Does increased professionalism challenge ethical practice?

Brian Kilgore recently asked about the financial arrangements between editorial content and car makers in the context of a competition offerered by CAR magazine.  He wondered if this might the new model of PR.  To coincide with the Frankfurt Motor Show, I thought I’d take the covers off how PR in the UK automotive industry works.

In the UK, relationships between auto manufacturers and specialist motoring media date back more than a century – and many of the common practices, such as offering early drives of new cars, have changed little.  The tradition is well established that the industry offers media opportunities to generate stories – and generally picks up the bill.

In the “golden days” of London’s Fleet Street, the PR industry had generous expense accounts for long lunches and pitching stories.  Back in the 1950s, cars were glamourous and as the European industry got back into gear after the war, the international press launch was created by Bob Sicot of Renault.  His choice of Corsica as a venue meant he could avoid the prying eyes of the new agressive car magazines, who were prepared to break embargoes (unlike their more gentlemanly predecessors).  It is hard to imagine now, but back then a new car model generated front page headlines and the type of attention seen today only for the likes of Apple’s iPhone.  

In providing select groups of media from across Europe with an opportunity to test a vehicle within a planned format, Bob’s all-expenses paid launch established the approach that remains prevalent today.

This might seem unethical with journalists being feted in exchange for press coverage.  But ironically, in the UK at least, this did not lead to soft media coverage.  Critical reviews are commonplace, expected, and largely accepted.  It has led to a highly credible, specialist media, whose endorsement of a car is much valued by customers and the industry. 

But life is changing – there are increased pressures on PR budgets and demands to demonstrate return on investment.  Coverage is monitored and evaluated; journalists are ranked and prioritised.  We are also seeing more targeting as opposed to the classic “mass market” approach, with PR practitioners working closely with individual publications and journalists to develop interesting angles and exclusive stories – guaranteed coverage. 

Pressure on budgets has led to PR practitioners working more closely with marketing colleagues to piggyback their activities.  This is the case with the CAR feature and BMW as the prize offered to a reader had been planned for key customers and so the PR department was able to offer CAR an exclusive opportunity for a reader to enjoy this experience.  I am sure most readers (in UK at least) expected BMW to be paying even if it wasn’t clearly stated.

What is interesting in this case is that the “deal” took place between the PR practitioner and the editorial team – not two marketing departments.  In the past, both would have melted like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz at the suggestion of such commercialism.  Generating press coverage was “pure” and reflected a love of cars on both sides.  Indeed, most automotive PR practitioners came from a background of journalism – and likely shared engineering apprenticeships or qualifications rather than media or business ones.

Making commercial arrangements is no longer seen as something marketing does.  Journalists recognise their publications are businesses and PR practitioners are aware of the economics of their function.  Both need to demonstrate commercial savvy to retain their licence to operate. 

Some might see this as increased professionalism – but it does raise issues that challenge ethical practice.  If the industry picked up the tab with little expectation in return, journalists and PR practitioners could retain a belief in their impartiality, and credibility.  Today, although the excessively high spending luxury days are largely behind us, the modern exchange relationship may be seen as less ethical.

It seems unlikely that, in the UK and Europe at least, we will see a move to a situation where the industry does not fund car launches.  But greater transparency of the funding is likely.  The real ethical question comes if the industry seeks to control what is reported by the media.  In my experience, this has never been a successful strategy when tried – but of course, one could argue that the majority of the media self-censor their reports. 

Indeed, Adrian Monck sees the BBC Top Gear programme as cheerleading for the automotive industry.  Although the truth is that the industry is often no fan of the show – especially in its attitudes in respect of the environment and safety.

Regardless of the century-old close relationship between those who love to write about motoring and those whose job it is to represent the industry – both have to face up to the fact that there are now biggers issues than 0-60mph acceleration times and sleek new car designs.

I’m not sure the motor industry provides a new model in terms of financial arrangements – indeed, practices of PR-pays are not confined to the car world in the UK and Europe.  We will undoubtedly see closer working relationships as the media and PR practitioners need to justify budgets and deliver results.  But, the socially-minded days of chums enjoying a leisurely lunch or exotic car launch are being replaced with a more professional approach on both sides.  How this plays out in terms of questions about ethics remains to be seen.

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15 Replies to “Does increased professionalism challenge ethical practice?

  1. João, I know you were recently checking out the Spin Cycles series, so a reminder that Episode Two spends a fair chunk of time detailing “earned media,” which is a legitimate publicity campaign that garners significant attention, primarily in the traditional media.

    Interestingly, regarding user-generated content, on her personal blog Heather was recently exploring the concept of “blogger outreach” programs (in this case in the UK) involving a free product provided to some bloggers (who weren’t necessarily subject experts in that area), presumably in the hopes that the bloggers would reciprocate with positive posts about “the experience.”

    From an ethical point of view, obviously the bloggers have to state upfront that they received a freebie. What I’m not convinced of is whether that makes what they write about the product any more credible or believable, as I think it would be very hard not to be seduced into a warm and fuzzy sense of satisfaction, first at being “chosen” to “test” the product (to give the blogger’s perspective?!) and secondly because the bloggers don’t have to put out any resources for it, except the time it takes to play around with their shiny new toy, as well as to write a post or posts.

    I’ve read about a few of these blogger outreach programs (and was critical about one, for which I got slammed by some of the participants); what I haven’t seen is any convincing metrics at the end of the day, demonstrating that these programs were actually a success (from a business point of view), beyond making a handful of bloggers happy.

  2. Heather,

    You summed it all very sharply. As one of the most commented points was the PR-Journalist relationship, let me just remind that readers can still participate in a worldwide research project, which the Global Alliance is supporting, on Media Transparency.

    “The Study of Media Transparency and Payments for News Coverage Practices Worldwide” is an international research led by Dr. Katerina Tsetsura from the University of Oklahoma. The on-line survey is availabe here

    I would also like to call your attention for the difference between publicity and advertising. The difference being that publicity is a non-paid & non-controled communication technique (the PR professional doesn’t control the final product) whereas advertising is a paid and controlled technique (if you want to control the message, you should choose advertising). Now Toni points out to the way social media and the whole web environment is changing these traditional concepts. The rules are not the same as the expectations are different. You exepct that a newspaper (or any other traditional mass media) clearly lets you know what is editorial and what is advertorial but what do you expect from a blog or from other websites based on user generated contents?

    Marshall McLuhan was once considered almost crazy when he proposed a book to train young students to be more aware consumers of information (The city as a classroom). I can’t stop thinking that this whole debate is much about the ways PR can/should contribute to a more autonomous judgment by people. This is where I see increased professionalism being a strong force for a more ethical practice.


  3. Before we go totally off thread in discussing the lack of reliability of old European cars, I thought it would be a good idea to review the thoughts raised earlier regarding professionalism and ethical practice.

    Looking at Toni’s example of journalists being provided with free cars by the national brand, we can see that this practice did not bias the media against being critical when times required it. Consequently, Fiat recognised the real need to build relationships, particularly with its new team of senior executives.

    Toni also reminded us of how taking PR’s traditional, but questionable “pay for play” practices online has already led to concerns about the credibility of views expressed by those who benefit from such “generosity”.

    As Toni indicated, this issue isn’t simple, but there are considerations around relevance that could be taken as guidelines for loans and launches in respect of what is acceptable practice.

    Carla reminds us that payment for editorial coverage can be considered as advertising. The problem is when this is not overtly the case – although I feel the tax authorities would have views over this, especially in respect of what is a business benefit and what is purely a perk.

    In respect of cash payments, Jean indicates this is a common practice in China – although I believe Guanxi refers to obligations in personal connections and networks, not simply media payments.

    What strikes me is that so many of these “cultural practices” seem to be accepted or at least well known rather than publicly challenged. Wider discussion should support developing policies that are agreed by the media, professional bodies and companies in respect of what is, and what is not acceptable. Maybe Global Alliance could initiate consideration of practices through its many member organisations?

    Toni indicated that professional bodies should take a stance here. Jack questioned some of the practices within the PRSA itself. As a Brit, this is outside my area of expertise. However, I believe that any professional body needs to show leadership and be open to challenges from its members to consider and present best prctice.

    Ethical conduct is not simply the responsibility of one body. CIPR President, Lionel Zetter, has picked this up in his latest blog post (see where he highlights how there are several bodies in the UK with ethical codes of conduct applying to the public affairs (lobbying) industry, and that no single one should be considered as the sole arbiter.

    In the examples we have discussed, it is not just about professional bodies taking a stance – although I agree they should – but also about companies and individuals being prepared to stand against practices they consider as unethical. No matter how long they have been an “open secret”.

  4. Brian, I think there is something in the English mentality that used to apply to our cars. We expected them to break down, but saw ourselves as a practical people with skills to sort problems out.

    Then along came the Japanese and persuaded us that cars could be reliable. We sold our love of the quirky for being dry and getting somewhere on time.

    However, we still satisfy this masochistic tendency by supporting lower division football (soccer) teams that lose more than they win. True fans don’t just pick a winning team, they make a commitment based on the regular pain of losing and the rare joy of scoring a goal.

    You can see this played out nationally with respect to the English cricket, football and rugby teams in action at present. We expect our team to be sent home early from the Rugby World Cup in France and they seem on track not to disappoint. Indeed, they let us down last time by unexpectedly winning the trophy. British management techniques honed in losing a motor industry have been applied to rugby (as to football since the 1966 world cup success), so that couldn’t happen again in living memory.

    Indeed, despite winning the Olympic games for 2012, we will be disappointed if it is not a national disaster and our government appears to be planning not to let the nation down.

    As that great philosopher Dolly Parton reminds us – you don’t get the rainbow without the rain. In England, we like the rain – what else would we talk to each other about?

  5. The big advantage of MG over FIAT (the 124 was the closest FIAT inprice at the time) was that the MG was simple enough that it was fairly easy to fix.

    For fixing was what we did.

    I always wondered how MGs actually worked in Britain, if they were so unreliable in the middle of Canada, how on earth did they start and keep going ion an island where it usually rained.

    This upcoming Sunday is British CAr Show day at a provincial park near me, and I’ll go and try to block out the electrical stories I remember, and instead concentrate on the memories of trips with the top down, rain or shine.


  6. Brian, I’m not sure what to make of you selecting a British MG over an Italian FIAT. We certainly had a bit of style in our small sports models (I once owned an MG BGT), but not sure about any claims for reliability. Of course, FIAT is still in business and MG isn’t, although ironically, in the context of this thread, the brand is now owned by the Chinese. I can’t claim any moral superiority here as MG (as part of British Leyland) consumed its own share of public-government money.

  7. For anyone curious about my message above… FIAT no longer sells cars in Canada.

    One reason why itdoes not sell cars here is because many of us believe FIAT stands for Fix It Again Tony. Which is one reason I had an MG instead of a Fiat 124.

    I look forward to insights into the journalist — PR person relationship from other countries.

    I’ve mentioned this thread to the top paid and top elected people at the International Association of Business Communicators, which is tryng to get Chinese PR people into its organization.


  8. About this issue I would like to share with you my experience in Portugal, another local perspective. Of course specialized media – in this case, automotive one -has a diffent PR treatment but,thankfully, there are no PR practices related with financial arrangements between editorial content and car makers.
    That would not be a new model of PR but truly an unethical practice or something with another name: advertising. We hope this continues to be the case!

    But if we are speaking about an Endorser for a specific car, a very well known national personality, yes it’s true. He or She will receive money to drive the car and speak in the name of that car maker.

    About coverage and ROI – for instance an invitation for an event or an international Show – usually what happens is that the car maker pays all the logistic expenses to the journalists invited for the event. There are also other PR tools like lending specific models to journalists for the specific purpose of testing the cars.

    Other media – financial, for instance – usually don’t accept these kind of invitation. The journal is the one that covers the expenses.

    However there are, for sure, exceptions to the rule… There are those who think the grass is always greener on the other side!

  9. Any discussion of PR must take into account how it is being practiced. At the current time, the PR Society of America is preparing for its annual conference in Philadelphia, the birthplace of America’s freedoms, but the Society has a number of undemocratic practices including barring 80% of its members from running for national office.
    There is no blog on the Society’s website where members can discuss things freely. Members are barred from seeing what their elected delegates are saying.

    Public Relations:
    PR Society Creates “Star Chamber”
    by Jack O’Dwyer
    The PR Society has set up a secret e-mail group for Assembly delegates
    only-a “Star Chamber” that is closed to rank-and-file members who can’t know
    what is said or participate in the discussions. They’re not even being told
    it exists.
    (9/10/07;; fall & news are sample passwords)

    PR Society leadership, the most secretive and publicly unavailable in the
    history of PRS (CEO Rhoda Weiss has yet to appear before the membership of a
    single chapter and COO Bill Murray has appeared before only one), on Sept. 6
    created a secret e-mail group open only to the 300 or so 2007 Assembly
    The delegates are able to reach the entire list with a single e-mail via
    creation of an “address book.”
    There was no announcement of this on the PRS website, only a private e-mail
    to the delegates.
    This is an awful development that flies in the face of the basic principles
    of democracy, openness and fairness.
    Secretive deliberative and legislative bodies have been excoriated as “Star
    Chambers” even since the 16th and 17th centuries when the original Star
    Chamber under the Stuarts (King Charles I) was used to punish anyone who
    breathed a word against the crown.
    The Chamber, whose proceedings were secret, could order torture (such as
    cutting off ears), ruinous fines, imprisonment and whipping although it
    could not impose the death penalty. There was no right of appeal and
    punishment was swift.
    King James I and his son, Charles used the court to “suppress opposition to
    royal policies,” says the Britain Express historical website.
    “Star Chamber” came to symbolize “arbitrary, secretive proceedings in
    opposition to personal rights and liberty,” says Britain Express.
    Delegates Should Revolt
    We hope the Assembly delegates will rise up against their confinement to a
    “Star Chamber” and demand that all members be able to see what the delegates
    are saying in this e-mail group and give rank-and-file members the ability
    to e-mail to the entire group with one e-mail.
    There is more than a month from now until the Assembly Oct. 20 in
    Philadelphia which (ironically) is the place where American freedoms were

    We’re not that hopeful of the delegates at the moment because they
    dismissed, out of hand, the excellent proposal by the Central Michigan
    chapter last year that would have made the Assembly the “principal
    policy-making body” of PRS (just like the Houses of Delegates of the ABA and
    AMA are for those organizations).

    The Assembly, in our opinion, is thoroughly politicized and does not
    represent the interests of the rank-and-file members. It is about as wired
    as a Verizon substation.
    It is fatally compromised by having 46 of its votes controlled by national
    leadership-17 board members, 19 district chairs and ten section chairs. They
    have no business even speaking to the Assembly.
    We suspect these “leaders” vote in a block but no one is allowed to know
    since all Assembly votes are cast electronically and only the gross totals
    are revealed.
    PRS could easily print out who voted which way on every vote but it does not
    do so. Only once did this happen-in 2004 when the vote on decoupling was
    revealed on the request of member Paul Wetzel.
    But it took PRS two months to supply the list.
    The Assembly started to go to pot in the 1990s when h.q. staff began strict
    enforcement of the three-year rule for service. This eliminated senior
    chapter members who had experience in the Assembly, knew Roberts Rules and
    were wise to the power-grabbing ways of leadership.

    Various strings are attached to the delegates. For instance, PRS recently
    announced that the “No. 1 question it receives each month” is “Where can I
    find a PR firm or consultant (in a promotion for the 411 members of the
    Counselors Academy).
    Said the promotion: “Hundreds of potential clients are looking for you, but
    will they find you?”
    Our question is what has PRS been doing with these new business leads? !
    They’re never put on the PRS website for all to see. PRS veterans say these
    leads are given out to various favorites and are but one of the many things
    PRS h.q. and leaders do for those who are loyal to leadership.
    Other rewards are approvals of travel/meal/hotel budgets, appointments to
    national committees (good for resumes, new business pitches), job leads,
    help with chapter programs, and the $500 stipend for the June “Leadership
    Rally” for presidents-elect.

    If the Assembly actually represented the membership, it would do the
    1. Bar any voting this year by the 46 leaders.
    2. Vote to remain in continuous session electronically and
    otherwise until the next Assembly.
    3. Abolish the three-year rule and urge chapters to send experienced,
    independent members who have no strings attached (not interested in new biz
    leads, titles, etc.).
    4. Eliminate any APR requirement throughout the bylaws (as urged by the 1999
    Strategic Planning Committee).
    5. Eliminate the rule that board members have to have headed chapters,
    districts or national committees or have voted in the Assembly (chokes off
    supply of leaders).
    6. Pass bylaw banning directors from returning to the board as officers or
    in any role whatever.
    7. Demand PRS leaders admit that staff costs on the annual conference are
    close to $2M and the reported staff costs of $100K-$189K have been
    8. Demand PRS leaders show what the balance sheet looks like with $2M in
    dues deferred. There’s no law against showing financials several ways.
    9. Demand that senior members join h.q. when job openings occur. The
    appointment of non-member Joseph DeRupo to a PR post at h.q. is an insult to
    the membership. We’re not asking that he be canned but that a half dozen
    seasoned PRS members join him. At least 17 staff members have left since
    10. Demand that all leader speeches and a complete financial report be given
    to the delegates three weeks before the Assembly. Ban Assembly leader
    11. Demand that the printed members’ directory again be published (PRS had
    $4.3M in cash as of June 30 and could well afford to do this). Telephone
    books (which the directory was) have not gone out of style.
    12. Allow “at-large student membership (any student could join as a student
    member of PRS), which would help them in job-seeking and bring in revenues
    to PRS. Opposing this are some PR educators who say there already are not
    enough PR jobs for PR graduates. But with the Princeton Review recommending
    a general education for PR jobs, there will be fewer such majors. The more
    popular major now is “communications” which the Review points out can lead
    to either a PR, marketing or journalism career. The PR Student Society has
    had only minimal impact on America’s college students. PRSS has only 9,600
    members out of an undergraduate population of at least eight million. Only
    286 of the 4,000 colleges have a PRSS chapter.

  10. I will leave to other experts from my country to describe such practices in Canada as I am sure they exists in one form or another.
    I did want however to point out the practice of ‘guanji’ ?sp? in China. It not only widespread but sanctioned by the state!
    The state sets the minimum fee as it were!- and I understand from colleagues that it is often exceeded. It is officially called a transportation stipend for journalists to attend your news conference. It is usually left in red enveloppes on designated chairs at the news conference or handed personally at the end of the conference.
    When I travelleld to China on GA business with PRSA colleagues, we were hosted by the Chinese international PR Association and they had at one point set up a news conference in Bejing to follow the launch of a new periodical. They also faciliated access to their international guests who were speakers at this news conference. Approximately twenty journalists showed up-which suprised me given the nature of the ‘news’. I did not witness the practice but I was later told by ex-pats who work in Bejing that the stipend was most certainly paid if that many journalists showed up. the newspapers the next day had plenty of nice photos of the new periodical and very little about what international guests had to say either during the event or after in an arranged special access to us. That might have been because we were quite frank and provocative in our comments and the censors cutr out all interesting parts of our exchange with them! But that’s another story!

  11. Toni – that is a fascinating national insight. I can’t wait to see what other readers, particularly those from the US, think of these practices.

    I did understand there were very strong links between national car companies and the “home” media historically, but got the impression things were changing as customers are less nationalistic and the car companies more international.

    There must be some legal issues around journalists accepting money from companies as you describe. One wonders to what extent the tax authorities are aware of this!!

    I know in UK a few years ago, the tax office issued guidance that it expected motoring journalists to make a declaration on their annual return in relation to what was social as opposed to business.

  12. Truly informative and intriguing this post, Heather: easy to read and thought provoking.
    In Italy once upon a time (say, 25/30 years ago..) daily newspapers would report car accidents implying foreign brands by the latters brand name and, at the same time, would refer to fabbrica italiana automobili torino if referring to FIAT (which is what the achronym implies, but nobody knows) in order to protect the national brand. In many many years of professional practice I have seldom encountered a journalist (mind you, not an automotive journalist, but any journalist) who owned a car…every six months their free car would be picked up by a member of Fiat’s then huge pr department and replaced with a new model.
    While Fiat’s honeymoon with the press turned sour in the nineties and the early years of this decade only to swing back to a significantly improved relationship since CEO Marchionne and Chairman Montezemolo took over and successfully revamped a company which only four years ago was ready to file for bankruptcy, I believe (but frankly am not sure…) that the generous ‘please hop in and hop out of our new model’ still remains, hopefully not as widespread as it once was…
    You imply quite correctly that ‘pay for play’ is not a specific feature of the automotive industry and you are quite correct. What is impressive is how quickly many of our colleagues have quickly jumped to extend such service to social media editors, thus not only significantly increasing the costs of new product/service launches but also in engaging the milder of their critics in some sort of complicity which you subtly describe quote one could argue that the majority of the (benefitted) media self-censor their reports unquote.
    In discussing this habit of pay for play both inside professional associations and with students, the arguments always come down to: but if the journalist does not have a chance to try the product/service directly, how could s/he ever report about it to readers? And, for a quick response, I always cite the case of my milanese colleague who a few years ago launched a new ski with a press conference and handed one ski to each journalist leaving the conference with a letter indicating that the second ski would be left at h/is home doorstep immediately following the publication of the expected article…one can just imagine how in the next few days on Italy’s ski resorts you could see monoskiers intensely experiencing a one-legged slope so that, if their report was good, they would receive the missing one.
    Am kidding of course.
    Think of financial markets, in this case the pay for play game has become incredibly sophisticated and I wish some of our readers could be stimulated in telling us about them: personally I am flabbergasted when I am sometimes required to review these systems on behalf of clients who are more and more wary of these modes of behaviour vis-a-vis the media (or the analysts, or the investment fund representatives, or the watchdog employees etcetera.
    Of course, there is one hell of a difference between giving a car journalist the opportunity of ‘testing’ a new model for a couple of days in a wonderful island somewhere with his international peers, as well as the possibility of interviewing the ceo or mingling with the company’s designers, or engineers; and the famous italian ‘gioielliere’ Bulgari who a couple of years ago put three hundred journalists from many contries on luxury flights from their home town to Moscow to present a new watch.
    And there one hell of a lot of difference between these two (can we call them professional???) cases and the simple contract which tied one of our major financiers to a string of some twentyfive journalists of Italy’s major media by which they agreed to see their bank accounts increase by 20 thousand euros every time a favourable article (and also an unfavourable article concerning the financiers’ enemies and competitors)appeared on their newspaper.
    A real sweety is the case of some 200 medical/health journalists who actually formed a club and payed for it’s expenses (italian association of medical journalists, which was part of the italian journalist guild) which became so cocky in its dealings with us that it actually published and privately distributed to public relators who inquired a list of media outlets and next to each a different price for what was obviously an article, regardless of the quality and the usefulness of the product.
    In many cases publishers incentivate journalists (whose earnings have comparatively dropped significantly over the last ten/fifteen years)to solicit payments from sources to write articles in order to relieve the salary raise pressures they receive.
    Helas…there was much buzz about H&K admitting to have recently payed travel costs to chinese journalists for a plant opening…. what are we talking about??

    In my view there is only one way to do this:
    a- put pressure on media to issue specific policies binding their journalists
    b- resist, resist, resist and prepare to be abruptly expelled by the professional community and to be publicly scolded when a professional suggests that a journalist (or blogger) receive payment for any sort of service rendered.

    In a world all ‘pappa e ciccia’ (in italian for the sense that the english term pastrami inspires me ) where journalists sleep with public relators, where public relators sleep with politicians, where politicians sleep with both journalists and public relators…this is not an easy task.
    But what else justifies the fees we pay to our professional associations every year?????

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