The Ethical Perils of Paying for Positive Media Coverage

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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.

Denis Wolcott, APR, is a member of the Board of Directors of the PRSA Los Angeles Chapter. A version of this post was originally published in the PR in LA blog.

About the author

Denis Wolcott


  • As I shared privately with Denis, the
    devil in the description. Position the strategy and tactic differently — call it an e-newsletter and byline the website — and the
    agency and execution are far more transparent. However, then it’s a one-time, billable tactic and not an $11,500 monthly charge.

  • Denis, as usual, is right on. This was an unethical, unwise and unnecessary tactic. Public agencies don’t need to buy coverage. Legitimate local reporters will cover legitimate news when presented with legitimate information in a timely and meaningful way. It’s up to the PR professional to help the agency provide that information because, in the case of public agencies, the goal is transparency and public accountability for its actions on behalf of the public–not spin.

  • Wanted to shed some light here. The process is known as “Online Reputation Management” and they WAY overpayed. $200k should be able to produce more than one or two articles on a website with little to no traffic, ethical or not the price is extremely overinflated and speaks to the lake of understanding by the water district and the clear lake of research they did before engaging this firm.

    However, I am an advocate of transparency. ORM done in this fashion is more or less just sweeping dirt under the rug temporarily. The website is a low authority, low traffic website. They basically ripped off the water district, ripped off the people searching for information and will have a new website in Google news shortly.

    Everyday PR firms are trying to buy “Google News Indexed” websites on websites and forums dedicated to buying and selling websites. Today these commonly come in the form of online blogs that appear to be news websites. After the purchase they get some filler content via guest bloggers and sell the rest to over-pressured companies or gov’t agencies. 

    It’s also largely Google’s fault for the sparse review policy of ‘news’ websites. They are extremely easy to fake and Google’s automated system for news is clearly easy to game into getting listed. Google doesn’t like “manual” reviews of anything as they staunchly fight against labor that isn’t high level such as Engineers, etc.. A simple skeleton staff to select news websites and trained to spot fakes like this would eliminate at least this one avenue.

    Instead a real internet marketer or ORM specialist would start at the root of the problem, encourage transparency (TAGFEE) and work with the company or agency to clean up the issues. Over time search results, news search and blog posts will begin to fill up with more natural and organic positive results. Beware the quick fix and those who peddle it.
    Btw, the LA Times has sold fake news in print before: so not sure they have much room to talk on this subject.

    •  Well said, Joe, and thanks for adding this context. Going off your points, Rosanna Fiske, PRSA Chair and CEO, wrote an op-ed in Advertising Age a few weeks back that examined the sometimes slippery ethical standards that online reputation management firms employ:

      I think it’s safe to say this latest incident that the LA Times exposed would certainly fall within that category.

      Keith Trivitt

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