Native advertising and public relations

The news media’s increasing move towards content commercialisation and commoditisation has raised a number of ethical and practical questions.  We all know it is happening but the landscape is constantly shifting and changing, making it difficult to get a handle on what’s really going on.

How does the paid content model work?  What does it cost? What does this shift mean to us as PR practitioners?  Is the age of ‘pure’ editorial over? Are media releases heading the same way as dinosaurs? What should we advise our clients / employers?  Is native advertising ethical?  Are organisations dancing with the devil if they start dealing with media on a paid basis? Are they shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t?

These are some of the many questions I wanted answered when attending CAANZ's recent session Who’s buying? The future of content commercialisation in NZ. And I was not alone, if the large number of PR and advertising practitioners in attendance was anything to go by.

The below-mentioned panel, chaired by Ben Fahy, editor and associate publisher of NZ Marketing and, shared their thoughts on commercial imperatives versus a purist approach, where the lines sit between earned and paid media, and the resulting ramifications for organisations and agencies.

Panellists were quick to point out that paid content is nothing new, with advertorials having been around for the best part of a century.  What has changed is the type, prevalence, pervasiveness – and in some cases, subtlety - of the commercialised content models now on offer.  For example, Tim Murphy, noted that the NZ Herald has identified that it has six different types of content categories on a continuum from news to advertorial.

Traditional news organisations are under threat.  Their survival depends upon generating more paid content so it’s here to stay, whether we like it or not.  It’s a new and rapidly evolving model and the media have no more idea than we do about where it’s going and what shape it will eventually take.  There’s a lot of experimentation going on to find out what will work and what will not but some common themes are emerging.

Panellists were unanimous that there’s nothing wrong with having paid content – so long as it is transparent to readers and viewers.  Although they all pushed this point, I suspect there are gaps between theory and practice.  This suspicion was borne out when one panellist mentioned in passing that paid content was not always transparent in their media. 

There are clearly some ethical grey areas and it will be interesting to see how these play out over time. Several panellists commented that their organisation had been challenged on social media when they had been perceived to stray too far into blurred territory, but in my view, more robust systems are needed than simply relying on consumer complaints to keep them honest.

All panellists agreed on the importance of having a good fit between paid (and unpaid) content, the media’s own brand and the media’s audience.  Ignoring this will undermine the media’s and the content provider’s brands and alienate their audiences.

As content generators this means that public relations practitioners and advertisers will need to be more creative about how to get our client’s / employer’s brands into editorial copy, telling compelling stories while remaining true to all brands concerned.

We must also support our clients / employers to relinquish a degree of control, which could be difficult for those who are used to always promoting the positive.  As Simon Wilson put it: “I get really frustrated by old fashioned advertorial pages; they’re dull and boring. Clients use that absolute control over the content to make what’s so obviously an ad.  [You need to] understand the importance of taking an editorial lense rather than trying to shoe-horn the content in. Don’t be obvious in pushing your own barrow.”

Simon’s comment made me realise that things aren’t actually so complicated at all.  Sure, we are in the middle of a huge shift, with all of its challenges and uncertainties.  But in many respects nothing has changed.  That’s because we as PR practitioners still need to be clear about what our client/employer wants to achieve from the communication exercise.  We still need to understand our media and consumer stakeholders and their needs and motivations.  And we still need to create clear, compelling and relevant content.

What’s so new about that?

The panel

Tim Murphy, former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, former chair of the national Media Freedom Committee and executive committee member of the Press Council

Ellen Read, National Business Editor, Fairfax Media NZ

Duncan Greive, freelance journalist and editor of culture website The Spinoff

Simon Wilson, Metro’s outgoing editor

Alana O’Neill, Head of Integration, Mediaworks