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Advertorial – acceptable or devil’s penmanship?

Is it pay-for-play, unethical, okay, or acceptable only under certain circumstances? I took a poll through the Bulldog Reporter this week and took a snap of the results. Sixty-eight percent of those who responded (no mention of how many people had weighed in) think pay-for-play marketing should never happen. I note that it includes ethical issues for both journalism and PR. Nice touch. Twenty percent indicated it would be done under certain circumstances. But who has the definition of pay-for-play? Lots of wiggle room, I’d imagine. I mean, c’mon Clinton taught us we can legally stretch the definition of any word.

But advertorials? Who would argue that advertorials are unethical? I’m a big fan of advertorials used in certain circumstances. They’re tools of communication just like blogs or brochures. In some situations, it’s the best way to get the message out. Didn’t Johnson & Johnson put out advertorials during their mid-80s poison crisis? It was a way for them to get their story out in the days before the web.

But this NYT article from Maria Aspan indicates the blurry line some people are walking. The article details how the writer of an advertorial was paid for it, but also listed as a contributing editor in the publication. Not to mention the “this is a paid advertisement” was barely visible to the naked eye.

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism organization [said] “As a member of the audience, how do I know where his loyalties are when I see his byline on something else?”

Purposefully deceptive? How does this compare to ghost writing? It doesn’t, if you ask me. But when you’re a contributing writer of a rag and are also paid to write ads for the same – that does sound a bit odd. As PR pros we’re bound to run into pesky predicaments every once in a while. Part of our jobs is to write.

I mean, right there in the PRSA Code of Ethics it clearly states:

A member shall:
• Be honest and accurate in all communications.
• Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the
member is responsible.
• Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released
on behalf of those represented.
• Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
• Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client’s
organization.
• Avoid deceptive practices.

I mean, I’m just telling you what it says. But so very few of the people who engage in PR practices are members of PRSA, IABC, or CIPR. So, there’s a loop hole.

To me, this whole thing goes back to definitions. PR is so inaccurately defined so often. PR is practiced by people who don’t understand it fully. PR is not solely publicity, but I’d wager most of the self-proclaimed PR pros out there do only that. PR is not just getting coverage for clients at any cost. Because there is a cost. And people are watching. Would there be a PR Watch organization if we stuck to a code of ethics?

Update: Robert French has a nice little discussion about online pay for play here.

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2 Responses

  1. I think I would agree with the majority here.

    I just don’t like the idea. It seems to take away the transparency and “good will” of bloggers. (Not that all are good-willed, but still.)

  2. […] Life & Cooking wordt gemaakt door Unilever om zijn producten te promoten. Hoewel in een Amerikaans onderzoek van vorig jaar het overgrote deel van de geënquêteerde journalisten beweerde zich nooit te zullen […]

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