The slippery slope of “sponsored content”

You’re scanning a news-related website, checking the headlines, and one catches your eye: “The End of Barack Obama?” Hmm, what’s this?  You click on it, but instead of a news story, you see an advertisement for an investment adviser.

Bob Garfield

That was the experience of Bob Garfield, advertising blogger, onetime commentator for Advertising Age magazine and author of The Chaos Scenario, which traces the upheavals in the media since the advent of online journalism, the decline of traditional print media and the struggles to monetize journalism on the Internet.

What Garfield encountered is a form of “sponsored content” — in his case, on the web site of the once-proud Philadelphia Inquirer. Garfield railed at the Inquirer’s deception in exchange for advertising dollars – what is often called “clickbait.” Garfield proposed that, to keep “paid” and “earned” media distinct, news outlets adhere to standards of disclosure. As the Edelman public relations firm – which has developed such standards for public relations practitioners – has indicated, doing otherwise could spark penalties from such government agencies as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Perhaps such standards of disclosure for sponsored content can help ensure the integrity of the three entities involved in the publication – the, media, sponsoring organizations and their public relations staff and agencies. Perhaps.

But first, let’s be clear: the sponsored content that serious, ethical firms such as Edelman and its clients include informative, well-researched articles, providing useful and informative content to readers. They’re published under the auspices of a sponsoring company or other organization. And they’re clearly labeled as such.

But although sponsored content can be a legitimate as component of a public relations strategy, the three entities that can be involved in sponsored content – the sponsoring entity, the public relations advisers and the news media — should carefully consider the pros and cons of sponsoring, placing or publishing it, as it carries specific risks for all three

The news media

Pros: Hit by dwindling circulation, new competition and other economic pressures, sponsored content would seem to offer an important new source of revenue for news outlets.  And research indicates that readers – especially from the business world – may be more amenable than in the past to receiving information directly from sponsoring organizations.  As an article in the January 2013 edition of Inc. stated, “Business-to-business customers would much rather read an article or white paper – or watch a video or slide show – than see a pop-up or banner ad.”

Cons: The Inc. article discussed sponsored content versus traditional advertising. In that comparison, sponsored content that consists, for example, in a white paper can have much more credibility than a traditional ad. But it’s a different question altogether when you compare sponsored content with professional journalism.

Just as important, the incentives of sponsored content for news outlets are not positive: how often will a news organization, stretched for funds, sell space for sponsored content at the expense of its regular news coverage?  And, more insidiously, to what extent will news organizations lure readers to such clickbait as in the case of Bob Garfield, thus weakening their credibility as independent sources of news and information?

The sponsoring organizations

Pros: Much of the public – in particular, business leaders – today has a low opinion of the news media.  Executives often complain that a reporter “got the facts wrong,” or forsook accuracy in an article or report in order to inject more conflict or drama into an article. Why run that risk, an organization may ask, when you can “go direct” in a sponsored article placed in a news or trade publication?

Cons: Although blogs, web sites, Facebook and many other new tools of social media and the Internet give companies, organizations and individuals legitimate new opportunities to present their viewpoints and information, research continues to indicate the value of third parties in the news and information equation.  While audiences are increasingly open to a variety of information sources, news and information that is edited or curated by a respected third party generally is assigned more credibility than sponsored content.

If you have the money, it may be easy to “buy” media coverage, whether in an advertisement or sponsored article.  But “earned” media continues to have more credibility in the eye of the reader.

Public relations practitioners

Pros: Traditionally, public relations pros – whether in agencies or on corporate staffs – have had journalism backgrounds, with journalism degrees or experience with news organizations.  Knowledge of the news and information gathering process, and the ability to write clearly, effectively and fast, are required to do their jobs effectively.  Writing well-researched, informative and persuasive articles is part of their DNA: they’re well qualified to produce sponsored content.

As the demand for sponsored content has increased, large public relations firms also have formed units that will specialize in sponsored content, tapping a growing new source of revenues.

Cons:  Advertising and public relations are both part of the marketing mix, but they have very different purposes.  Advertising seeks to provide memorable messages directly to potential customers or supporters. Advertisers pay for that capability, and the messages are so delineated.

Although public relations has long defied definition, the description of the public relations function in 1923 by Edward L. Bernays, the “Father of Public Relations,” still carries weight today:

…information given to the public, persuasion directed at the public to modify attitudes and actions, and efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with its publics and of publics with those of that institution.

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

Public relations, therefore, participates in the public news and information process, and effective public relations practitioners represent their clients successfully and ethically in that process.  That’s why smart companies and other organizations hire them: if the organizations want to place ads, they’ll hire advertising people.

I have obvious biases here, but one of the reasons I have pursued a public relations career is that the results of effective public relations – for example, being quoted or cited in a major national or global news outlet – are much more powerful than advertising.  In my view, neglecting that role to pursue such activities as sponsored content ignores more powerful and beneficial opportunities.

The recent fixation on sponsored content presents risks for the news media, sponsoring organizations and public relations pros.  As they should consider those risks, consumers and readers of news should also ask: is that content really what you think it is?