It appears that the trend of trying to pass off guaranteed placement as something other than advertising has grown. We continue to hold to our core belief that clients get not only much more "bang for their buck" from earned media, but so much more credibility in their message if it is earned, versus if it is bought. Certainly if a message is a strong one that carries valuable information, then buying time for that message simply degrades its legitimacy in the public's view.
As consumers, we are subjected to advertisements everyday, but it is the messages we hear in the content of news sources and information programs that really influences life decisions we make for our families and ourselves.
This is not to say that "guaranteed placement" is not a legitimate marketing technique. Advertising can be an effective way to get a message out, but it's imperative to know what you're getting. One danger of paid placement is that the listener may tune out segments of radio programming that no longer bear the marks of legitimate news. In addition, guaranteed placements - situated as they are among advertisements - can easily be diluted by the messages around them.
The further danger of guaranteed placement is that PR firms are increasingly failing to make the distinction between earned media and guaranteed placement to their clients. In our view, there are clear ethical implications here. Trust is the foundation of any good business, and it is certainly the bedrock of the work that we do. Weakening of this foundation by anyone in the industry will result in the degradation of the overall standards in the PR industry.
The PRSA code of ethics calls for PR pros to accurately define what PR can accomplish. Blurring the line between PR and advertising directly breaches this standard. Clients beware, there is a code, and here is the key - a PR firm's "special arrangement" with stations translates to buying time on the air.
So the question becomes, is overall PR content getting weaker or are practitioners just taking the path of least resistance? We believe it is the latter. While we understand the temptation to use guaranteed placement to get coverage for a weak story, we believe there is a larger lesson to be learned. A client must be told that its story is weak and should not be a PR story. As long as PR pros help clients with weak stories find coverage by using guaranteed placement, we will all lose.
In 2005, the FCC and the PR industry demanded that the broadcast companies be transparent about who they represent. This transparency needs to extend to the client as well. If a message is weak, and therefore not suitable for earned media consideration, then the client should be made aware that guaranteed placement is simply purchasing time on the air or another form of advertising, but not earned media.
There is a risk when seeking earned media, but we know that risk is worth it, because we have faith in the strength of our clients' messages.
Susan Matthews Apgood and Lynn Harris Medcalf are co-founders of News Generation.