Our credibility is too hard-won to excuse this advertising fiasco

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I moderated an American Business Media panel session last week on the topic, "Editorial Integrity: Under Assault?" My premise was that readers are protected from over-zealous advertisers by equally zealous media blogs that are policing, dissecting and discussing our every move.

Trade papers, I predicted, will be coming under scrutiny as closely as the general press. I was searching around for a good example of a trade paper caught by this electronic surveillance, and the best and most immediate culprit turned out to be the publication that I am editor in chief of, Advertising Age.

Here's what happened: At the recent Ad:Tech conference in New York, we allowed an advertiser to write an interview story on a phony front-page cover wrap of our Nov. 7 issue available to about 1,000 attendees. And we found out about it from reading MediaPost's "Real Media Riffs."

It hurts me to report that the e-mail newsletter started its piece talking about the updated ABM code of ethics. "It was more than a little ironic that the same day the pamphlet arrived in our mail, we also received a special edition of Advertising Age that appeared to violate several of the ABM's guidelines."

We sold a mock front page to an advertiser called SpecificMEDIA, and the "news" stories were all about the advertiser, including an interview with the advertiser's major service. The phony front page carries headlines, in a font somewhat like ours and even has short last minute news items, just like we do. It does have an "Advertisement" disclaimer at the top of the page.

What really stings is that MediaPost says, "Perhaps most ironic of all is who actually chaired the ABM's editorial ethics committee. You guessed it, Advertising Age Editor Scott Donaton." Scott and his editorial staff, I assure you, had nothing to do with the cover wrap. He, like the rest of us, had no idea it was even in the works.

How could such a fiasco happen? It did because of a confluence of circumstances, namely that it was a last-minute thing, key people were out of the office, it was a relatively small deal, with the offending cover not actually going to regular readers. That, of course, doesn't in any way excuse what we did, and David Klein, publishing and editorial director of the Ad Age Group, sent an e-mail to our entire staff, saying that what we did "was totally against our policy and should not have happened. Even though it was a very limited polybag distribution only to conference attendees, it still violates our principles and damages our hard-won credibility. I want to assure you that this is not something we will allow."

Notice that David didn't use the integrity word here. Credibility is the issue, and we must do whatever it takes to preserve it because-like any other brand-that's all we've got to sell.

Integrity, to me, has degenerated to become a ghetto word-only the editors, bless their souls, are concerned about it (or lack of it), and the rest of the staff can keep doing what they're doing.

Credibility, on the other hand, is the reason to buy, and everybody can rally around the flag. If the credibility of your publication or your brand starts to erode, one little give-back at a time, before you know it your publication or brand loses its reason for being, and you wonder what happened.

The boys at MediaPost wonder if they took a cheap shot to blow the whistle on us. Except for the crack about Scott, I don't think they did. As David said to me, "There's no way you're going to hide anything these days."

Not with cyberspace cops on the case, we discovered to our deep chagrin.

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