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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, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

65 comments
AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

I just posted an adoring message and livefyre ate it.  But here's the redo:

I love that you are willing to stand firm when it comes to ethics - it's one reason I continue to cheer on your success. And it makes my heart sing that you have loads of clients who get what you stand for.

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

Somehow I missed this post, but I love that there is someone on this planet who is willing to turn away business, or favors, by standing firm on ethical grounds.   I can just see the slimy, slippery slope that begins once you buy that first meal.

It's one reason I cheer your success on Gini, and I cheer that you continue to attract clients who get that ethics matter.  Makes my heart sing.

teamccloud
teamccloud

I worked for an affordable housing provider a couple of years ago, and I got a call from a national magazine that covers all kinds of housing. They wanted to do, and did, a great feature about the work we did and the kind of housing we built. It wasn't pay to play, but they did twist my arm hard for me to provide some names of contractors, architects and others we had done business with. The mag then called them and said, "We're featuring XXXXX. Would you buy an ad?" As with any story in a highly glossed national publication, it felt great to see our name there. But I felt guilty for naming some of our vendors just to get the publisher off my back. I emailed all of them afterward just yto give them a head's up.

bobledrew
bobledrew

I sometimes look at magazines (one in my city comes immediately to mind) and wonder if I'm the only one who sees the fact that their editorial lineup is almost entirely "sold". Story page 12, ad page 18; story page 4, ad page 5; story page 32, ad page 28. 

I think that there's a missing link that allows this to go on: publications / broadcasts sell space (and editorial) based on "circulation numbers." So perhaps X number of copies are circulated. That may even be verified circulation. But it doesn't verify that savvy readers look at this stuff and see it for the selling-out that it is. 

When we talk about media, the concept has been well established that the value of "earned" media was closely associated with the "third party endorsement" of the media outlet choosing to cover that story. When communicators and organizations are party to this sort of arrangement, they are, in the end, participating in the reduction of that endorsement's power among readers. 

I think it's sad that journalists allow themselves or their publications to participate in this; I think it's equally sad that communicators and organizations become complicit. 

ryanruud
ryanruud

*Sigh* I don't even know where to start on this one. First, I apologize if this post becomes a novel :) I'll do my best to keep it brief. Let me tell you a story. About a young boy who was once so inspired by the media after appearing on a Children's Miracle Network telethon, that he knew he wanted to a part of an industry that could influence so many people. So that little boy grew up and started in broadcasting. He pursued journalism. (Hint, that boy is me). With the noblest of intentions he pursued that cause. He had great mentors along the way and he marched forward thinking journalism was as white hat a profession as possible and he'd give a voice to the voiceless and everything was okay. 10 years later that boy was broken. After seeing the influence of $$$$$ on journalism ethics he was disgusted. He left the industry and figured he'd go to the other side and try to be on of the good guys that wouldn't feed into the questionable ethics of some  from the world he just came. That didn't take long. Pay to play and oh we don't like your association over there and this and that and COME ON ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? Then that boy remembered something from his college days. A professor who taught media ethics. When learning about this very phenomenon, the consensus point was that while it sucks, as long as the system supports it, it's not going to stop. It's a sad world. Yes, there should be a standard. But as long as people are willing to pay, it'll keep going. As long as people are willing to take pay, it'll keep going. It's a nasty nasty little chicken and egg. Call it Journo/PR bird flu :)

JRHalloran
JRHalloran

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 eh... I guess some people just get lazy and lose their way. It's a shame.

annelizhannan
annelizhannan

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.

belllindsay
belllindsay

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

@jason_
@jason_

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?

TimRelates
TimRelates

Please know that you're not alone!

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

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.

ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

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.

I do have one question, though. I didn't understand what you meant by the article you have read have been one sided from the Washington Post, ect. Were they condoning him or condemning him?

Latest blog post: Still Much To Learn

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

Politico is 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.

I also have a guess about the Sun Times guy. Did he make interns and junior account execs quake with fear?

susancellura
susancellura

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?

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

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 also acts as a publisher/media company for a small magazine. There's no way that they can honestly serve the best interest of their clients like that.  

Latest blog post: Poetry Friday: Ezra Pound

BillSmith3
BillSmith3

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.

bdorman264
bdorman264

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. 

yvettepistorio
yvettepistorio

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.

Jon Boroshok
Jon Boroshok

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
ginidietrich moderator

@bobledrew I think some of it is out of necessity. You get a job, the boss insists you sell this way, you have lots of little mouths to feed, so you go along with it because you have to. Maybe you look for a new job while you're at it, but you still have to make your commission. 


It's not right, but it happens all the time.

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: James Halloran

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

@bobledrew Local pubs are THE WORST! You are exactly right I don't think local magazines exist anymore that aren't thinly veiled advertising books.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@ryanruud I loved the novel! What a great story. You're right...as long as there are people who are willing to play this way, that's how it'll work. And there is even more pressure today to monetize content because everyone expects it for free. I'm building my organization to keep the two separate. So far, it's working.

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: James Halloran

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@JRHalloran Any organization that names themselves after one tool that is used in a larger communications program isn't very smart to begin with. I'd be wiling to bet they capitalized on a trend, made a bunch of money, and will go away to ride the next wave.

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: James Halloran

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@@jason_ I think, in his particular case, that's how business was done. Then, in the early 2000s, when things changed, he was so close to retirement, he didn't care. 

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: James Halloran

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

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

bobledrew
bobledrew

@ginidietrich @bobledrew I was an editor at some city mags back in the day, and when there was a "regime change", I came under increasing pressure to tie my editorial to whoever was advertising. 


My suggestions of "special advertising sections" or other hedges to keep "real" editorial real were dismissed; I left not long after that and went back to school to become the flack you see before you. 

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

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?

BillSmith3
BillSmith3

@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. 

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