The good, the bad, and the ugly

There are more PR pros vying for journalist attention than ever before – now standing at 6.2 PR pros for every one journalist! It’s brutal out here!

The pressures to deliver strong results have pushed some to adopt bad PR practices along the way. A recent Times of London article speaks to some agencies guaranteeing of coverage as “not only does it clearly breach the Chartered Institute of Public Relations code of ethics, it’s a totally false claim.”

The PRCA has a strong stance on PR agencies “guaranteeing” coverage: “Practitioners should not ‘guarantee’ coverage unless it is contributed in nature or agreed by the publication for a particular purpose, but even then other editorial circumstances may dictate that the coverage does not appear.”

Even in the ‘old’ days, when B2B journalists went on jollies complete with business class flights, luxury hotels and even a trip to a Broadway musical thrown in alongside the press conference and the customer visit, PR pros knew coverage was never a banker!

Competing for coverage should not mean the Wild West

There is a certain cut-throat lawlessness to the world of PR, where nothing is certain. Journalist contacts can suddenly move onto different media outlets, taking with them the PR opportunity you had been working on for weeks. But that’s not all. As covered in a recent Roxhill Media TV webinar, a sudden breaking news story, such as an international crisis or a major corporate scandal, has the power to fill up all available editorial space, leaving your news on the side-lines.

Media relations may seem ‘lawless’ and a bit like the Wild West as the lines between paid and earned coverage become blurred – such as the recently highlighted “coverage for cash” scandal has shown, but there is still an ethical code of conduct us PR pros must uphold – and at the core is integrity, trust, and transparency.

The more respected the journal and the journalists, the more their integrity must be respected. We all are amused when we see PR agencies showcasing the same old outlets with pieces written by the same old friends of PRs touting the same old stories (along with a free PC they are testing).

Much like the romanticization of the Wild West, misconceptions within the changing media landscape can lead to some uncertainty about what is good PR practice and what is not – and it seems PR has started to gain a bit of a bad reputation for it.

So, let’s clear some things up…

You can’t guarantee coverage

Make no mistake, the promise of guaranteed coverage is misleading. You can’t guarantee media coverage, it has to be earned – hence the term ‘earned coverage’.

The only coverage that can truly be guaranteed is paid for, but is paid coverage part of PR?

There seems to be a growing trend of pay-for-play but this is not the true purpose of PR – to earn coverage through unbiased journalist approval and trust. It’s about the value of third-party endorsement from a respected source. Sponsored content has a role to play within the wider marketing mix but it has no place in the world of PR. It’s advertorial, as it used to be called before people thought it sounded too much like advertising – which of course it is!!

Paying your way won’t get you very far and disguising sponsored content as earned is unethical and goes against professional codes of conduct.

Why you can’t guarantee coverage – it’s the journalist who’s sheriff in this town

PR pros can’t physically guarantee coverage as we are not the ones in control of what gets published and when – the journalists are. Remember, news is only news when it appears in print. PR pros have very limited control over the timing of coverage and may not even have say over the wording that is used, as journalists have the right to edit content as they see fit. After all, their job is to provide valuable content for their readers – their reputations rely on it.

But a specialist trade journalist’s unbiased and unpaid for opinion will go much further in terms of brand value and prospect marketing potential than sponsored content in an MSM publication that has a high UVPM figure and a huge audience that is in no way targeted to your client’s sales messages.

Setting the PR record straight

Unethical practices will not go unnoticed. As the Times article noted and as a PR agency called out by the PRCA for its “coverage for cash” scandal quickly found out, unethical practices can tarnish agency reputations and remove trust from clients and journalist contacts. Simply a no-go strategy by our standards!

The PR industry takes professional practice very seriously. Governing bodies such as the PRCA, the CIPR, and the PRSA, have written codes of conduct that their members abide by and encourage others within the industry to strive to uphold these professional standards. The onus is on PR agencies to lead by example.

Elizabeth Quinlan is PR Executive at IBA International

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