Truth in media and marketing: How do you win the game?

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Last night, this company’s primary sales representative forwarded an email from a consultancy seeking ongoing publicity in Ontario Construction News. He had met the organization’s representatives at the recent Ontario General Contractors’ Association symposium, where we had both read the consultant’s eletter, which (initially) seemed to tackle an important issue — rising benefits costs from designer or specialty drugs.

My initial thought (like the salesperson’s) was: “Hey, this material might be useful to republish” — thinking ahead to the middle of next week, when we will face an intense daily content-filling challenge as the new e-newspaper goes to a daily schedule.

But when I got to the end of the article, I realized I had experienced something of a head-fake. The conclusion didn’t actually answer the question, but said the consultancy had the answers and you could learn more by calling them.

Okay, the approach here is a legitimate call-to-action and you could say this is a nifty way to attract interest and potential clients. However, I decided if we are to publish this material, it should only be in the context of a paid editorial feature or (probably even more correctly) a boxed advertisement, because it failed the critical test for unpaid editorial publicity: “The content must deliver much greater value to the readers as a whole than to the organization seeking the publicity.”

These values are reasonable (and are a great test for your publicity material if you really wish widespread distribution of your expert editorial content) but they belie another issue: If you had been an advertiser in our publication, giving us tens of thousands of dollars in revenue, would we have been so pure in our publicity standards?

I can’t give a satisfactory answer to that question. Later this morning, I will write a profile feature for one of our major advertisers. I will spend much more time and effort crafting a credible story that makes our advertiser look really good than I would on reviewing any non-advertiser news release. You can cry all you want about “editorial integrity” or “fake news” but, without the advertising revenue, we aren’t in business and I certainly intend to treat our advertisers well.

You’ll find similar sensitivities elsewhere in the media, either directly or indirectly. Serious investigative/critical journalism has become a scarce thing — especially if it touches on commercially sensitive markets — as advertorial and craftily designed “native” social media posts have increasing (and potentially harmful) impact.

Yet I still see value in the simple adage that indicates which news releases we will publish: “Does the content you provide have much greater value to the readership at large than to your own business?” Even with the advertising profiles I will write, I seek to replicate these standards — telling our clients’ stories in ways that really is valuable for the readership overall.

We don’t need to broadcast our weaknesses, I realize, but I think our greatest strengths arise when we selflessly deliver value to the community as well as to our clients.

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