Editor’s Note: To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is running a month-long series of posts on important ethics issues facing the public relations profession. This is the third post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.
Sooner or later, reporters will find out when you pay for positive news coverage.
Case in point: A Sept. 13, 2011, front-page report in The Los Angeles Times about a local water district spending nearly $200,000 to place positive stories on a “news” site that gets indexed by Google news.
The water district has justified this as a legitimate expense and tactic because it is generating more traffic to its website and more interest in water conservation than sending out the typical news release.
So, here is a water district that I know very well, and which has battled a series of negative news articles and other attacks. I can certainly sympathize with this district: As these attacks grew over the Internet, it sought solutions to generate “balance” to the coverage.
But, as we see by the scathing news article, the solution ends up generating more negative coverage.
Worse? The tactic also creates issues for all other public relations professionals who are conducting their business within the ethical boundaries established by PRSA and from decades of experience acting with full disclosure.
PR veterans will tell you that shortcuts usually lead to a breach of ethics. An “easy solution” to generating positive news media coverage should send warning signals.
It is perfectly legitimate and ethical to hire a public relations pro to help an institution or company generate positive news coverage, to counter negative information, to go on the “offensive” to get “our” side of the story told, to promote the many other sides of a company that are doing positive things in the community, etc.
It can be hard work, and the “wins” may not come as frequently as hoped. Yet, these wins and positive milestones are “earned” media — not paid. The news media is viewed as an independent group — so if we happen to get a positive story out of it, everyone will trust that story. It is credible reporting. That is why PR pros work so hard at earning these stories. The credibility and trust associated with a truly “earned” story translates into incredible amounts of ROI for our clients.
Otherwise, any other effort that resembles a “news” story should be clearly marked as a “paid” effort.
Disclosure Wins, Every Time
Decades ago, Mobil spent considerable dollars in a paid advertising campaign to counter what it saw as unfair news coverage. These “columns” ran in newspapers and magazines, like TIME and Newsweek. Although they were designed to look like news columns, they were clearly marked as “paid advertisement.” The campaign was very effective for Mobil.
In the case of this water district, the goal was to build positive Internet traffic that counters the negative stuff on the Web. Fine. Let it happen, but with a disclaimer. There are plenty of legitimate tactics to counter negative Web traffic. Misleading the public into thinking they are reading “real” news stories is not one of them.
As for the PR industry and this latest episode, let’s make sure we examine this lesson and not fall into “easy solutions.” This simply would not have passed the sniff test for most of us.
Update (9 a.m. EDT Sept. 14, 2011): The Los Angeles Times reports that Google News has removed News Hawks Review, the website produced by the PR firm that the Central Basin Municipal Water District hired to produce fake news on its behalf.