A reporter calls with an entrenched point of view - negative, of course. The fact-finding is sloppy, the writing inaccurate. And your CEO wants to know why you can't control what the media says. Nevertheless, given the opportunity to exchange an independent and competitive press for the very opposite, neither you nor your CEO would likely choose to do so.
Yet that decision is being made all too often, where bribes are used to improve a company's coverage. The practice continues in many countries, and no region of the world is immune. Recently, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), supported by the Institute for Public Relations in the US, set out to measure the prevalence of cash-for-editorial practices around the world.
The IPRA campaign for media transparency has conducted an online survey to which 240 PR pros in more than 50 countries responded. The results show that cash for editorial is rife in print and broadcast media of many countries, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe, and Central and South America. But the survey also showed that the practice can take on highly sophisticated forms where it is least expected.
Respondents were asked whether news coverage in their country normally appears as a result of editorial judgment of the journalists involved, and not through any sort of payment to the journalist. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in Eastern Europe said they could not agree with this statement. The regions that scored best were Asia, North America, Australia, and Northern and Western Europe.
It's never pretty when reporters or publishers suggest (with varying degrees of subtlety) that you'll get better coverage if you take care of them. Or when an ad sales manager shows up at a press conference, grabs the press kit, and presents an invoice for the ad that must run before you'll get significant editorial space. Or when publications ask for payment not to publish certain stories. All of these things have happened to me in a variety of countries around the world. But if you think nothing like this can happen here, then you're probably fortunate enough to have never been asked to cover "separations costs for the picture that they want to run with a story about your company or product.
So why give such distasteful practices more exposure? Because that's our best opportunity to wipe them out.
Thus has the Institute for Public Relations decided to support the IPRA campaign by creating a biennial international index of bribery and the media. It will include a variety of verifiable factors related to the propensity of payment for editorial coverage. These factors fall into the categories of government/legal issues (such as tradition of self-determination, effective anti-corruption laws), education issues (such as professional education of practicing journalists), and media issues (such as existence of codes of ethics, professional-level pay for journalists, freedom of the press, and independent ownership).
The struggle will be long. But if PR people can win the support of three other key groups - publishers, journalists, and advertisers - we will succeed. Each of these groups will be asked to sign the IPRA charter for media transparency, agreeing on several points. First, editorial material should appear only as a result of the news judgment of the journalists involved, and not as a result of any payment in cash or in kind. Second, any material that appears as a result of payment will be clearly identified as advertising or a paid promotion. Third, no journalist or member of the media should ever suggest that editorial will appear for any reason other than its merit. Fourth, while samples or loans of products or services may be necessary whenever journalists must test the product or service to render an objective opinion, the length of time should be agreed to in advance and all loaned products should be returned afterward. And finally, the media should institute written policies regarding the receipt of gifts or discounted products and services, and journalists and other staff should be required to read and sign their acceptance of the policy.
Some may find these points obvious. They are anything but that if you consider cultural differences from one country to another. Blindly applying US standards may be an easy solution, but is rarely the right one. But it is critical to the increasingly global PR profession - and just as critical to the credibility of media around the world - that such standards be established and adhered to everywhere.
Frank Ovaitt is MD of Crossover International, an independent communications management firm specializing in international PR. He previously served as VP, corporate affairs for MCI, international PR VP for AT&T, and editorial services director for Monsanto Company. He is cochair of the Institute for Public Relations, and of the IPRA campaign for media transparency.