Inside the Mix

An advertiser's relationship with a media outlet can become a PR issue when it fails

An advertiser's relationship with a media outlet can become a PR issue when it fails

In case anyone missed it, General Motors is in the marketing news again - this time having yanked its ads from the LA Times in a last-straw kind of way.

The editorial relationship, says GM, had been eroding for quite some time, and it appears that a column by the Times' auto expert calling for CEO Rick Wagoner's ouster was the said straw that precipitated a commercial solution to an editorial problem.

Few PR pros or journalists will fail to be moved by this story. The church-and-state divide of editorial and advertising is still key to both sides, and despite tactics such as advertorials, product placement, and branded entertainment that go a little way toward blurring the lines, it's rare to hear about the relationship writ so large as in the current situation.

In all but the most aimless of companies, the PR department has the same long-term goals as the advertising department and, indeed, any other department of the company. The tricky part is when one part of the marketing mix - the media relations part - can be entirely unreliable when it comes to outcomes. You buy an ad, the ad's printed, job done. A media outlet prints a story about you, and it could be 180 degrees away from your marketing strategy.

On TV, advertisers frequently pull ads from shows they feel uncomfortable about. While the GM story was doing the rounds, so was a smaller story about some advertisers proving skittish about the upcoming NBC miniseries, Revelations. There's nothing like dramas based on questionable theology in a sensitive time, Papally speaking, to make an advertiser think twice. Some people drew comparisons between the two situations, but it's very different - the key difference being that an advertiser's PR department is unlikely to have an ongoing editorial-pitching relationship with the producers of a TV series in the same way that they might with a newspaper's editorial team. In fact, a media relations expert (who declined to speak on the record) said he suspected that a lot of the time, these advertisers didn't intend to appear around those programs anyway - the big fuss had more to do with getting publicity for being clean-cut.

GM didn't pull its ads from the LA Times for publicity's sake, although that's what it got, and certainly the call for Wagoner's removal was heard by many more people who than just those who normally read the paper's auto column.

But it raises another question: How much does negative editorial erode the work of good advertising? It's easy to forget that "ordinary" people read newspapers differently than those of us inside the industry. My mother isn't going to know what story is there as a result of a PR pitch, or whether a story is fair or not. As for advertorials, she'll decide whether or not to read them based on her interest in the subject, not whether it's paid for or not. And if she sees a story suggesting that a corporate CEO is clueless or a company is doing things all wrong, but then sees an ad for a brand within that company that appeals to her, she may or may not make the connection. GM clearly wasn't taking that chance, but in the process, it created a PR issue out of an advertising one.

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