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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Journalism is Dead, Long Live the Blog – the Birth of Blogvertising

The Web has been bending our understanding of traditional journalism for some time. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that guarantees freedom of the press as a constitutional right. Part of the basis of that freedom is the implicit understanding that advertising does not affect editorial. To maintain journalistic integrity, your editorial opinion cannot be bought by advertising dollars. Those of us who have worked as journalists refer to the separation of advertising and editorial as the metaphorical separation of church and state.

Forbes just broke that model with the acquisition of True/Slant. According to the profile story this week in Advertising Age, with the acquisition, editor Lewis Dvorkin returns to Forbes with a new editorial model where staff writers, contributors, and even paid advertisers are given a Forbes-branded blog forum; a model that Dvorkin has labeled a “much more scalable content-creation model.” To quote from AdAge:

This isn’t the “sponsored post” of yore; rather, it is giving advocacy groups or corporations such as Ford or Pfizer the same voice and same distribution tools as Forbes staffers, not to mention the Forbes brand…

“In this case the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment,” Mr. DVorkin said in an interview at an empty restaurant across Fifth Avenue from the historic headquarters of the 93-year-old magazine.

The product itself is called AdVoice, and the notion is that in a world of social media, corporations have to become participants and, in a sense, their own media companies. Corporations these days also have to face the practical problem of fewer business reporters left to pitch. “There’s fewer ways to get your message out, because there are fewer reporters, and that’s a fact,” he said.

Granted, in the world of social media content is king, but to give paid advertisers equal access seems to be going a bit far. It wasn’t that long ago that the influence of bloggers granted them access to the press room. Although we PR pros are continually reminded that “bloggers are different” and “read their content and approach them gently,” the blogtocracy have been granted the same privileges as card-carrying journalists, even though they aren’t constrained by the same rules of ethics. In the blogosphere, opinion rules and facts, well they are sometimes nice to have as well.

So with this new shift in Forbes editorial direction, the rules haven’t just changed, but the entire rule book has been thrown out the window. Granted, there are fewer traditional news vehicles than ever before, and we are moving into a brave new world of online journalism. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the lessons of the past. Early on in this blog, I commented on the important role of pamphleteers and citizen journalists. What differentiates the citizen journalist from the Dvorkin model is avarice – pimping the Forbes brand to give advertisers space in the blogosphere seems to be a violation of the rules to me.

One of the first rules of social media is disclosure – tell them where you are coming from and which side of the ax you are grinding. Disclosure does not excuse bad reporting or bad behavior, but at least the reader is forewarned. This new model that Forbes is experimenting with seems just plain wrong. It not only blurs the lines of legitimate journalism, it erases them completely. As the article states:

Consumer marketers such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson have years of experience creating branded entertainment, and many have arms dedicated to creating entertainment properties. But the motivations have broadened in an age of social media. There’s an ongoing conversation about corporations — not always nice, as BP or Toyota could tell you — and corporations feel they must participate.

The changes at Forbes since it bought True/Slant and brought Mr. DVorkin back have gone beyond strategy. They’ve also included an exodus of top-level editors, two of whom declined to comment for this story.

So where does online entertainment end and dispassionate reporting begin, or vice versa? In a world where everyone becomes a news source, all sources become suspect. As so-called “legitimate” news vehicles struggle to survive in a world where information is available at the click of a mouse, other news groups like Forbes decide to turn the old journalistic values on their heads for the sake of profit cloaked as participation in the online conversation. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need a journalistic touchstone to tell the real news sources from the emerging online imposters.

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