Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, thinks it has a way to bring some ethical clarity to a shadowy area of media money-making that its fans believe might help the news business out of its financial distress.
The topic is sponsored content, the catchall term for paid messages that are tricked out to downplay or conceal the fact that they’re paid for. When such ads were camouflaged to blend with the editorial environment in which they were arrayed, they were called advertorial; now they’re “native advertising.”
Sponsored content also takes the form of Tweets from a consumer products firm like Samsung that go out under a respected banner, like the Associated Press or social media networks like Facebook.
The category is broad, and comprises product placement too, which is when products are deliberately mentioned in otherwise innocent items, and what Edelman calls “paid co-creation.” That’s an arrangement where the sponsor accepts an arms-length relationship with the content, and lets the media outfit create, say, a special section on a subject dear to its heart, while supposedly refraining from any meddlesome tinkering with the actual content.
Whatever its form, sponsored content traditionally carried a taint: It wasn’t especially honest. You, as a reader, were encouraged to accept the advertisement for weight-loss supplements that looked like an article as if it was a real article. You, as a viewer, were meant to believe that Cap’n Crunch was on the Sopranos’ breakfast table because Carmela put it there, not because the scriptwriters were bribed.
Sponsored material hijacked the look and harvested the credibility of its editorial neighborhood to give itself a persuasive heft it wouldn’t otherwise have.
That was when it was just another form of advertising. But now the public relations business wants a piece of the action, and PR people, as the Edelman paper suggests, are picky when it comes to messaging. Their stock in trade isn’t “paid” media, it’s what they call “earned” media—earned, in that the content they normally peddle is published only because PR people have done their jobs, pitching journalists successfully on generally truthful stories that their clients want told.
PR people sometimes get a bad rap, but the good ones don’t deceive, and now, because they want to expand into the business of paid media, they want sponsored content cleaned up.