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Watching Church and State Slide Down the Slippery Slope

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This article originally appeared at PRDaily.

The intersection of Church and StateThere’s a common request I’ve been receiving, and it has me simultaneously annoyed, disappointed and scared for the future.

The question comes (via email) in one of two forms:

  1. We’re interested in doing an editorial story on your client. For a small fee, we’ll be able to put together a feature story including an interview with your CEO.
  2. We’d love to develop an entire issue on your client including an interview with your CEO, several other members of the leadership team and a feature video that will run online. In exchange, all we ask is you provide us with a list of partners we can contact to see if they’re interested in purchasing advertising in the issue.

The initial request is usually followed up with something along the lines of “we do have a line between our editorial and advertising departments, but we also have to remember that we’re running a business too…”

Infuriatingly, these inquiries aren’t just coming from scam sites like The Leading Edge or Worldwide Business. I’ve been getting them from legit magazines, newspapers and websites, and even when I am working on something that’s purely editorial, it usually doesn’t take long for someone from the advertising side to reach out and ask if I’d be interested in purchasing an ad as well. I’ve even had publishers call me directly and tell me they keep editorial and advertising departments separate, but if I bought an ad, he’d “talk with the editor and make sure we got a story in there for you.” The worst scenario is when a reporter is interested in a story but is only willing to run it if you buy ad space, too.

Thanks to the popularity of native advertising and the shrinking of editorial departments, this pay-for-play approach is becoming more prevalent, and sadly, more accepted. There used to be a very clear separation of church and state, and now this line isn’t just blurred, it’s become almost non-existent.

For a PR guy like myself, this trend is disheartening for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it minimizes the work I do earning an authentic interest in my clients’ stories. No, the more concerning consequence of this mixing of church and state is the audience no longer knows the provenance of the content they’re consuming. Are those headphones really a best buy for Christmas, or did the publication include them because of that headphones ad that’s also in the issue? Is that thought leadership article really the work of a visionary, or is the author the CEO of a company that happened to do a media buy with that same publication?

In an era of “fake news,” Russian social media bots, and Bell Pottinger, this is a very dangerous development. What was once an outlier is now becoming more mainstream, and by fundamentally undermining the credibility of the media, this administration has created a self-fulfilling cycle of mistrust between the media and the public.

If the public no longer expects impartial reporting, then why should we even try? If the public is OK with pay-for-play content, then why wouldn’t we offer more of it?

The convergence of PR, marketing and advertising has only worsened the issue. While I may view these quid pro quo arrangements between advertising and editorial as abhorrent, many of my colleagues with marketing or advertising backgrounds celebrate it. Why wouldn’t they? They get the article, the editorial control, the timing and the impressions they want, all guaranteed for a dollar figure they can plan for versus paying someone like myself to try and earn that coverage with no guarantees. Add on surveys and studies that show the public doesn’t care if the content was paid or earned, and you’ve got an industry-wide ethical crisis on your hands.

What’s the solution? It’s going to take more than well-intentioned letters to the editor or codes of ethics to solve this problem. After all, the problem lies primarily with practitioners outside the confines of organizations like PRSA or CIPR. It’s marketers who view this as another extension of native advertising. It’s media buyers who think they’re doing PR people a favor by negotiating editorial as part of their ad buys. It’s CMOs who only look at the impact on their marketing campaign instead of the impact on their business.

Maybe Unilever’s threat will spur other brands to take a more active role in media ethics, but history tells me otherwise. As these walls between editorial and advertising tumble down, it’s become more and more difficult to spot pay-for-play content in the media, even for people in the industry like myself.

The answer must start and end with the general public. Call out lazy, biased reporting. Flag fake news as such. Check multiple sources. Report undisclosed sponsored content to the FTC. Pay for journalism so the media isn’t forced to rely on brand dollars to survive. A free and impartial press is integral to our democracy. Insist on it—for all our sakes.

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Stop Wasting Years of Your Life, Social Media Strategists

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This article originally appeared in PR Daily.

If you work in the marketing industry (“social media” is not an industry), you’ve probably either read or heard about this anonymous piece in Digiday and either scoffed at or empathized with the author’s plight.

If you haven’t, here are two of the most resonant points:

I sat in a brainstorm. We came up with a bunch of content ideas for our brands’ social channels—images, GIFs, and lines of witty copy. I went back to my desk, opened a container of leftover lo mein, and realized I’d wasted the last four years of my life.

And:

The underlying issue is that social departments place too much value on engagement. Those “likes,” “comments,” “shares,” “re-tweets,” and “pins” are the metrics that social content creators use to (1) judge success and (2) dictate what future content looks like. Here’s the catch. The people who are engaging with that content are predominantly worthless.

As someone who works at an agency that provides similar support to our clients, I empathized. I’ve been that anonymous author. I’ve lived that life. I feel your pain, anonymous author.

Here’s the thing, though: Empathy and pity aren’t going to solve the problem.

frabz-like-and-share-if-you-love-your-grandma-ignore-if-you-want-grand-dafc21Instead of going back to our leftover lo mein to come up with more variations of “Keep Calm and Carry On” posts while questioning our life choices, I figured it would be more productive to offer tips on how to get out ourselves and our clients out of this rut. (Unless your job and/or bonus depends on amassing more “likes,” fans, and followers—in which case, have I got a lead for you.)

First things first—stop taking yourself so seriously. You’re managing Facebook and Instagram, not performing brain surgery. Stop thinking your customers are waiting with bated breath for your content. They’re not.

Stop treating your social media like paid media, and start treating it for what it is—a place for brands to come out of their ivory towers and interact, listen, talk, and share with their customers. Experiment. Be on your customers’ journey with them. Try new things. Engage in actual conversations. Act as though you actually care about what your customers need and want rather than what will get the most “likes.”

“But,” you say, “my client/boss wants to see the ROI of our efforts and if I can’t show the numbers going up, our budgets are going to get cut/I’m going to get fired!”

Here’s where you change the conversation. Review the metrics you’ve been using, and throw them away. Build a new key performance indicator chart, one that’s actually tied to your business goals.

If your goal is to increase e-commerce sales, show how much traffic is coming in through your social channels. If your goal is to improve your brand’s online reputation, point to the quality of the search results. If your goal is to increase awareness, point to the total number of mentions across all media channels. If your goal is customer service, track how many cases you’ve resolved via social media. If your boss/client gives you a hard time about wanting to see more “likes,” comments, and pins, that’s because you haven’t given her any other metrics from which to judge success. Figure out what role you think social media should be playing for your organization and measure against that.

You also should work with everyone in the marketing mix. Figure out what role social media plays in that regard. Figure out how you can use social media to help advance the other areas. Figure out how they can help advance social media. As a component of marketing, social media does not exist in a vacuum—and neither can you.

Rather than fighting for more dollars, headcount, or attention, look at the bigger picture and take a realistic view of where social media can and should fit in. It’s quite possible you’re stuck in this never-ending loop of crappy content because you have a much bigger budget than that of other areas and your clients (internal and external) want to get their money’s worth.

Don’t be afraid to look at the bigger picture and say: “What if we took some of the money we have allocated to Facebook ads and reallocated that to PR so that we can get some more earned media coverage? That would, in turn, drive more social engagement, because we’d be tapping into those publications’ social media channels, too.”

Finally, be ready to find and create content that makes your brand/organization unique. Everyone and everything has a story, so instead of following some social media guru’s best practices formula for online content that will increase followers, friends, and comments, think about the story you want to share and the conversations your customers actually want to have.

When building your social media content calendar, create and share content about your organization’s history, or the “why” behind some of your business decisions, or your organizational culture, your causes, or new product uses. Maybe it’s just to ask them what they think; you might be surprised at what you find out. If you’re scared of how your “fans” will react, you have problems that go beyond social media.

The Digiday piece struck a chord with so many because we’ve let our excitement for these channels overtake our better judgment. All is not lost—let’s not resign ourselves to a fate of leftover lo mein and crappy content. Let’s admit our faults, adjust our mindsets, and push forward.

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Before You Commemorate the Anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Ask Yourself These 5 Questions

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October 28, 2013 satellite image of Hurricane Sandy taken from a NASA satellite

October 28, 2013 satellite image of Hurricane Sandy taken from a NASA satellite

Next week is the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. With all the hype around real-time marketing and newsjacking, community managers may find themselves compelled—by a client or colleague—to contribute to this news-driven conversation in social media.

When brands do this, it can come across as forced, at best, or offensive, at worst. The line between appropriate and inappropriate is a thin one, best evidenced by recaps of brands trying to commemorate 9/11 this year.

Real-time marketing requires a deft hand, balancing the benefits of participating in conversations your customers are having with the potential damage done by content that’s more concerned with the brand than with its audience.

More often than not, saying nothing is the best move. If you feel the need for your brand to say something about a news-driven event, head over to PRDaily to read this post written by a couple of my team members, Scott Smith (@ourmaninchicago) and Jeana Anderson (@jeanaanderson).

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