Much buzz in the PR industry has arisen from commentary and a report by Richard Edelman about the ethical framework of sponsored content. The report effectively summarizes how public relations work integrates with paid promotion of sponsored content. Supporters of the idea of PR working in the sponsored content realm say it’s a natural extension of what PR does anyway, which is find ways to make client news interesting, and the paid channel is just another way of getting placements. Critics say that blurring the line between earned and paid is unethical and harmful to not only PR, but to journalism as well. The fundamental reason this is a discussion at all is that news media is struggling to find revenue by any means necessary. As such, paid placements of content are becoming more popular, both in marketing and in the journalism industry.

What’s the SHIFT perspective on paid and earned appearing to merge? Fundamentally, if a journalism outlet is unwilling to accept a pure earned media pitch from us on behalf of our clients, the answer isn’t just to swipe a credit card, because the ultimate goal of PR isn’t just to get a placement. The ultimate goal of our PR work is to help grow our clients’ businesses by finding, building, engaging, and converting new audiences for them with effective communications. If the pitch falls flat, that means it’s not a good story. That means even if we were to swipe the credit card to get a mediocre placement, it wouldn’t engage the consumers of that publication, which in turn won’t drive leads, won’t build the brand, won’t boost sales, and ultimately won’t grow the client’s business.

Our answer boils down to our core values: creative, connected, dedicated, ballsy, smart, positive, and honorable. If a pitch isn’t being accepted, are we being creative enough? Are we being smart enough in our crafting of the story? Are we connected to the right journalist to help make the story happen? Are we being ballsy enough in our approach? Are we being dedicated enough and positive enough to persevere?

Most of all, is the choice about whether to use a paid channel an honorable one? We absolutely work with paid media, every day. We manage advertising and PPC programs for clients, we amplify clients’ earned media through syndication and promotion, and we manage social advertising for clients. Clients entrust us, in some cases, with their entire advertising budgets along with their public relations budgets. The one line we never cross is the honorable line. Earned media has to happen on its own merits, without pay to play. If we were to simply pay to get placements but represent to our clients that we were earning the media legitimately, that’d be dishonorable.

Ultimately, two entities will solve the pay to play problem without PR firms needing to agonize over it. The FTC will do its job of smacking down the most egregious behaviors, but the real enforcement will come from Google. Google’s search quality teams have become adept at isolating paid media from earned media. Look back at all of the algorithm changes that Google has made to isolate legitimately earned media from paid media – the Googlebot can detect whether a link is a sponsored link or not, can isolate the page content from navigation (where paid ads often occur), can see what’s tagged as a campaign even in editorial content (thanks to nearly everyone using Google Analytics), controls one of the Internet’s largest advertising platforms (AdWords) and can thus deduce how and where ads are placed on a website… the list of what Google knows about paid and earned is nearly endless.

No PR firm, no marketing firm, no ad agency has ever outsmarted Google for very long, but earned media legitimately obtained on its own merits is the timeless, well-ranking media that truly helps to boost search results and thus, clients’ businesses.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology


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