Writers on the take: The bad side of the social media revolution


The line between blogging and mainstream journalism continues to blur, as more people get their news from social media channels, and more “real” journalists go social.

There have been enough articles (and even more blogposts!) written about what this means to the future of media, so I won’t add to the pile.

However, I came across something in a Poynter post today (via BoingBoing) that really took me aback:

Dear Editor or Health Editor:

Would you consider running our press release as a win-win project? We will pay $100 for every Skin Care Patient who sees the press release in your newspaper and commits to our exclusive and effective process. We monitor each incoming patient and where they heard about us.

Now, I’m not so innocent as to think that journalists have never received kickback from PR people or corporate shills, or simply got pressure from their ad departments, to run a favourable story on a company or even publish a press release as news.

What really got me was the boldness of the approach: “Publish this and we’ll pay you per referral”. No envelope under-the-table. No grey-area incentives or free samples for the family. Just pure transaction.

As both a blogger and a person who tries to influence bloggers for clients, I am well-aware that social media content producers are neither trained nor bound by the kind of professional ethics that mainstream journalists are supposed to abide by.

A blogger’s credibility is earned, on an individual basis, by readers who understand that individual’s personality and biases, and who trust his or her motives. That’s why you will often find that bloggers who have received press kits and “incentives” will offer full disclosure. Sometimes, they’ll even turn the tables on the public relations attempt.

For that reason Blogger Relations or “BR” (the term we use here) is a tricky business of identifying bloggers who you think will champion your cause, sending them useful and relevant info, and providing more honest incentives such as exclusive interview, video, behind-the-scenes or photo content that will make them seem more informed.

It would be quite easy, however, to simply try to buy positive blog coverage. People do it all the time, even though I haven’t seen it firsthand. After all, there is an open market for Facebook “friends” and “likes”, and even celebrities sell their Tweets Even blog comments are a marketing commodity now.

So why should a PR company offering newspaper editors money for referrals be such a shock? It isn’t. It’s just a disappointment. It tells me that they had reason to think it was effective and that they saw nothing shameful about doing it overtly.

This, my friends, is the downside of DIY media: nobody can be trusted, because you have to question the motives behind everything you read.

Or perhaps this is actually a good thing. Would we be better off if we, like our parents’ or grandparents’ generation, actually believed most of what we read “in print”? I certainly am not raising my son that way.

So maybe I should be thankful to the writer of this press release/B2J direct marketing offer for smoking out bad journalists. As the editor who provided the tip for this story told blogger John Romanesko, “[I’d] be curious to see where this press release is run, given the inducement.”


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