Breaching Editorial Divide Is Bad for All Those Involved

An Ad Age Editorial

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What if you learned that companies got positive coverage in the pages of Advertising Age because they agreed to pay for an ad? You'd probably lose respect for the parties on either side of the transaction -- and you'd be right in doing so.

Too bad not enough people in the marketing business agree. A recent survey conducted by PRWeek and sponsored by Publicis Groupe-owned MS&L found that 19% of marketers have bought advertising in a media outlet in return for news coverage. That's up from 17% the year before. While this doesn't mark a huge jump, the numbers do show that the theoretically impermeable divide between the editorial and business operations has been breached.

And that's a bad thing for everyone involved. The media outlet, of course, is most at risk because it's selling away its credibility. Busy consumers pick up a newspaper or a magazine or tune in to a news broadcast because they, quite reasonably, believe the articles are produced because they're deemed newsworthy. If, over time, it became clear that the content was being shaped by commercial interests, it wouldn't take long for a once-engaged audience to grow dissatisfied and tune out. What does that do for the brands that advertise there or those that earn attention through honest outreach? Nothing good.

Many marketing folks have grown up in a business where everything is for sale. They often don't understand the complexities of practicing journalism or running a journalistic outlet. It doesn't help that we live in a world where word-of-mouth advocacy is being turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold through networks of influencers and where bloggers are routinely paid for posts.

But the growth of pay for play in editorial is troubling, and both the marketing and media industries need PR people to step to the forefront. A good flack understands that earning news coverage is a function of his or her persuasive ability, not a company's willingness to write a check.

This needs to be communicated especially now, in what are desperate times for many news organizations. It's as simple as what MS&L CEO Mark Hass told Advertising Age: "There needs to be credible, independent media, and the marketing industry should not be doing anything to undermine credible editorial quality."
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