Exploring PR’s ethical gray areas

There are many issues in PR that aren’t black and white.

There are always shades of gray in PR.

Grace Williams is senior vice president at BLASTmedia

Contrary to what spin doctor television portrayals may have you believe, strong ethics are a defining characteristic of any good PR person. We have an ethical responsibility to provide truthful, accurate information to the media, the public and our clients. Whether your agency has its own guidelines or follows something like PRSA’s Code of Ethics, core tenets include elements like trustworthiness, honesty, independence, integrity, objectivity, credibility and fairness. After all, you can’t build trust with any audience if you’re not trustworthy yourself.  

In an ideal world, we’re never faced with ethical dilemmas. But, in reality, the pressure to secure media coverage is immense and, unfortunately, can sometimes cause lapses in judgment. Below are a few of the common ethical issues that arise in day-to-day media relations, and my advice for upholding ethical standards, even in the gray area.  



Paying contributors for press coverage  

I mentioned gray areas — but this isn’t one. Paying contributors for coverage is against publication guidelines, but you’d be surprised how often it happens. If you pitch a contributor  and they return with a message asking for payment to secure inclusion in one of their upcoming stories, it can feel tempting to take them up on the offer. But it should be a hard no. Not only should you disengage with that contributor, but you should also let the contributor’s editor know they’re being paid for placements. It’s likely the publication will take down the contributor’s profile, or at a minimum, cut off their access. This kind of behind-the-scenes exchange of cash for editorial coverage undermines honesty in journalism and breaks trust. 

Using your own profiles to cover your clients 

Speaking of contributors, you very well might have a few profiles of your own. There are lots of places an agency leader could contribute content — Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur, etc. And, oftentimes, those are all of the same places your clients might want to secure coverage. Publications’ guidelines differ on what they will and won’t allow, but in general, you need to disclose the paid relationship between your company and the company being referenced in the article. The client isn’t paying you to specifically post on your profile, but there is an existing relationship and perhaps, bias. Additionally, you have a duty to inform your client of this disclosure and communicate the value of the coverage to them. This type of coverage could have value, if the reference is in context, or you’re using appropriate data that is relevant to the story, but it is far from “earned coverage” and should be reported as such. Any PR agency that is relying on their own contributed profiles for client coverage doesn’t have expertise in media relations.  

The ethics of embargoes and exclusives 

Embargoes and exclusives vary from PR person to PR person in how they are executed. And it’s not uncommon for PR people to get into hot water if they aren’t honest with all parties about what information is under embargo and with whom. 

For starters: not all information needs an embargo. They’re severely overused in PR. Closely consider if the information you’re embargoing needs to carry that title.  

Say the news does warrant an embargo. All journalists need to have the exact same embargo date and time. It is incredibly unethical to offer one journalist a “jump” on a story while still communicating to other journalists a later embargo date or time. And it’s a good way to ruin any positive press relationships you were building. If you did want to give a journalist the scoop, you need to offer them an exclusive.  

The most ethical way to offer an exclusive is to pitch one journalist the story and give them a time frame to accept or decline. If they decline, you can move to another journalist, one at a time. You can’t pitch 5 journalists at the same time offering an exclusive with hopes it will work out. You can’t offer a journalist an exclusive and then continue to pre-pitch other reporters under embargo with a later time. You can’t offer different “versions” of an exclusive to different journalists hoping to maximize coverage. Journalists understand an exclusive to mean “I am the only one with the story right now” and it’s unethical to define it otherwise. 

Original vs. repurposed content 

Guidelines for contributed content vary from publication to publication, and the ethics of contributing content have changed quite a bit over time. It’s best to check with the individual publication you are working with to see what’s allowed. One thing is true for all publications, though — they are looking for original content, content that has not been published elsewhere previously. Not only is it unethical to offer the same content to multiple outlets, it’s also terrible for SEO. If you have a similar piece on your own site, for example, it’s likely Google is going to offer the canonical tag to the copy on the publication’s site (higher domain authority, trustworthiness, etc.). Taking it a step further, some publications don’t even want a piece of content that is on a similar topic a particular exec has written about before. Others specify the piece absolutely cannot be ghostwritten and now with AI, many request you do not use any such tools in the creation of the copy.  

Using customers in PR efforts 

Finally, an example that falls into the ethical category! Using third-party spokespeople, like customers, to promote your brand is not only ethical, but often, journalists prefer it. This way, if your company is, say, a software vendor, the journalist is getting a first-hand account of how the software works, how it helped someone overcome challenges, meet KPIs, etc. As a PR person, it’s always best to disclose your relationship with the client in working with the journalist to make sure they have all of the information. What can sometimes become unethical in this case is less on the media side, and more on the customer side. Using customer names or stories without consent is a big no-no, regardless of how flashy the case study sounds.  

Bottom line: if a PR agency promises you a certain number of pieces of coverage or coverage in specific publications — run the other way. Chances are, they’re using one of the above, unethical methods to reach those goals — paying contributors, posting on their own profiles or re-using the same content over and over to reach a volume target. Media relations is never a guarantee. If you want a guarantee, buy an ad. All of your target trade publications would be elated to work with you on that.  

Topics: PR


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