NEWS ANALYSIS: Is paid-for ‘editorial’ ever effective?

Using advertising budgets to produce sponsored features is increasingly considered money well spent – but there are pitfalls. Robert Gray looks at how PR professionals can make it work for them.

At the recent Communications Directors Forum, head of global PR for BT Global Services, Ellen Ferrara, revealed that over the past year BT had diverted £1.5m from its advertising budget into sponsoring features and events with media partners. These included The Times, Economist and The Daily Telegraph. The resulting editorial was highly-praised internally, especially as Ferrara’s team alerts BT’s sales people to the coverage to use as a sales tool.

Most PROs are familiar with advertorials, but this takes the concept of paying for editorial into a new arena. Unlike advertorials, the editorial generated from the BT deal was not flagged to readers as having been paid-for.

That project was just one of the many sponsored supplements that appear in the UK press. Media owners see such ventures as valuable additional revenue streams. For the client organisation, paying for editorial coverage, albeit coverage that is subtly differentiated from the main non-sponsored content, allows for exposure and some degree of control over the subjects and themes addressed.

Despite the project’s popularity within BT, Ferrara identified some difficulties with the process. For example, telling an editorial team exactly what to focus on would defeat the object of the exercise, but clearly content needs to be within pre-agreed parameters. In one instance, having agreed a topic with the commercial team of The Times just five weeks before an event, the editorial team decided the theme was ‘too boring’ and proposed an alternative.

‘As every editorial team has a different feeling about media partnerships, it is essential that in the contract you work out what the role of the editorial team will be,’ says Ferrara.

The occasional tension between editorial and commercial teams on such matters was underlined in March when high-profile Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins attacked his own paper over an eight-page supplement sponsored by the Housing Market Renewal Partnerships, which lambasted the use of public money to induce ‘newspapers to dress public relations as journalism.’

Flagship Consulting

Caroline Sweeney, director: ‘Sponsored supplements or advertorials can be an effective way of gaining significant coverage if it cannot be achieved through genuine editorial input – providing that the topic is relevant.

However, in today’s world there is a need to be more creative.

I’d suggest talking to the media to see if, rather than an advertorial, a news platform can be created for the client that matches the editorial needs of the magazine. For example, Opodo became the only online travel brand to be featured in Caterer and Hotelkeeper through a sponsored roundtable which Flagship organised. Sponsored supplements do not come under the remit of advertising, just because a client is paying. Roundtables, sponsored columns and research are integral parts of PR – and they can all be financed by a client. Provided that a sponsored supplement is written in an editorial style and is part of a PR campaign, there is no reason why it should be classed as advertising.’

Iris PR
Bill McIntyre, director: ‘Paying for editorial has always been a heated topic for the PR industry – we all pride ourselves on creating ideas which will generate media coverage without paying for it. However, this doesn’t mean all paid-for coverage is a bad thing, and too often the idea of paid-for supplements is discounted by PRs and clients alike.
What paid-for coverage should not be about is a quick fix – it’s not an answer to a campaign that isn’t working. But if it’s well thought through from the planning stage it can be effective to reach audiences and explain complex ideas. They will only work if they are planned properly – for instance in harness with an online promotion.

The other crucial factor to making paid-for coverage work is to ensure a tight working relationship with the publication from the start, with clear parameters set for who is going to be doing what and what each party has control and approval over. Getting this bit right can only help PROs become stronger marketers.’

The New York Times Media Group

Jean-Christophe Demarta, international advertising director: ‘The International Herald Tribune (IHT) is the world’s leading general interest newspaper. We produce a diverse programme of over 100 advertising supplements each year for high-profile clients including Nokia, Credit Suisse, Insead and Accor.
Traditional advertorials offered by many media would turn off our sophisticated, intelligent readers and be a disservice to the advertiser.

Our philosophy is that advertising supplements can be of genuine interest without masquerading as content from our newsroom. Unlike competitors, we do not outsource but retain in-house editors and designers and a global network of experienced writers. This allows us to tap the institutional knowledge of what our readers respond to.

A classic illustration is Ear For Opera, which has been exclusively sponsored by Rolex for two years. It appears fortnightly in partnership with the world’s leading opera houses bringing readers insights and news.’

Hall Communications

Nick Hall, managing director: ‘When we pitch to clients, we explain that there is a key difference between generating advertising coverage that is paid-for and PR-generated editorial that is unbiased and pure. In the eyes of the reader, advertising is not objective and serves the purpose for projecting a brand image rather than educating and influencing.
PR has always been about generating objective editorial coverage written by a third party. This differentiation, between balancing objectivity and commercial imperatives, is why Google has been so successful. In increasingly crowded markets that generate information overload, there has to be a clear division between journalist-generated copy and paid-for advertising.

A company that generates pure editorial coverage and then sponsors a feature is de-valuing the coverage as the reader will perceive it is all paid-for. There should be a clear line between editorial coverage and paid-for advertising.’



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