Bribing Journalists: Uncovering A Black-Hat PR Strategy Straight From Third-World Countries

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The mainstream media is mainstream because of credibility. The public trusts certain media outlets and journalists to give us an unbiased view of news and events.

With some PR tactics I’ve heard of recently, that credibility is in danger.

First of all, this is going against a recent post, “The hypocrisy of all those White Hats,” about how I think all marketers are trying to game the system in one way or another, and how that’s probably OK.

However, there is a line between gaming the system and unethically deceiving people to do it.

Contributing Authors Are Getting Paid Off

If you’ve noticed, many media outlets are now bringing on contributing authors to write columns about niche topics. It’s starting to get watered down with mediocre content from people who don’t understand the ethics of reporting stories to the public. Instead of great stories, this situation often leads to marketing messages spun from a contributing author on a major news outlet.

These contributors are doing this for personal gain. Presenting good information is often a distant second.

That can create myriad problems. Perhaps the top of those is this: Some PR people are paying these contributors good money to write about their clients.

At least one person has who told me he charges $5,000 to have an article written in a well-respected, national business magazine. He guarantees it. And then uses a portion of that to pay the contributor to write the story and include a link to the client’s website.

That’s crossing black-hat lines in both traditional and digital marketing. In Third-World countries, this is often a common practice. In the United States, it shouldn’t be done.

Pat Parkinson, a veteran journalist who has recently made the switch to public relations, was in West Africa last month helping a charity called Sahbu. During his trip he met with various journalists, some of them operated on bribes. One asked that he pay good money for an article that was already written about Sahbu.

“Poorly trained journalists are vulnerable to kickbacks and bribes,” Parkinson told me. “Africa reinforced my belief that a skilled, independent media is crucial for any society.”

Say what you will, but paying off writers in major publications endangers the credibility of all involved: the marketing and PR industry, the publication’s reputation, the public’s distrust of any media, and the ability to have non-biased, clear news delivered to the masses.

The Blurry Line Between PR and the Media

There’s a symbiotic relationship between PR and the media. PR pros need the media, and the media needs PR pros to give them information for stories.

But if those lines aren’t clear, PR people may have too much control over the media, which will lead to biased, corporate stories camouflaged as news. Of course, this has probably happened for decades to some degree anyway.

“Public relations workers are not journalists and journalists are not public relations workers. Everyone is best served when those lines are not blurred,” Parkinson said.

How (Some) Internet Marketers Are Poisoning the PR Industry

With changes to Google’s algorithm, public relations and content marketing has taken a bigger role. As a result, many Internet marketers and SEO pros have, overnight, become content marketers and public relations experts.

And they’re bringing all their baggage with them.

One caveat, I do have a lot of SEO friends and this doesn’t apply to everyone. There are a lot of respectable Internet marketers who do understand ethics in marketing. However, those making the switch from SEO to PR are often not trained in the media. They don’t understand the norms, the ethics, and best practices.

In some ways they are an invasive species poisoning the rest of the ecosystem. What many of these Internet marketers understand is buying links, promoting marketing spin, and manipulation. And they understand that to have the same things work for them like it used to (getting a lot of links for rankings), they need those messages and links in mainstream media.

And one way to do that?

Buy off journalists.

“Paying off the media illustrates one of the dangers of journalism and public relations getting too cozy with each other,” Parkinson said. “As someone who has experienced both sides of the fence, I believe the antagonism that has traditionally existed between reporters and those in public relations must continue.”

Why Should PR People Care?

Sooner or later, editors will take notice. When that happens:

  • They’ll fire writers who accept payments
  • They’ll discontinue relationships with contributors
  • They’ll make it even more difficult for a credible guest contributor to join the publication
  • They will develop an unhealthy distrust of everyone in PR
  • They might shut down all their contributor sections
  • People won’t trust any media
  • People will be even more skeptical of marketers of all types

What Do You Think?

How do you feel about this type of manipulation in the media? Is it OK? Is it wrong? Do you think this stuff goes on in a large scale? What are the consequences if this type of thing continues?

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