Beware the Sales Rep in Journalist’s Clothing

wolf-in-sheeps-clothing-2There is an evil walking among us. An unseen danger that can creep up on the unwary and seduce them with promises of fame and glory. They are unscrupulous media outlets that sell editorial space but refuse to call it advertising. These are the con men who have perfected the three-card monty of advertorial, the bait and switch that can cost your client a lot of money if you are not wary.

I seem to be running into more of these kinds of “media” outlets of late. They have caused me professional embarrassment, since they often don’t get to the sales pitch until after after they have the interview in the can and are ready to go, assuming you are willing to pay for the privilege. I recall recently being approach by a Midwest business publication (no names, please), offering to do a profile of my contractor client as part of a “special edition” on construction trends. I checked them out to the best of my ability and they were listed in my editorial database, and their web site looked legit. Once we completed the interview and they were ready to write the article, they sunk the hook: “Oh, to get this story into print we will need some advertising backing. Can you share the contacts at six of your vendors whom we can then contact to advertise with this story?” The story never ran, the client now asks me in advance if we have to pay for the next interview I just scheduled, and I have added that publication to my editorial black list.

This morning I received a call from another organization that I have heard from many times before. They are based in Florida and use the wire services for business prospecting. So the pitch usually goes like this:

“Hi, my name is Shyster Fagan and I represent Bait and Switch Broadcasting. We have a national radio/television/Web show hosted by [insert celebrity name here] and we think your client would be a perfect candidate. We reach 200,000 business professionals and…”

It’s a great pitch designed to get you really excited. And when you get to the end of the spiel you are ready to schedule an interview for your client, thinking you will look like a hero. Then, when you dig deeper, you realize that it’s a small syndicated Web program or, worse, a feed on one of the airlines’ audio channels, and the price tag is only $10,000 or more.

I have been in publishing all my life. My mother was a magazine editor, my dad used to sell advertising, and I was a journalist before going into PR and marketing. One of the lessons drummed into me at an early age was the cardinal rule of separation of advertising and editorial. If you can buy editorial space, then the publication’s editorial credibility was nil. I have seen (and even worked for) a few trade publications who have found creative ways to blur the rules; to give advertisers preferential editorial treatment. Those in the know would get the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” and know that they could get a little extra press exposure if you sign that next insertion contract. However, the reputable magazines were never (okay, seldom) influenced by the ad buy.

Today, however, with the explosion of the web and new editorial formats and content delivery models, the rules have changed, or have they? I have clients quizzing me about blog coverage, and our challenge becomes finding bloggers who use good journalistic approaches and follow the rules. The same is true for magazines and e-zines. If you can buy influence, it’s not worth the price of admission. What irks me is that these con artists hide the fees and drop the boom once they set the hook. Just be honest and admit up front that it’s pay to play. Don’t try to pretend you have editorial credentials that you don’t.

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