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.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Danger of Assumed Ubiquity in Social Media

I was talking to my graduate communication management class  earlier this week about deciding on if and how to use various communication technologies. A text we were discussing stressed the importance of weighing the difference between benefits  and costs  to determine the value of a communication technology.

One point I made to them was to beware of assuming that because something is popular with you and your friends, or seems to be getting a lot of buzz in the tech media, that it is the best medium to reach your intended publics, be they employees, customers, investors, B-to-B partners or others. I called this "the danger of assumed ubiquity." In other words, just because a bunch of public relations people are raving about the latest social media platform, don't assume that it is everywhere, that everyone uses it, or more importantly, that the specifically segmented public you want to reach (you DO segment your publics, right?) is using it.

The day after that class  met, Pew released a new study on the demographics of social media use by Americans. The study is useful to see  which platforms appeal to which demographics, such as gender, age, college  education, and race.

But what is also interesting is the fact that overall use of even the most popular and established social media sites is quite low as a percentage  of overall population. Two-thirds (67%) of Americans say  they have used Facebook, especially  women and the 18-29 age group. But other social media platforms are  not as popular as those of us who use them like to think:

  • Twitter -- 16%
  • Pinterest -- 15%
  • Instagram -- 13%
  • Tumblr -- 6%
Generally speaking, your tweet may often fall in the woods when no one is there. Also, keep in the mind that the study doesn't get into frequency or purpose of use. So we don't know how often this small minority  of people are using certain sites, or why they are there (i.e. are they just socializing with friends, or do they really follow brands?) I know from other studies that engaging with organizations via social media is happening, but the reality is there are not a lot of people there to begin with, they are not there often, and they don't go there to keep up with your company or nonprofit organization.

I still think PR pros absolutely have to have a social media presence, because the study shows upward  trend lines from 2010 to 2012 in use. But there are several lessons learned:

  • Don't use social media for mass reach, use it for interaction with specific segments;
  • Remember that social media supplements, and does not replace, other traditional forms of owned, earned, and paid media;
  • Your content has to be conversational, not promotional. Think engage, not just inform;
  • Keep monitoring for which platforms are growing, which are useful for your targeted public segments, and which are best for meeting your organizational objectives.
And of course, don't assume ubiquity of any medium.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Real PR is Inherently Ethical

It's sometimes hard to believe that people still refer to public relations as nothing more than publicity or a marketing tactic. A worse characterization is the public relations is intentional deception, spin and communications associated with this are called "just PR."

Part of that is because there are bad practitioners who perpetuate this negative conception. But such practitioners often don't have a full grasp of PR and should not be the sum total definition of the field. Also, much deceptive communication comes from CEOs, lawyers and other professionals in organizations and it should not be labeled PR if such bad practice is carried out by others.

But there's good news. A recent study involving interviews with 30 seasoned public relations professionals shows that having a complete and accurate understanding of public relations not only leads to ethical PR, it shows how the PR function serves as the ethical conscience for the entire organization.

Read more in my latest blog post for GRBJ.com.