+44 (0) 208 334 8041 jcooper@ascendcomms.net
Recently a few items have come together to prompt a blog on this topic.  Firstly, we were helping a client select a PR firm in Benelux and, as a PR guy being ‘sold to’ by other PR people, I was quite shocked at the way that paid content was being liberally blended in the pitch meetings (by three agencies) as a legitimate form of media relations output.  The other was news this week in the UK that at the Daily Telegraph a reporter had resigned over what he felt was a very lenient approach to coverage of the HSBC tax evasion news due to the fact that the bank spent heavily on advertising with the paper, thus allegedly blunting its editorial edge to more vigorously pursue this story. Whatever the news or trends going on that made these two unconnected events join-up, the fact is that paid content, advertorial, or native advertising as it is also called, seems to be a vehicle that is increasingly used by newspapers and magazines to sell adverting, both online and in print.  For many a clearly marked out ‘advertising feature’ page, or supplement, is a legitimate form of commercial revenue for publications, many of whom are desperate to plug the gap of falling revenues and circulation seen in the last ten years.  However, it can be a fine line between advertorial and fake editorial, and it is a line that seems to be blurring across the industry. On the one hand, a buyer (consumer or business) reading a product review online would feel cheated if they discovered that an article they had read, and trusted, was in fact commercial propaganda cleverly disguised by the paper or advertiser.  On the other, as in the alleged case of the Telegraph, this kind of approach has the potential to hollow-out the editorial integrity of the publication itself – the very thing that makes people want to read a newspaper and advertise with it. These are dangerous times for the industry, where PR, which has always prided itself on its ability to generate meaningful earned content for clients, is being sullied by the commercial pull of advertising-led content.  This has the potential to undermine not only the integrity of the media (with all the political, societal and commercial implications this corruption of the ‘Fourth Estate’ in healthy democratic states has) but also to ultimately damage of businesses of companies buying and selling this model of PR. This is not meant to be an attack on the legitimate business of adverting, but rather the more sinister spread of its commercial model into the editorial world, where there was once a separation of ‘church and state’ there is now emerging one commercial model.  Editors and marketing people should read the warning on the packaging before going down this route and remember that a publication that is more loyal to its readers than its advertisers brings more benefits for everyone, including those that spend money on advertising to gain the attention of those readers.