Journalistic Ethics- What Every PR Pro Needs to KnowA couple of weeks ago, we received a phone call from the editor of one of our client’s biggest trade publications.

She wanted to write a feature cover story about the client’s organization and pull in interviews from the executives and people on the manufacturing floor.

The catch? The client had to buy a year’s worth of advertising.

While an interesting tactic – particularly at the end of the year when you have sales goals to meet – it made me angry enough that I advised my team to tell her where to stick it.

What happened to church and state?

I know, I know. Pay-to-play happens in the trade publications all the time, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s Not Just the Trades

There was a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who wouldn’t cover you or your clients – no matter how newsworthy – if you didn’t “bribe” him.

Mostly it was dinners out at fancy restaurants, but he would also accept gifts – at his home, not the office – in the form of liquor or baked goods.

This went on for years after it became widely known that journalists accepting gifts was a big no-no. They couldn’t even let you buy them a cup a coffee.

He didn’t care. He just found a way around the ethics rule and everyone knew, if they wanted to be in his column, they had to pay to play.

This used to make me really angry. I called him out on it several times and he just laughed at me and called me a cute little naive thing. When he retired, I danced a jig because I knew I no longer had to play by his rules.

Enter Politico

Because of my staunch, “We keep church and state separate” beliefs and because of journalistic ethics and disclosures required by the FTC, I was shocked when Howie Goldfarb sent me a link about Mike Allen, the chief White House correspondent for Politico, participating in a payola scam.

Billed as native advertising, some of Allen’s peers did a review of “Playbook,” the daily newsletter Allen distributes, to prove anyone who plays for a slot in the newsletter gets adoring coverage in the editorial space – without disclosure or attribution.

That said, every story I’ve read – from the Washington Post to New York Magazine – has been completely one-sided.

Allen hasn’t sat down for an interview or released a statement explaining his side of things.

We don’t know if he really believes the things he’s writing and it just happens they advertise with him or if he’s being influenced by the $35,000 per week check they’re writing.

And he’s on the hot seat because of who he is…and the popularity of his daily mail.

Journalistic Ethics and the PR Pro

As lines begin to blur even further – and PR pros look to things such as native advertising and sponsored content – it’s important to keep our ethics in check.

Yes, you will get editorial coverage if you also pay for ad space. Not in all publications, but in most trades.

Yes, you can invite journalists to lunch, but they have to pay for their own meal.

Yes, you can buy a slot on the home page of BuzzFeed for your client’s story on the 10 things The Three Stooges can teach you about personal finance.

Yes, you can even insist on an in-depth interview with your executives if you have ads running with the media outlet.

But is it right?

It is our job to present our clients – or bosses – in the best possible light. It is our job to help manage their reputations.

By playing by these unethical rules, we create the opportunity for slander, investigative reports, and negative stories. All things that not only are bad for the organizations we represent, but can get us fired.

We know bloggers have to disclose relationships with organizations when they’ve received something in exchange for their review.

Why not insist the same when we’re working with the media?