates. I have had clients come on board who actually think “pay to play” is the rule, not the exception.

KirkHazlett
2 years 5 months ago
Gini ~ To put it mildly, this is fantabulous! You validate everything that I “preach” to my PR classes practically every day regardless of whether or not that’s actually the topic for the day’s discussion. Ethics in public relations…or ANY profession, for that matter…is non-negotiable. At the end of the day, we, as PR pros, have to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and be proud of what we see. And we have to be proud of how we achieve coverage on behalf of our clients or employers.  At the same time, we have to continue our mission… Read more »
ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

HeatherTweedy LMAO!! Your last sentence? Hilarious!

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

AmyBishop I think it’s still a pretty gray line. I really like how BuzzFeed does it with the yellow box around the sponsored content. If we were to do it here (and we’re thinking about it), we would put up at the top that it’s sponsored content and name the advertiser. My counsel will always be to err on the side of caution. If you disclose it in a meaningful way, you’re probably safe.

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

MosherMullen That would make my heart break, too!

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

KirkHazlett I would love to sit in a class of yours. You’re one of the good guys and you’re doing it right. I’d interview anyone who has been a student of yours. 
The other thing is we only have our reputation in this business. So why would we sully it with unethical behavior? I don’t get it.

Jon Boroshok
2 years 5 months ago

This will be required reading for my PR students at SNHU — and I’m forwarding to oru Journalism professors too. Great piece – thanks for writing this!

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

Jon Boroshok That makes my day!

KirkHazlett
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich KirkHazlett You just might hear from one of my “troops” one of these days, Gini!
And come on down to sunny suburban Milton, MA! Would love to have you talk to one of my classes! 🙂

yvettepistorio
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich HeatherTweedy Heather, we are kindred spirits – I’ll take baked goods no questions asked!!

yvettepistorio
2 years 5 months ago

This stuff makes me feel icky to put it in simple terms. Your reputation is all you have and like Kirk says we have to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and be proud of what we see. I go with: If it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.

bdorman264
2 years 5 months ago

Will you help me manage my reputation? 
Ethics, what a novel concept. And what about the politicians who accept all that PAC money; ever thing that influences their vote? 
Yes, you can call it naivety, but you also knows when it smells too.

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

bdorman264 Or the people who donate lots of money to get Cabinet positions…

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

yvettepistorio You’re right…your reputation is all you have.

BillSmith3
BillSmith3
2 years 5 months ago

Great post Gini and should be shared far and wide within the PR community. What we have to do is as a profession is lead by example.

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago

So my Guerilla Marketing Tactics worked on you. They have not worked on @dannybrown because DougH won the social business slot in his recent buzz word post.

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

BillSmith3 I totally agree, Bill. The nice guy always finishes last, but in this case, it’s very well worth it.

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

Howie Goldfarb I listen to everything you say and send along.

jasonkonopinski
2 years 5 months ago
The waters, they be murky indeed.  You’re quite right that pay-to-play is commonplace in trade pubs and business journals (there’s one here regionally that immediately comes to mind) and potential advertisers are getting really savvy when negotiating rates. “You want me to sign off on a year contract? Fine. I get the editorial *first* and then my ad run starts.” I came up against it a few times during my short stint in advertising sales and it used to frustrate me to no end.  You want to really talk about mixing church and state? There’s a small advertising agency that… Read more »
BillSmith3
BillSmith3
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich BillSmith3 
I have this rule of thumb, can you look at yourself in the bathroom mirror before bed and ask yourself, “Have I done the right thing today?” 
The real test is of course, did you sleep well afterwards. I rather finish last and sleep well.

ExtremelyAvg
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich bdorman264 Wait a minute…is that real? Cabinet positions are for sale?
I can’t afford it, yet, but I’m adding that to my life wish list. Awesome!

susancellura
susancellura
2 years 5 months ago

This just irks me! No wonder people turn to the Internet and make their own decisions versus believing established reporters and journalists. 
As I have not read the article yet, I’m curious to know if the paper(s) have ever stood up for themselves by firing these reporters? I mean, for example, the WSJ is “one of the most respected” publications out there…what would they do if this happened to them?

RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

Politico is absolute trash. I expect no more of them than I’d expect from the National Enquirer, and stopped reading it years ago. Relying on Politico for political news is like relying on People for economics news.
I know that’s not the point of your post, but I needed to get that off my chest.

ExtremelyAvg
2 years 5 months ago
This was a fantastic post. There is an old saying in sports, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” I hate it. I like playing by the rules, it makes the win satisfying. If one cheats to get media coverage to achieve an end, then how can it be satisfying? I’ve heard of people who used to be able to buy their way onto the NY Times list by simply purchasing 10,000 copies themselves. (I don’t think it’s possible, now…which is good!) I didn’t know about Mark Allen’s payola scam, but it disgusts me. I’m glad you called him out.… Read more »
Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago

RobBiesenbach I love that you once read the National Enquirer and now don’t!

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago

ExtremelyAvg ginidietrich bdorman264 I think transparency vs the act is what everyone craves. Then you can be accountable and accounted for.
When Bill’s biggest client tell their boards why they insure with Lanier-Upshaw you know they always say ‘They send us the best cookies for christmas’ vs best insurer ever! 8)

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich Jon Boroshok wow Jon lives almost as north as I do. Maybe he wants to hunt for walrus with me someday!

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago

KirkHazlett ginidietrich have you seen the notes from Kirk’s classes? Gini this and Shonali that. He ditched the textbook and just uses your blog posts! 8)

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
2 years 5 months ago

Many years ago when I was selling ad space the publisher instructed me to explain our policy on news coverage and how it could be positively or negatively affected.
It was presented as do this or find a new position. It was a very uncomfortable time.

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago
yvettepistorio ginidietrich HeatherTweedy I was sharing some of the collective bias content studies using their paid blogger network to influence unhealthy food buying decisions for major industrial food companies in order to keep inflating our healthcare costs. And seriously seeing some of these products being touted I am like ewwwww. And seeing readers saying ‘Oh I love the fake chicken nuggets from Tyson covering them with Cheez Whiz wow what a great idea!’. And those bloggers say they were compensated. I mean what sane mom would make a buying decision based on fake blog support. But they do. Not sure which is… Read more »
KirkHazlett
2 years 5 months ago

Howie Goldfarb KirkHazlett ginidietrich Shonali Economies of scale, Howie! Why re-create the wheel when the experts have already built it! 😀

TimRelates
TimRelates
2 years 5 months ago

Please know that you’re not alone!

RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

Nailed me! It’s funny, when I typed that “it” I thought, “Hmmm … I used ‘them’ before, so I should probably make them agree. But that sounds weird. What I should really do is change the first ‘them.'” Then I realized I had work to do and figured, what are the odds Howie will read this anyway?

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

ExtremelyAvg Of course it’s real! The new administration always puts their buddies in spots…and it’s almost always based on how much money they contributed.

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

KirkHazlett Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich Shonali Ha!

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

TimRelates Thank you! I may need you to co-host the support group.

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes So you did have to sell based on that?

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

ExtremelyAvg The NY Times list is still pretty easy to manipulate. It happens all the time.
The Washington Post is condemning him. But no one has gotten a statement from him.

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

RobBiesenbach He did indeed!

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

susancellura Based on previous coverage, it doesn’t sound like Politico thinks Allen is doing anything wrong.

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

jasonkonopinski Ha! Now there’s a way to get “earned” media!

susancellura
susancellura
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich Then I echo what RobBiesenbach said. 🙂 When leadership fails, then it’s a domino effect. Sigh.

@jason_
2 years 5 months ago

I enjoyed your post Gini. It’s interesting to hear the stories from your perspective. The journalist at the Sun Times sounded like a real winner. I would have purchased the cheapest bottle of liquor as a going away present. Why can’t people just do their job well and not expect anything extra in return?

ExtremelyAvg
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich ExtremelyAvg I didn’t know that. Yippee…I’m going to be a cabinet member someday!

RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich Ah-ha! Interesting. I did not know this thing about him … sure would have made life easier in one sense!

belllindsay
2 years 5 months ago

Pay-o-la – still alive and well. Sigh.

annelizhannan
2 years 5 months ago

It is shameful and an embarrassment to the profession to see ethical lines drawn frivolously in the sand where they can be stomped over so easily without a hint of their existence and redrawn for one’s own more suitable personal or financial disposition.

JRHalloran
2 years 5 months ago
Very sound thoughts, Gini.  That’s exactly the problem a company named Wiki-PR is in right now. They sold their services in the wrong ways and now have all sorts of negative media publicity against them. Wikimedia even sent their organization a “Cease and Desist” letter because what they’re doing is unethical.  Imagine what this will do to the companies who sought out their services? Once the investigations probe deeper as to who invested in Wiki-PR, those companies’ reputations will now be worse off than they were before.  Any PR professional that plays along such unethical lines should know better, but… Read more »
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