Public relations and marketing messages masquerading as editorial content has been around for decades. That’s despite all the current enthusiasm for new social media labels such as native advertising, content marketing, brand publishing, sponsored content, corporate journalism and many more. In fact The Guardian suggests that native advertising is just the politically correct term for traditional advertorials.
Regardless of argument about definitions, it seems to be an effective way to sell product – and morning commercial television would hardly survive without infomercials about “space age” vacuum cleaners and “miracle” diets. But what about selling ideas? Do corporate public relations messages disguised as editorial content really help manage complex issues?
Using identified third party experts to advance discussion on issues of the day is a well-recognised tool for issue management. And there’s little dispute that 40-70% of all content in mainstream news media is initiated by public relations professionals. However, that’s quite different from using PR by-lines on editorial to drive sensitive issues.
This distinction was highlighted recently in an attempt by BP to shape discussion on the notorious Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010. The online magazine Politico ran a piece entitled “No, BP didn’t ruin the Gulf” by-lined to Geoff Morrell, Senior VP of Communications and External Affairs for BP (The story was reportedly tagged “Environment” and only later was changed to “Opinion”)
While BP is, of course, entitled to its opinion, this column generated so much adverse comment that the company felt compelled to issue a second press statement to defend the original story. “This is an opinion piece,” said Press Officer Jason Ryan, “no different than any other op-ed by any other company in any other publication.” He seemed to miss the point that BP is not just any company. It was responsible for the worst ever oil spill in North America.
This latest issue management initiative came after an op-ed article in Gulf Coast newspapers, not by the company PR person but by John Mingé, Chairman of BP America, highlighting record tourism numbers and dismissing environmentalists sceptical of the gulf’s recovery. Plus full page advertisements by BP in major US newspapers criticising some financial settlements made against their oil-spill compensation fund.
Another high-profile effort to influence public opinion is the paid newspaper supplements entitled “Russia Beyond the Headlines” which have appeared regularly in major newspapers around the world including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Daily Telegraph, and in Australia The Age and Sydney Morning Herald (most recently last week just before the G20 conference in Brisbane).
Doubtless it helps make Mr Putin feel good. But the question about these Kremlin-funded newspaper supplements and BP’s media campaign is the same – has any of this effort improved a critical reputational issue or changed public opinion?
The answer has to lie in the issue of credibility. The new social media tools may be great for selling goods and services, and consumers understand the idea of “buyer beware.” Yet when it comes to issue management and selling ideas, it’s corporations and governments which need to be aware that “spinning” messages is just as likely to damage themselves as to achieve positive outcomes.