Who should be dealing with the sponsoring of online conversations?

A sponsored online conversation is loosely defined as ‘the practice of paying a blogger to post about your brand’.

This is how Bateman Group’s Bill Bourdon begins a post in which he argues with what appear to me to be solid arguments that, while it is true that this practice should be considered as paid media and therefore fall in the territory of advertising agencies, it is also true, Bourdon adds, that quote yet, how could our counterparts at Saatchi & Saatchi or Leo Burnett be in the same position to broker a sponsored conversation with an influential blogger whom we personally know and follow? unquote.

An interesting and relevant issue which needs, in my view, an urgent clarification.

If one looks at mainstream media, usually public relations professionals avoid being involved in such ‘pay for play’ practices because they normally imply dealing with the advertising departments of the selected media and, only in a second phase, may eventually require a direct relationship with the journalist or publicist assigned by that media to the preparation of the paid text.
Also, these sort of arrangements are not always as clear cut and transparent to the reader as we might wish them to be…so much caution is needed.

On the other hand, it is also true that bloggers, even those who accept being ‘paid to post about a brand’, do not usually have an advertising department to deal with advertising agencies and end up doing everything themselves directly.

Now the question is
‘in this case should public relations professionals get involved or even initiate this transaction with a consenting blogger?’.

I am interested in knowing what you think about this because this sort of practice is increasing and could not only become a mainstream activity for public relations professionals, but also produce similar consequences in dealings with mainstream media as they reach out with more aggressiveness in the social media sphere.

I have a personal and longstanding bias against mixing advertising and paid contents with journalism and public relations, but I also have the impression that this position is more and more typical of the… ‘last Mohican’.
Your thoughts?

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13 Replies to “Who should be dealing with the sponsoring of online conversations?

  1. Joao,

    I am not convinced that disclosure regarding access necessarily helps the content user determine credibility as they have no idea over the extent to which the writer was influenced in their view.

    Certainly, if a motoring writer was given a car outright, and raved about it, then knowing it was a gift would increase the sceptism of the reader. But if that journalist had a good reputation, they may still be able to present an objective opinion that could be influential. The issue is the extent to which they were giving control of their opinion to the car company.

    Regarding your actual example, I believe the public already know that the motor industry provides access to cars etc to journalists – viewers don’t think BBC Top Gear has paid for all the Ferraris and other exotic cars that are driven by Clarkson et al. This isn’t overtly disclosed, but much like the travel industry, food critics, film reviewers, etc, it is understood to be the way things work.

    However, the old practice (which I believe doesn’t happen any more in the UK at least) of giving “presents” on launch events was always more ethically questionable to me. A journalist is unlikely to be influenced by a free pen (should they disclose that) – but when they are given laptops and other high end freebies, you have to ask why. If it isn’t influential, why do it? If it does influence views, why take the bung?

  2. Heather, I agree that it comes down to credibility but, in my view, disclosure is indeed a factor of credibility (specially in the social media sphere).

    To clarify, I understand disclosure as the acknowledgment, by the content producer, of a specific condition which might exert some influence over content produced. The content producer is the only one able to decide whether to expose this condition, leaving to the content user (to avoid the word consumer)the evaluation and the attribution of a certain degree of “credibility”. I sustain that probably as PR professionals we should promote this approach, though I recognize it’s not an easy task and an area of many shades of grey.

    Let’s take as an example the auto industry which is an area of your expertise. Aren’t there situations in which members of the public would make a different judgment from a specific news content if they knew that, let’s suppose, the journalist author has 24/7 access to auto parks from where he can take any car to test it (including possibly for his own private use)? Assuming this could be true, of course the content producer is not being paid to say something (at least not directly), but he is being subject to a condition which might exert an influence on what he writes about the particular car or company. In this case I argue that the particular company should (provided that ethical questions wouldn’t apply to the quoted example) make it clear to the journalist that he can (and maybe should) acknowledge the particular condition within certain rules (that perhaps PR governing bodies should define together with journalist governing bodies).

    You mention “access to resources”. Of course I don’t mean generic disclosure about access, for example, to “informative resources” AKA “sources” – which are (or used to be) a journalis’t most important asset for his work.

  3. I’m interested in the aspects of credibility and control as key differentiators between shades of grey. Access to resources for a journalist shouldn’t impact on their credibility provided the organisation providing that access isn’t exerting control over the copy, directly or by implication.

    Disclosing that someone has provided access doesn’t necessarily address the credibility issue without knowing about control.

    I find most “celebrity” PR crosses the line with demands for copy approval and access being denied to media who might ask difficult questions that aren’t on the approved list.

    However, most journalists (and many bloggers, etc) operate an internal moderation on criticisms, even if the payer isn’t demanding any control over content. Few people really will bite the hand that feeds.

    I’m not sure whether disclosures really matter, unless someone is implying a sense of objectivity that isn’t the case. And, it all comes down to credibility – can I trust what is being written or is it simply puff because the writer is being paid to say it?

  4. João — I think you’ve teased out an important distinction: embedded sponsorship versus auxiliary sponsorship. In the second case, there is no particular link between the creation of the content and the sponsorship (although there may be an Adwords “coincidence”. It becomes a clear case of simply declaring revenue received: a fiscal matter.

    In the case of embedded sponsorship, access to the product/service reviewed is facilitated. And we’ve seen people react different to cases of sponsorship here. It seems there are a lot of questions that need to be considered together in order to determine how appropriate the sponsorship is:
    * Was there full disclosure?
    * Did the writer have access to more than one sponsored product from more than one supplier, or was there exclusivity?
    * Was the access proportional? A test drive might be considered acceptable, whereas the gift of a car would not.
    * Which leads us to whether the writer kept the product/service or returned it (assuming return is a possibility…not the case for food, for example).

    There are probably other questions that have not yet occurred to me.

  5. It has been said in previous comments but allow me to start by emphasizing again that the distinction between advertising and publicity regards the fact that space is paid for (in advertising), that because of that payment the owner of the information controls the final content, and that the message is delivered in a clearly recognizable or labeled way.

    However, it seems to me that in this post we’re talking about a special type of method by which (1) space is paid for and (2) the owner of the information (the brand owner) pays to have a certain and pre-determined message. The relevant difference being that (1) the message is not labeled nor delivered in a recognizable (advertising) format and (2) most of the times there is no disclosure as to the motivation to write the specific post. In this case, however we may call it (pay for play, paid publicity, remunerated cooperation, “advertorial”….), we’re always talking about paid contents.

    Can we sustain a clear distinction between advertising & paid contents on one hand and public relations and journalism on the other? In a normative level maybe yes, but hardly in a real world scenario. Otherwise how can we explain topology of influence, the old expression used to designate the situation when an article about a company (even if published from sound sources like a press release or a press conference) is accompanied by an advertising from the same company in the pages of a newspaper, a radio or TV show (or more recently a web page with a specific banner)?

    In fact, more recently this “topology of influence” concept has been taken to another level with contextual advertising tools like Google Adwords or similar mechanisms (present in most news websites and other information platforms around the web). Aren’t these built to create a more promiscuous relation between paid and non paid contents, aiming to touch the interest of the user in the moment in which he/she is more susceptible to pay attention to the advertising message? Yet, you might argue, paying for a preferred links can be a matter of information not advertising… Again, coming back to the criteria cited before, it’s about identification or labeling the type of message, about paid space and about controlling exactly the final content.

    As a good practice for PR professionals, I think it’s recommendable that we advocate and stimulate for maximum disclosure from the journalists or bloggers with whom we work. Indeed in the normal practice of Media Relations there are already many grey situations which might deserve additional disclosure and starting from here might be good way to tackle this issue. I remember having seen journalists (from the print press) disclose in writing the fact that they had been carried by a specific airline to attend a press conference on the results of that company; I know about journalists who have left organized tours because they were not allowed to pay for their own expenses… And I’m sure you can add a tremendous number of cases to this list, but I also wonder how are these concepts evolving in the current economic crisis scenario and in a context in which media organizations face so many difficulties.

    Definitely a terrain for further elaboration!

  6. Toni,

    First to address “colour separation” charges – I would never have described this as an “honorable” practice. Likewise the approach that was around for a while of offering editorial in exchange for a list of suppliers who would be contacted for advertising. In my professional life, such “journalists” were always redirected to our colleagues in marketing. However, these and other methods were those taken by trade publications – largely those I felt had little credibility and often stayed unread by those who received them by virtue of a mailing list.

    In terms of “advertorial” – in my view this is editorial in style but is labelled so that the reader can see it was directly paid for, and its content controlled by, an organisation. These are common in women’s magazines and try to look like regular editorial pages. It at least is clear to the reader that it is “sponsored content” – as per infomercials, which we are starting to get more on TV in the UK recently.

    The grey area is as Kristen highlights where the PR practitioners organise and fund trips or launch events. That was what I meant by ‘funding to facilitate the production of editorial’. A good example is the cover article of BA Highlife magazine featuring the BMW MINI. I know that the journalist, Gavin Green, had the idea to celebrate 50 years of Mini. The piece involved repeating a journey across Australia Gavin’s father had undertaken in the original car – and so he approached BMW in UK who organised a car with the PR office in Australia for the item. I’m not sure what other costs were covered – presumably BA organised the flights! – but facilitating this editorial would seem excellent use of PR budget to me.

    As a reader, you would probably realise that BMW had helped put the piece together – and although in the car world, the media do not normally state which parts of the trip are paid for by the company, I think this is accepted by media and the public as normal. The thing is that the media retain their independence and credibility – but maybe they are influenced by the hospitality or at the least, their editorial probably wouldn’t appear without such funding.

    I understand in the US, the media generally pay their own way to attend such events. I think there is a common sense ground, but of course, ethics and culture are issues.

    In the UK, Which? magazine promotes its independence and pays around £500 (I think) when it sends its journalists on a car launch (which is probably a fraction of the real cost). Because it is difficult for manufacturers to account for this money back into their budgets, it has recently been agreed that Which? will make the payment to the motor industry charity, BEN. That salves the conscience of Which? – but seems rather futile to me.

  7. Excellent point you make Kristen and worthy of a good discussion.
    But a journalist and a blogger contribution could well help us put the disclosure issue in a proper and realistic perspective.

    Let me put this way and see if we agree:
    when an organisation believes that it is the right time to let others -through any sort of medium- know about something it is doing, it normally decides to place an advertisement somewhere relevant or to appropriately and responsibly package contents as well as opportunities for journalists/bloggers to see and hear in the conviction (how founded is this today?) that these other professionals are deemed by the public whose attention the organization wishes to attract as more credible, or -and this happens most of time when the issue is important- both, but making sure that the latter preceeds the former.

    It is really up to the professional journalist/blogger and to her/his responsibility to inform the reader that a specific content or occasion was made possible by the organization.

    This rule of thumb however does not apply when the organisation mixes the two techniques together and actually pays for the space which is used by the medium to inform the reader.
    In this case, in my view it is up to the organization (and not only to the medium) to responsibly inform the reader that he is reading a directly paid for content.

    So we are not asking bloggers for higher standards than we have traditionally asked from mainstream journalists…
    It is up to us to make sure that pay for post or pay for space be transparent to the reader.

    If, for many reasons, either the journalist or blogger does not wish to do this because it might haamper his own credibility, then we should stay clear from these practices.

    And this, not only because if someone finds out we jeopardise our own credibility (most of the time nobody finds out, even in cyberspace…), but mainly because we defeat our own professional purpose and licence to operate.

  8. What about the time-honoured tradition of journalist field visits? There are two ways to look at those as well. Let me take an example from agriculture, which is the field I know best:

    You organize a visit for a group of journalists to a farm so that they can see how farmers are applying a specific farming system, new technology, crop variety, etc.

    You could argue that the resulting articles are “objective” because the journalist can then write what s/he wants.

    But you could also argue that by the very choice of the field visit, you have influenced the journalists’ perspectives, because you didn’t show them a different example which might have led them to different conclusions.

    And this is where we run up against an unresolvable dilemma. No journalist or media organization has the resources to be jetting around the world seeing all the possible examples. At the same time, our society needs journalists who have the knowledge and exposure to write about complex technical fields like agriculture, and these field trips can truly contribute to “education” and “knowledge”.

    So how do we square the circle? There is no ideal system, but we do need a good-as-possible system, and full disclosure seems to be that option. Yet, I have rarely (i.e. never) seen a published article that included the footnote “Research for this article included a sponsored visit to Project X”. Are we asking the bloggers for higher standards than we have traditionally asked from mainstream journalists?

  9. Yes you are right Richard and thank you for putting the issue in a proper perspective.

    I however see much of this sponsored blogging argument being tossed around in client conversations even in Italy (where social media is way behind) and in my recent nyu course many students where actively taalking about pursuing this practice in their day to day activities as if it was a natural thing to do.

    It is probably useful to raise the awareness of the emerging practice (could have been around for years now, but it is only recently that we discuss about it…)and consider the pros and the cons.

    I entirely agree with your comment.
    Let me however ask you:
    when you distinguish between an ‘advertorial’ and, as you say, ‘funding to facilitate the production of editorial’…
    what do you mean?
    It reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with our common friend Colin Farrington when he told me that ‘pay for play’ in the UK was an unheard of and intolerable practice, only to admit that trade and special interest publications in the UK have an old, honorable and consolidated habit of billing companies and pr agencies for ‘color separation’ costs any time they decided to publish a news release.
    A superb form of hypocrisy, no?

  10. I’m also a Mohican on this (I prefer to separate ads from editorial; commercials from conversations).

    But I’m not sure your premise is right: that there’s more and more sponsored blogging. In reality, there’s more and more free, unmediated and uncontrolled talk in social media spaces.

  11. I’m not convinced organisations should be paying bloggers at all to post about a brand. But there is a very fine line between payment that directly results in “editorial” – what is traditionally called “advertorial”, and funding to facilitate the production of editorial – which in the UK at least, has been the common practice of PR in respect of organising launches and other events.

    I tend to feel the latter is more acceptable, because the resulting copy should be objective and more independent than directly paid for copy which tends to be vetted and approved by the paymaster – and should be identified as paid for content.

    What is the value of paid for posts? Let’s presume they are clearly identified as such to start with. Are you really influenced when you see paid for feature articles in magazines? Like a routine advert, it may bring something to your attention and provide more information – but surely the idea of independent editorial is that it has credibility because of the reputation of the publication.

    Likewise, a blogger’s reputation will be what you are trying to benefit from by association – and if you need to pay them to write about you, does the credibility argument stack up?

    Isn’t it better to keep things clean and sponsor a blogger in a more overt way than pay for posting?

    It seems somewhat ironic that the better educated “audiences” are and the more they wish to engage in dialogue and informed decision making, the more organisations (whether their marketing or PR teams) seem to want to manipulate the process.

    If your product/service/brand is good – then true PR should be helping it speak for itself. If the goods aren’t worthy of conversation without paying bloggers to talk about them – then perhaps the PR practitioner would be better off counselling the client how to address issues rather than trying to game the conversation.

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