Ads VS Eds – The Blurred Divide

I have been asking friends who are in public relations (based in other countries) if the great divide between advertising and editorial is indeed getting more and more blurred or is it just me, struggling to understand the integrity of some of the local media.

The problem has always existed but recently, it seems to get worse as more and more competing publications pop up, vying for the attention of advertisers and consumers in our small country in Singapore.

I am sure I am going to get some “concerned” emails after this post from some of my wonderful local media friends who are reading this blog but I am open to hear some thoughts.

Here, I am not even debating about the difference between advertorials and editorials, I am just looking at how some media are asking us, PR consultants to get our our clients to advertise in their publications before they even consider our pitches. And here, I am talking about newsworthy stories that we crafted but got rejected because our poor clients do not have enough advertising budgets to spread across all key media.

It sounds unbelievable? “Where is journalistic integrity?” you ask and it’s the exact question I am pondering over.

Some common comments I got from journalists:-

– “oh, your client is a competitor of one of our biggest advertisers, so even though it’s a new launch, it is not nice for us to feature it. Even if we do, can’t do it too big” and that usually ends with “ask your client to advertise with us! then we can maybe do this and this and that too..”

I wonder what is the root of this problem. Is it the need to survive, profit pressures, thus causing publications to try push and increase ad sales by any means? It is not that bad if the question on ad buys comes from the sales folks but we get that from editors and writers/ journalists as well!

Perhaps, the companies/ marketers have a part to play too. The understanding of the difference between advertising, PR/ editorials is all confused. Every other day, we have clients telling us “I’ve already bought ads in XX publication, please ensure we get some editorial coverage in that publication.”
Because of that increasing pressure, and despite endless explanation to clients that it does not quite work that way, PR folks are getting tired and some gave up and went to the media and said, “well, our clients bought these ads in your publication, you should support us by featuring this and this…”

Vicious cycle!

At the same time, I am also observing the blogosphere and how some bloggers are blogging endlessly about their “sponsored” gadgets and would only blog about restaurants who advertise on their blogs.

Again – the blurred divide. But it’s a new space and there are alot of movements and changes, I shall have to keep on observing before more comments can be made.

Meantime, I have to start preparing myself for questions from clients asking ,“I spent $XX, can we get coverage of our latest product launch in the Christmas issues!?”

PS: maybe if the products are like the iPod Touch or the Nanos, there is absolutely no need to worry about getting editorial coverage in any Christmas supplements?


14 thoughts on “Ads VS Eds – The Blurred Divide

  1. Hi Pris, I share your views. The line has never been clear, especially in certain trade publications, but lately I hear that even our certain “newspaper of record” has not exactly been a paragon of virtue, either, especially in its side sections. In the long term, this will only erode journalistic integrity and public trust. Cheers, David

  2. Interesting post and nice headline there!

    Well, I see that happening as the media scene gets more and more cluttered with various magazines, newspapers, and other options popping up. With increasing competition for advertiser dollars, all kinds of carrots are needed to lure marketing investment. This unfortunately also means that pure word of mouth and publicity alone (ala Apple and Starbucks) may be difficult to sustain journalism.

    To me, the best strategy is still an integrated marcoms one. You need to synergise your advertising, marketing, events, online and PR efforts to maximise. Look for creative buys (which are getting more and more intrusive by the day eg noticed how TODAY is perpetually surrounded by a wraparound ad), ensure that you have something newsworthy in your launches and events, while also advertising in a way that is less conventional yet works for your brand.

  3. Funny that you are questioning the integrity of local media when you have absolutely NO clue to what’s on the side of the local media…

    (And I will only quote from the technology media point of view since I’m from there)

    First of all, tech media industry is shrinking in case people haven’t realised….And partly because YOUR clients (as in general tech PR clients) aren’t supporting the local media enough. Sure, we can help you review their product, do this feature and such…But, end of the day, what have the client do to support the media? Seriously.

    And when publications like Asia Computer Weekly died suddenly, PR people get desperate and try to get other not-related media to do coverage for their client….Aren’t we forgetting that it is the clients who are the ones who caused the “deaths” of the local media because they don’t give a shit about them?

    The fact is PR people just don’t care about media at all….All they know is to please their clients by getting the coverage necessary….until a publication dies and then they regret…..If PR people know what’s good for both media and themselves, they should convince the clients to support the media…

    Not to mention, throughout my life in media, ALL clients want good coverage, regardless of how crap their products or whatever news it is….So where’s this journalistic integrity you asked?

    One reason why advertisers get featured more is partly to let them know the difference between them and non-advertisers….Media job is similar to PR job, from a certain perspective….You’re our advertiser, therefore what sort of mileage you expect from us….

    Sure, perhaps not every media are “money-minded” like this, but still it all goes back to survival and “you scratch my back and I scratch yours”…I have no idea that even editors and writers are pitching for sales…maybe its because there’s commission or maybe they really need the ads in order to survive. Don’t forget, we all earn our petty wages end of the month just like all PR people do….we have mouths to feed as well and we also need to survive in a job as much as anyone else…

    You may have a good pitch for your client, but you can’t just always think about yourself; I would not hesitate to do a good story once a while, but why should I if there’s no returns and only you are getting the gain, right? If you were in my shoes, would you?

    The question you should be asking is not “where is journalistic integrity” but “how much is journalistic integrity worth” (to you and to us media).

    If you want to talk about upholding journalistic integrity, that is only applicable in countries like USA and UK that have less “corruption”….But in S’pore, especially when someone talk about politics, talk about something bad but a fact, the guy gets shot down, gets fine and jail time…and we wonder why…

    And this is an example on how ridiculous a client can be on media using a 5-year NDA, check this link ->

    How to have journalistic integrity like this?

  4. I would have thought that journalistic integrity was a given – and quite non-negotiable? I’m currently in PR, but i majored in Journalism at uni, and had briefly worked in a newspaper before moving over to the Dark Side.

    Journalistic integrity – Journalism 101, actually – requires a writer to be an impartial witness to an event, occurrence or happening. His views ought to be unbiased and nor reflective of any specific party’s interest. This, however, is more the ideal than a reality.

    We all know that journalists fall under the jurisdiction of their respective publications – and publications are, at the end of the day, profit-making enterprises that have their own interests.

    That, however, should not be an excuse to deny the publication of newsworthy stories that DESERVE to be aired and made public knowledge.

    Fortunately I DO have some knowledge of what’s going on in the local media, having spent time in what is possibly the most respected and widely circulated publication in the country. And yes, while I do agree that there are certain interests involved in even this publication (at times more so than your average magazine, given the power of the parties involved), the reality is that it strives to strike a balance – by fulfilling its responsibility as the purveyor of TRUSTED and CREDIBLE information to the public, while tacitly supporting its stakeholders.

    A journalist’s main function is to provide an unbiased and impartial assessment of whatever it is he has been assigned to cover. But at times interests may force him to write a more glowing report than he’d like to. That’s the reality of the world – whether in Singapore, the US or the UK. Fox News is almost unabashedly pro-Republican, while NYT tends to have more liberal leanings.

    At the end of the day a journalist’s most difficult job is striking a balance between being a public informer, while keeping stakeholders happy. But, as a senior Editor from my former publication once said, “It is just a challenge to see just how well your grasp of the written word is.”

  5. I agree with izzie, however, annoymous (the one before izzie) makes an astute point as well.

    I have met publishers who only see the money. Instead of listening to their editors, they hang on to the words of the sales directors instead. The latter is driven by the profit motive (short term), the former by editorial intergrity (long term).

    This is unavoidable. I guess most publications undergo the same editoral-vs-sales tension. But each cancels out the other and a balance is struck. So Izzie’s right.

    Yet, when you are talking about small publishing houses with perhaps just one title under its belt, it is hard to stay faithful to editorial virtues when someone is buying 10 insertions in exchange for a little favorable coverage.

    The publisher may feel good that he has rejected a baited offering, but it also mean he will have to tighten his belt that much more.

    For a publication to maintain Izzie’s version of journalistic integrity, it has to have a strict editorial policy that prohibits sales from ever influencing content, and that can only come from a house with a lot of money already in the bank.

  6. I hate to admit this, but as a PR person myself I sometimes (only SOMETIMES, really) feel like I’m leeching the media. Afterall, we don’t pay a cent to get our pitches published, do we? From that perspective, we are freeriding on the media, are we not?

    The way I rationalize the justification for PR is however, twofold:

    Firstly, advertising dollars are not by itself the only factor in deciding a publishing house’s income level, because implicitly if you work that chain a little further back, you would realize that companies advertise mainly based on circulation/subscription figures, which in turn depends on the quality of the publication’s content.

    Without PR agencies dishing out pitches all the time, whether it’s about a new product, an exciting event or another government campaign, would the writers/journalists have the ability and bandwidth to source for enough stories and material to fill up the pages to make it a worthwhile read?

    Fact is, the local media (at least) does not get most of their story ideas through their own research, contacts or journalistic instincts (whatever that means in Singapore). They depend on PR agencies and in-house corp comms people for story leads and frankly such professional interdependence is not anything to be ashamed of anyway.

    Truth is, which reader would pay money to buy a crappy publication that is full of ads but misses out on all these new and interesting bits that may invariably come as a result of PR practitioners’ endless pitching?

    If you are an advertiser yourself, would you spend money putting your ads in such a publication?

    So yes, it’s all a vicious cycle and who’s fault it is depends on where you choose to cut this cycle: no pitches> no content> no readers> no subcription/reader base> no ads> no money?

    Which brings me to the second point: PR serves to provide important and timely information that sustains the modern media environment. Such a role is essential in maintaining the richness and vibrancy of our media content.

    For want of a better example, the PR function is to the media what personal experiences and opinion is to a blogger. Would a media without PR start sounding like a boring blogger who has nothing exciting happening in his life? Perhaps.

    Or maybe a blogger who updates his entries with tonnes of endorsements and paid-for content (which implies less personal self-opinion)?

    At the end of the day, the media needs PR as much as PR needs the media. It just seems a little unfair now because the status quo favours the media. Which PR agency would dare to go to Straits Times and say, “I’ll only release the information to you if you run a half-page story on it”?

  7. Well, this has certainly turned out to be an interesting conversation about journalistic integrity.

    This vitriol about PR professionals not caring about the media industry was uncalled for, and obfuscates the issue at hand. Professionally-run publishers have marketing and editorial divisions for a good reason. No doubt it’s a catch-22 situation, but if editorial produces fair, quality pieces, eyeballs and attention will be drawn over time. And that ultimately translates to ad dollars for marketing. Publishers who consistently fall prey to short-term profits will doom their publication as readers start to dismiss them as ad trash. Quite a number of tech publications have died ignominiously with few missing their presence.

    Interesting that the only person here who claims to be a journalist is posting anonymously.

    Pris, you have opened up a Pandora’s Box.

  8. Thanks guys, for all the very interesting views. Wish we can hear more from the media/ journalists side, especially the print media.

    Although I sympathise and can understand the views from “anonymous”, but isn’t it sad for a journalist/ writer to say, “… but why should I if there’s no returns and only you are getting the gain, right?”

    This is the exact point I am trying to make.

    This sounds like a journalist who tries to do a sales person’s job too. Like I mentioned in the post, I have nothing against the marketing and the sales people from the publications doing their jobs. If you read my earlier posts, I am all for advertisements, I love flipping my Glossy Mags and look at the pretty ads. I encourage my jewellery/ fashion clients to tie up and buy ads in targeted women magazines.

    I am just questioning journalists and writers who take up the role of sales folks and try to bargain for ad dollars in exchange for writing about a coverage.

    What if one day, PR folks hold the ad dollars of clients and have all the power to buy ads directly with journalists and say to the editorial team, “forget about us pitching newsworthy angles to you, just give me my full page write up before i’ll even spend a cent in your publication?” would you question our PR ethics/ professionalism too?

    David’s points is valid – there is logical reason why publishers set up different departments (ie: marketing, sales, production and editorial etc) – each to handle its respective role.

  9. I agree with Matthew’s reading on the survivability of a publishing house – it’s an interdependent cycle that depends on many factors. Certainly ad buys play an important role in providing PR leverage for the client’s brand – but that is not the be-all and end-all.

    I guess what i find most worrying about The Anonymous’ posting is that it is made into an excuse for providing less-than-deserved coverage of something – then blaming it on what is part-and-parcel of an industry’s product life cycle. Publication houses close up all the time – it’s not just restricted to tech publications. It just goes to show that there isn’t sufficient critical mass (both in terms of READERSHIP and AD DOLLARS) to support X number of publications in the market. That’s the way of the commercial world – the weak get culled, while others (hopefully) learn from their mistakes and move on stronger and more knowledgeable.

    As Pris pointed out – the issue is not about whether clients should advertise. In fact, I say, let the client advertise MORE! The issue in this case the about the role the journalist plays in providing coverage of good and credible things DESPITE the ad buy.

  10. Hey all, I’ve read the above with much amusement and interest. For those who know me, you’ll know I’ve been thick in the action, walking the line like nobody’s business.

    Most the points put forward are correct, but you’ll gain full enlightenment when you’re a journalist who has to worry about the business of his paper.

    And shame on you, anonymous, a journalist who can’t even tell us his name.

  11. Hey Ian, you’ve been in the thick of the action alright, and perhaps more so because beyond just writing, you ALSO have to worry about the business of the paper.
    Yet on the other end of the scale, let us also not forget that most, if not all, PR practitioners do not handle ad buys on top of their PR responsibilities. We also do not dictate how much our client should put aside for advertising.
    Having said that, holding us hostage to the amount of money our clients spend on buying ads is a futile exercise. Worse, it becomes counterproductive when PR people stop pitching to these publications because they know they won’t get it anyway. Why spend time pitching stories and all you get from the journalist is a 10-min economics lecture on running a publishing house? And then still get no coverage in the end?
    The next time my clients come to me for recommendations on which publication to put ad money in, would I pick that stuck-up magazine that snubbed all my pitches or the one who ran my story out of goodwill?

  12. Wah, these guys spend 10 min telling you how the biz is run? Give me 10 sec..but wait, it’s too late since I’m no longer a journo as of this week.

    I believe the good journos (who still exist) can always be convinced by a good story idea/angle/pitch, regardless of ad spend.

    And if a client asks you on where to put his money, always recommend the publication which provides his target audience, not so much on how much “editorial support” they’ve given to date. That’s still the fundamental difference between ad buys and editorial support – they don’t always go hand in hand and mixing them together muddles the business model.

    But people like to muddle issues…so if the client doesn’t get any editorial support he believes he’s entitled to, despite him spending oodles of money, they simply have to ask themselves why.

    Lousy product? Lousy relationship with the press? Or gasp…lousy PR person?

  13. Agree completely.

    There is always hope in the world (no matter how little we sometimes see around us) and there will always be good journos and good PR people.

    But there will also be bad journos and bad PR people. Afterall, sometimes it’s only when you meet the terrible ones that you know what the good ones are like, and vice versa.

    Perhaps, I was just thinking, that there is a fundamental difference between the mentalities of thosewho write for magazines and those who write for newspapers. For one, the pace is different, and I believe the business model would differ to a certain extent as well.

    Would that make an impact on how they treat pitches and deal with PR people in general?

    Comments, anyone?

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