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.

  • 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 to a high ethical standard.  Perhaps at some point, we will expect that standard from all content.  Particularly, since what is considered to be news is so broad now.  
    That being said, should I ever decide to chuck the PR thing and become a full-time blogger, i will absolutely accept baked goods in any form without remorse.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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 of educating those same clients or employers on the realities of our craft…it’s called “earned media” for a reason…there has to be something of value in what we are asking the media to communicate.
    Is there a “silver bullet”? No. Is there hope? I’m an optimist…I say “yes.”
    We…my colleagues and I on the academic side…have to step up the educational aspect of ethical behavior., We have to help our young disciples…the up-and-coming PR professionals and journalism professionals…truly understand the importance of ethical practice.
    PRSA and other organizations are doing a decent job of educating/informing current professionals, but more could be done. It really circles back to us as individuals to carry the torch. If others see us conducting our business ethically…and successfully…my hope is they will choose to do likewise.
    Onward and upward!

  • HeatherTweedy LMAO!! Your last sentence? Hilarious!

  • 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.

  • MosherMullen That would make my heart break, too!

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • Jon Boroshok That makes my day!

  • 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! 🙂

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

    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?

  • 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.

  • 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?

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

  • 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)

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

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • 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 more evil, Political PACs, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, or paid Collective Bias Mommy Bloggers!

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

  • TimRelates

    Please know that you’re not alone!

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • KirkHazlett Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich Shonali Ha!

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

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

  • 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.

  • RobBiesenbach He did indeed!

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

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

  • susancellura

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

  • 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?

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • *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 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • @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.

  • belllindsay That makes me hungry, for some reason.

  • annelizhannan It really is. I think it’s going to get worse, too, as media try to figure out ways to stay in business.

  • 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.

  • ginidietrich You are weird.

  • Keep up the good fight! go Gini GO!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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