There are many publishers out there who will promise to write glowing articles (PR pieces, really) about their clients. Or even write an article to get a business as a client. These types of stories are usually not too tough to spot – like fresh bird poo on the hood of a newly washed car, says my editor. Business publications and local weeklies and websites are notorious for it. In fact, we are asked to do it on an almost daily basis. Probably because there are so many in our business who say, “Yes”.
We aren’t one of them and there are three reasons why.
The ethics of it should be as plain to understand as the results of 2+2. “Pay to play” goes against the very heart of journalistic ethics. Most readers (the non-cynical ones anyway) presume content to be selected based on its relevance or importance – not the self-interested revenue goals of the ad department. That’s why there has traditionally been a wall that separates editorial and advertising in our industry. Truth be told, this wall is not as high as it used to be with sponsored content and the like doing its best to chip away. Not to mention all the publishing companies who just say, “yes”.
Second, asking for a free article to be written is like me walking into a sandwich shop and demanding a free meal on the promise that I may come back next week and pay for one. That’s not how the business world goes ’round.
But most importantly, it’s completely self-defeating for the business anyway. In this world of link-bait headlines, truth subterfuge and Rolling Stones-style fabrications, readers are tired of being fooled. They want authenticity. It’s the reason why our readers choose to pick up our magazines each month and visit our websites. PR pieces masquerading as legit stories not only undermine the source they are featured in, they call into question the veracity of the subject matter itself. Readers already have a healthy skepticism for the media they consume. As they should. A business does itself no justice when the brand story is being sold rather than told. I wish more brands were mindful of this.
Some might say this policy is self-serving – that it forces a business to spend money to tell its story through advertising. The truth is, for us it’s anything but. We walk away from plenty of advertising opportunities by not playing the “pay for play” game. Instead, we work hard to produce products our audience trust. After all, trust and authenticity are the holy grail of brand building. And our brand should be just as important as those of the clients we serve.