Tuesday, February 19, 2013

There's a Reason They Call It Earned Media--Why Proposal to Pay Journalists is Wrong

I got a tweet today from Mark Sanchez (@masanche),  Senior Writer for MiBiz, asking me for comments on a PR man offering to provide articles to a journalist, who could then apply his own byline. This dandy was reported in Jim Romenesko's blog.

Basically, a PR guy points out that with media contraction it is hard to get good content. So why doesn't he offer prepared articles to the journalist that could be used edited or not with the journalist's byline on them. PR guy gets publicity, journalist gets content, everyone's happy. So he says.

Here are my thoughts:

  • History always informs modern public relations. Ivy Lee is considered to be one of the fathers of modern public relations and the inventor of the first press release. He wrote articles and even laid them out in newspaper columns so journalists in the early 1900s could literally "cut and paste" his handouts verbatim for use in their newspapers. I have an example from a PR history book I show my classes. A bit of foreshadowing is that the title on top of these handouts was "public relations." Here's an account of one of the first verbatim articles supplied to media, and it's actually in a crisis situation.
  • The notion of PR people providing content which journalists use is called "information subsidy" since a 1982 book by Oscar Gandy. It has been debatable whether this is a bad thing or not. On the one hand, journalists being spoonfed is poor journalism, if not unethical. But on the other hand, many news reports would not see the light of day were it not for a PR person alerting journalists to the idea or helping facilitate interviews and other information for stories. It's not to uncommon for media to occasionally use news releases verbatim. In fact, I wrote a blog post on this before.
  • There is no doubt that economic pressure has journalists today doing more "aggregating" and "curating" of other people's content and less original reporting. This comes in the form of newswire, shared content from other journalists, and inviting content from non-journalist sources. Locally in West Michigan, one example would be the Sunday Grand Rapids Press health section, where representatives from local hospitals are given space to hold forth on health issues. Another example is me blogging for free about PR and media issues for the Grand Rapids Business Journal. In both cases, the publication gets free  content and the guest writers get name recognition, brand building, and the opportunity to establish themselves as a thought leader or community servant on a relevant subject.
  • Ethics is always debated. In Nigeria and some other countries it is expected that a PR person will pay a journalist to run a story, in the same way a waitress here expects a tip for serving food. The situation in the Romenesko blog does not involve paying a journalist, but it is unethical because the public is not fully or honestly informed of authorship. It's not about the money, it's about the ability to make informed decisions. If readers read an article with a well-known journalist's byline, there is an expectancy that the journalist investigated, verified, examined alternative views, and finally wrote an article that was fair and representative of multiple perspectives. If that article was supplied by someone with their own interest in mind--or even if you argue that the content is in the public service--denying the public the ability to know the actual authorship is deceptive and therefore unethical.
  • If I remember correctly, bylines were first used by TIME Magazine in the era of tabloid and sensationalistic journalism, in an effort to give their articles more credibility, legitimacy, and accountability. It is ironic that nearly 100 years later someone is trying to use the byline for opposite purposes.
  • Bad ethics ultimately hurts everyone. The reader is misinformed, as I noted above. Journalists will in time only corrode their own brand and the value they provide readers. And PR people will only be seen to be sneaky manipulators, as opposed  to honest professionals who balance the interests of their clients with the public interest and seek to work in an honest, transparent fashion. That's what Lee stressed in his "Declaration of Principles" way back at the time of the first press release. That's a theme of the PRSA Code of Ethics. It's what I teach my students. Its the way the West Michigan PR pros I know practice. 
  • The reader does  decide. In time people will know that articles are supplied and not original and legitimate news. The articles will then lose value and be seen with the same consumer skepticism as ads. The whole point of publicity, and why it's called "earned media," is that skeptical journalists and editors weigh information carefully and then decide whether and how it should be published. The value is the third party credibility when information is presented, not merely getting it out there at any cost.
I'm disappointed to read about this "indecent proposal" from a PR person. But I'm glad Romenesko exposed him, to prevent other unsavory idiots from trying the same to the ruin of us all.

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