What’s in a name? A paid ad by any other name is still a paid ad

Posted by Jeremy Church on 10/30/13 1:15 PM

At WordWrite, we recognize and appreciate that paid advertising is sometimes an essential part of a comprehensive marketing and business development effort.

As a strategic communications agency, we choose not to specialize in that particular discipline. Our view is that your true business story is best told by demonstration of thought leadership and expertise validated through earned media placements. 

Many of our peers and competitors proudly and openly have partnered with an advertisingcontent marketing arm. That is a business decision we respect and accept.

But to those public relations agencies now beginning to dip their toes into advertising, I’d say this: Own it.

Let’s not continue to conflate the difference between public relations the way it’s been traditionally practiced and advertising as it’s always been practiced.

Be authentic and label the content as “paid.” The increasing popularity of terms such as “branded content,” “sponsored content” and “native” advertising are disingenuous.

Try looking up a uniform definition for “sponsored” or “branded” content, or “native” advertising. It’s hard to find one. The closest general definition describes the practice of a brand, company or organization paying to have its content appear in a specific media outlet in a format that appears instead to be high-quality, independently reviewed editorial content.

There also seems to be increasing consensus among many in the PR industry that if the content is good, then everything’s fine.

“The challenge is ensuring that trust is the igniter,” Edelman Executive Vice-President Steve Rubel told the audience at last week’s “Rise of Brand Journalism” event sponsored by Forbes. “For a media brand, earned and paid content has to be good across the board.”

Certainly we agree that content is key. Yet all content isn’t created equal. If you create content and pay for it to be placed, then you’re the only one deciding on the quality and supposed news value of the content for clients and customers, both existing and prospective.

With earned media, a reputable third party is deciding on the quality, which is a key distinction. It’s the old journalism analogy of separation between church and state – the notion that advertising won’t influence editorial content. Story, authenticity and credibility dictate what is newsworthy, not how much money you have to get your message across. Two other members of the WordWrite team – Paul Furiga and Jason Snyder – have written on this subject in recent months.

Especially in the B2B marketplace, decision makers in the C-Suite look to the media outletsMission they follow for validation that the content they’re consuming can be trusted, because those outlets are putting their reputations on the line by running a particular story. Their credibility is at stake.

If you’re paying for content, then your credibility is at stake. What if your message fails to connect the way you anticipated? Then you’ve burned a bridge with a potential client or customer that might never be repaired.

Recent data support this notion. According to a 2012 survey by MediaBrix and Harris Interactive, creating this type of content will likely have a negative impact on an organization’s reputation.

However, it’s no longer just public opinion that companies need to worry about. Criminal concerns are at play, because the Federal Trade Commission is watching closely. In December, the FTC will hold a workshop to examine the growing field of sponsored content, according to a report in The Hill.

“The FTC, which has the authority to bring charges against companies that deceive consumers, now has nonbinding guidelines on the use of the sponsored content ads,” reporter Kate Tummarello writes. “The workshop could be a first step toward expanding or strengthening them.”

The issue clearly is a delicate one, rife with gray areas and potential blurred lines.

Mr. Rubel himself has shown ambivalence with other recent statements on brand journalism. At the Forbes event, he seemed to be saying that quality content is quality content, and that’s what ultimately matters.

But in a stance he shared in the October 2013 issue of PRWeek, he also wrote: “Those who actively cultivate day-to-day editorial relationships in an effort to secure third-party coverage must not be engaged in paid negotiations with the news media for sponsored content – and vice versa.”

So a PR pro shouldn’t be engaged in walking the tightrope between what Rubel describes as “merit” and “money” when it comes to earning results for clients.

In my mind, he’s ultimately reaffirming the wall between advertising and earned media via public relations. Yes, content matters. No, all content is not created equal.

If a PR pro at an agency finds himself or herself working on brand journalism requiring payment for placement, then he or she is not working in PR. That person works in advertising.

No one is passing judgment on the world of advertising. But call it what it is, and don’t try to tell us it’s not raining just because we forgot an umbrella.


Jeremy Church

Jeremy Church is an account supervisor for WordWrite Communications. He can be reached at jeremy.church@wordwritepr.com and on Twitter @churchjeremy.

Topics: media relations, story