Promoted content in newspapers, magazines and online news outlets is becoming more common. The practice provides a low- or no-cost avenue for content marketers and can fill up space that hollowed out newsrooms cannot. But there are dangers that news editors and PR professionals should recognize and take steps to avoid.
Ted Kitterman, in a media relations blog posted on ragan.com, recalled how Jeffrey Epstein unleashed his PR team in 2009 to promote favorable “news” after his release from jail for sexual offenses. Kitterman said articles ran in Forbes, The National Review and HuffPost promoting billionaire Epstein’s “financial acumen.”
Based on research published last week by The New York Times, the articles were written by Epstein’s PR firm. A contributing writer agreed to attach his byline to the piece that ran in Forbes. The writer was paid $600 by Epstein’s PR firm.
When approached by the Times, the writer said he was unaware of Epstein’s sexual assault history in 2009 and, if he had been, wouldn’t have lent his name to the article. He apparently didn’t offer to return the $600 check. Forbes responded to the Times report by removing the piece, noting the piece failed, retroactively, “to meet our editorial standards.”
Spotting an attempt to whitewash the reputation of a sexual predator should be relatively easy. Recognizing misleading or false claims in promoted content may not be so easy. This kind of content is the cousin to fake news. Both will require a village to identify and prevent.
Publications, especially those online, rely on outside content to feed their daily news streams. Forbes posts 100 articles a day, much of it written by 3,000 contributing writers. The flow of content has led to a surge in viewership, as well as criticism for lackluster editing and profiteering from becoming a “content farm” instead of a respected business publication.
Kitterman pointed to a 2018 HuffPost policy change that now requires editorial approval for guest-written content. “One of the biggest challenges we all face, in an era where everyone has a platform, is figuring out whom to listen to. Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy. When everyone has a megaphone, no one can be heard,” HuffPostEditor Lydia Polgreen wrote in explanation of the policy change.
It's not enough to blame news outlets. PR professionals must refresh their memories of professional and ethical standards and play a positive role, too. They don’t have to say ‘yes’ to every client idea or demand. They can and should warn clients about the backlash and reputational damage caused by whitewash, misleading or false content. More fundamentally, PR professionals should worry about contributing to further erosion in public trust of news sources.
Promoted content, as well as guest columns and op-eds, are here to stay. They can be useful PR vehicles to tell brand stories and offer an unfiltered viewpoint on a public policy issue. News outlets need to supplement the content their own staffs generate to feed their “communities of viewers.”
Kitterman offers some basic advice to news editors and PR pros:
Commit to transparency. Be honest about who wrote an op-ed and the purpose of its message. Declare who is sponsoring promoted content and why.
Fact-check. Editors should ask for substantiation and PR pros should be able to provide it for major claims in promoted content or op-eds. If claims cannot be substantiated, PR pros should remove them and editors shouldn’t publish them.
Hire an editor. News organizations have trimmed their copy desks so a lot more copy goes into print or online without someone’s red-pen attention. Many PR professionals have scant or no journalism experience and may not recognize the line between useful information and puffery. PR firms should have someone on board who has editorial skills and skepticism.
One of the unsung advantages of digital media is its almost limitless ability to distribute content. To leverage that advantage without losing viewer trust requires attentive integrity by content producers and publishers.
“Combined, PR firms and news sites made a big mistake,” according to Kitterman, “and if actions aren’t taken, another Epstein could waltz through understaffed newsrooms unchallenged.”