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Is paying for media coverage ever ethical?

In some countries, it is acceptable for PR practitioners to pay a journalist to write positively about a client. For this issue, we asked our readers whether they think paying for media coverage is unethical, and whether the culture of a particular country factors into their opinion.

Australia

Paying for editorial coverage is always undesirable. But it's right to acknowledge that local cultures and customs can sometimes make this position problematic. If you are operating in a location where it's considered acceptable--or even necessary--to pay for coverage, you should at least seek to ensure that the payment is openly acknowledged in the article or program. Over time, I think responsible professionals should also try to influence local publishers and broadcasters to move away from such practices, not just because of any cultural or moral qualms (important as these may be), but also for the very practical reason that these practices ultimately undermine the credibility of both the giver and receiver in the eyes of audiences. These audiences always work out what's happening sooner or later--resulting in media coverage that achieves far less than optimal impact.

Graeme Domm

PR program coordinator, RMIT University Melbourne, Australia

Qatar

There are ways to take a stand on issues that everyone finds repugnant. Local people may accept the practice, but that doesn't mean they admire it. Any PR company would have to follow suit not to jeopardize business or profits. But it can be transparent about its actions and take a stand by soliciting supporters for an ethical cause--for example, by hosting business seminars on the topic, sponsoring school essay competitions, lecturing about it at business schools and referring to it in company advertising. Effecting cultural change requires the sheer weight of numbers and momentum over the long term. By acting as a catalyst, the company is in a win-win situation, positioning itself as ethical (with a unique selling proposition) and making a positive contribution to its community.

Joanna Moss

Head of promotions and publicity, Qatar Petroleum Doha, Qatar

Slovenia

The final judges of whether paid media coverage that is not identified as advertising but that appears as an authentic journalist opinion is ethical are the local users of the media. If they think that paying a journalist to write positively about a client is an unethical and corrupt practice, then it is an unethical and corrupt practice. My experience working in countries where it's common to pay journalists for coverage is that the general population dearly sees this as unethical and corrupt. Only journalists and paying clients find excuses for their behavior. The problem to be addressed is not a matter of cultural sensibility; the problem is corruption, plain and simple.

Dejan Vercic, Ph.D.

Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana; Partner, Pristop Ljubljana, Slovenia

Malaysia

PR is universal in its philosophy and fundamentals and is governed by a code of ethics. Thus, the culture of any country should not be the benchmark to qualify a PR practice as ethical or not.

PR is about third-party endorsement and unbiased reporting. The PR practitioner's job is, among others, to strategize the approach, pitch the story well and present messages accurately to influence a positive report. If our strategy is payment, then I believe it undermines our expertise and the integrity of the profession.

Paying the media also jeopardizes their important role as unbiased observers in society. The media's job is to present information that is accurate and newsworthy, not based on monetary gain. Advertorials are a different matter altogether. A seasoned editor once told me she would kill the story if she thought an attempt was made to induce a reporter to write favorably.

In the long run, I believe this practice of paying for media coverage can severely undermine the legitimacy of PR.

S.S. Patricia

Managing director, Pat-Lin Communications Sdn Bhd Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

Jamaica

The practice of paying for media coverage in any country leaves the field wide open for the highest bidder to always succeed, by paying for either positive coverage for themselves or negative coverage against a competitor. Paying for this service requires very little skill, creativity or imagination on the part of the PR practitioner, and by receiving payment, the journalist is now a publicist, moving from a position of impartiality to one of bias. In fact, I see the money factor as compromising and undermining the role of both the PR practitioner and the journalist.

Unfortunately, the question of ethics fades when a practice becomes the accepted norm in developed countries. It is then inevitable for the practice to spread in today's world of free information and shrinking borders. Could the solution possibly rest in international organizations, like IABC, taking an ethical position?

Lystra Sharp

Public relations officer, Caribbean Cement Co. Ltd. Kingston, Jamaica

United States

In a 26 June 2006 New York Times article, "Marketers Say They Pay for Play in News Media," Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, had an interesting point: "What these guys [marketing executives] are talking about has been going on for a very long time. 'If you buy an ad, we will get your restaurant reviewed.' That's something that I think is very questionable, but it doesn't frighten me like the potential for buying opinion and buying influence." While culture may determine how acceptable pay-for-play is in some countries, ethics determines when you cross the line into bribery.

Wilma Mathews, ABC, IABC Fellow

Director, constituent relations, Arizona State University Tempe, Arizona

Brazil

The company should not pay to broadcast its own information. It is unethical and constitutes a throwback to a period of public relations prior to the work of Ivy Lee, who, with his "Declaration of Principles" in 1906, showed journalists and society the differences between publicity and advertisement.

Paulo Nassar

President, Brazilian Association of Business Communication (ABERJE);

Professor of public relations, Sao Paulo University

Sao Paulo, Brazil

what's your perspective?

Question for a future issue: How does your organization promote its brand internally, and what effect does it have on employees' attitudes and behavior? E-mail your perspective (in 125-150 words) to cwmagazine@iabc.com.
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Title Annotation:global perspectives
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1025
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