PR & Ethics: The Native Advertising Debate

PR & Ethics: The Native Advertising Debate

I know a number of people who do not think highly of what I do for a living. When I met my husband’s brother for the first time, he curled his lip and scoffed when I told him I was in marketing. A friend who often rails against corporate influence in the media tends to dismiss any alternative perspective I might have on the subject based on my experience of how getting coverage really works. My own dad doesn’t seem to have any idea what I do, and will occasionally make comments about the “spin” I create at work or “half-truths” I tell on behalf of clients.

And therein lies the problem. A lot of people don’t understand what communications people do. But they assume that whatever it is, it’s sneaky, dishonest, money-hungry and shallow.

Of course, there are probably PR people out there who fit that bill – just like there are sneaky, dishonest, money-hungry and shallow people in all professions. Perhaps I’m just lucky, but overwhelmingly, the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with in this industry are good, honest, hardworking and driven by a sense of doing what’s right for both their clients and the public.

Certainly, given the nature of our work, we come face-to-face with ethical dilemmas more frequently than many other professions, and there is often much more gray than black or white.

Case in point: the friend I mentioned earlier posted a video on Facebook from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (warning: strong language). In it, Oliver discusses the debate over native advertising and whether it breaks the “church-state” separation between editorial and advertising content that gives journalism its credibility.

It was an interesting (and entertaining) segment, in part because, well…I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. I absolutely agree that there should be a clear separation between editorial and advertising. But what is “clear?” If a disclaimer line that identifies “sponsored content” isn’t enough, what is?

What about earned media? The friend who posted this piece routinely posts local news articles about his passion – bicycling – that wouldn’t have received coverage if someone weren’t sending press releases and following up with reporters. Does traditional media relations cross the line, too? Would this coverage automatically be worth less if the bike manufacturer he worked for had written and paid for the coverage?

With reduced budgets at media outlets and investigative reporting dwindling, how many important stories – valid, relevant, informative news – would NOT be told without these tools?

And does some responsibility not lie with the reader/consumer? Maybe it’s my suspicious nature or the fact that I was raised by a journalism-major-turned-marketer, but I take pretty much everything I read or hear in the media with a grain of salt. If something doesn’t sit right, I do further research. In my opinion, the fact that some people don’t pay attention to disclaimers isn’t a valid argument against native advertising any more than it is for doing away with contractual agreements.

It’s not a simple issue, and there is no simple answer. I don’t think it’s an issue I will resolve for myself so much as one I will consider on a case-by-case basis. I would never advise a client to be dishonest – presenting something as fact that is not, for instance. But I have and will continue to encourage certain clients with certain stories to advertise with certain publications by contributing relevant sponsored content – because the fact that it may benefit my client doesn’t negate the potential value of the content to the public.

What are your thoughts on native advertising? What other ethical dilemmas have you faced in promoting your, or a client’s, business?

Photo Credit: winnifredxoxo via Flickr

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