If you try to access this post from Monday afternoon on The Atlantic on the growth of Scientology, you’ll get an odd error message:
“We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.”
That’s right, it was a post, but it was an ad – paid and placed by the Scientologists – and it led to a pretty interesting debate on Monday night among editors and media types around the Internet. Sure, there was a bright neon flashing sign on top of the post that said “Sponsored” (Gawker saved a screen shot), but that wasn’t the only concern of the journalism set. It was the fact that the post was so blatantly promotional, even to the point that comments were being moderated, and so out of place among regular content for The Atlantic, it stood out like a tacky play.
More will come out in the next few days, but it brought to mind other recent examples of “sponsored” content that landed flat or rubbed some the wrong way. There was the sponsored Tweet from Samsung that hit the AP’s feed, which was met with raised eyebrows at the wire’s decision, and then a sponsored post on BuzzFeed that borrowed from Reddit sans attribution and left many feeling used.
I think back to when our CEO started the conversation amongst us on how earned media fits together with paid models of engagement. There is, of course, the sponsored post route, a guaranteed way into the publications that your audience consumes. This will now forever be the link between Samsung and Scientology in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (the missing link, of course, is John Travolta). It secured airquote-coverage for these organizations in the form of high-profile mentions on publications that matter to them, but at more than just a financial cost.
The question that should be asked, especially among this backlash: if “pay to play” is an option, should you write the check to the ad department instead of the email to the media desk?
Ultimately, like Todd encouraged, we need to keep thinking about following through on the media wins that are earned – the result of public relations and media outreach. The content itself remains authentic, vetted and endorsed by that third party publication. Then, instead of a watered-down promotional post with a “sponsored” disclaimer on top, strategic investment in paid promotion can draw the audience’s attention to the story and let them make an unfiltered conclusion about the coverage.
There is a win-win scenario in the latter situation, as well. The fact of the matter is that media organizations are looking for new sources of revenue in the digital era, and if a company is willing to pay for a full post, at premium costs, there is a case to be made from the business side even if it hurts the journalistic product.
Paying to promote earned coverage through another channel, like Twitter, won’t directly get money to the publication. However, the additional traffic to an organic post is the metric that media leverage when working on their standard ad costs, and can lead to sustainable growth of traffic.
Thus, it rises the tides of all online media in a way that one-offs and pay-for-play cannot. We have a legitimate case, as PR pros, to affect that business model in a positive way.
Isn’t that a nice change of pace?
Senior Account Manager
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