Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Blurring of the Line between Marketing and Publicity

The global economic crisis has made almost every industry reexamine its business practices in an effort to reduce costs, find efficiencies and tap new sources of revenue. A sector with perhaps some of the most significant changes has been media outlets. Television stations are now requiring reporters to also function as their own cameramen and video editors. Some stations are heavily investing in online media as their revenues from broadcast commercial sales shrink (Pepsi decided not to advertise during the Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years). Print media outlets are rapidly shifting content and focus to online domains, and if they already had robust online presences, some like the Washington Post are looking into other sources of advertising revenue, such as developing iPhone applications. Reviewers and culture writers are seemingly a dying breed as news outlets consolidate resources and rerun content from other providers (the Los Angeles Times regularly runs articles from its Tribune sister in Chicago), including more and more from user generated sites.

The new trend seems to be a blurring of the line between publicity and marketing. The longstanding tradition of having an impenetrable fortress between advertising and editorial at major news outlets seems to be waning. It used to be that the most an advertiser could do to help push a story was to ask their ad rep to get a press release on the right desk, however I am starting to see more and more advertising proposals that include guaranteed opportunities for press coverage and interviews. Media outlets are starting to regard press coverage as added value to advertising contracts designed to encourage a higher advertising spend. In the most extreme circumstances, there are now significant media sources that have become exclusively pay to play—meaning that the only way to secure editorial coverage is by signing an advertising contract. A recent article highlighted this trend in Seattle where arts organizations have banded together to purchase editorial time on a television station, however this isn’t an infomercial or advertorial, it simply is editorial coverage that is bought and paid for.

My concerns about this new model:

  • Is there a role for an impartial voice? One of the reasons that news outlets are trusted is that they are (mostly) viewed as being impartial. Will editorial features ever have the same power that had in the past if the readership realizes that the coverage has been purchased? How can you have an impartial review if the reviewer works for a publication that is selling editorial opportunities?

  • Is there a role for small organizations? Many small organizations live on earned editorial coverage as they do not have an advertising budget. As news outlets start to allow their editorial coverage to be influenced by advertising spends, what happens to the small organizations that have no money to spend?

  • Is there a role for a publicist? Many publicists I talk to are enraged about this new trend. Imagine that you are a publicist, and have been pitching an outlet for months and months with no success only to find out that the publication is pay to play. In a manner of minutes, the marketing director places an advertisement and all of a sudden editorial opportunities are available. What then becomes the role of a publicist?