Can Ad Agencies Buy Favorable Media Coverage?

In my previous post, I referenced a column by Tennessean Editor Mark Silverman in which he wrote, “Our stories and opinion columns cannot be bought.”

Is Mr. Silverman correct or is that just wishful thinking? Can reporters really be paid to write favorable stories? Since presumably they would be paid under the table, how would he know?

If people in other professions can be bribed, why not those in the news media? Codes of ethics get broken all the time.

It seems to me the better way for Mr. Silverman to have made his point would have been to say that the paper has a policy prohibiting stories and opinion columns from being bought, and they work very hard to enforce it.

Because the truth is, he can’t state with absolute certainty that none of his reporters has ever quietly taken cash or gifts to tone down or slant a story.

Having said that, in my 25 years in journalism, agency and corporate PR, I’ve never seen it happen, nor have I ever gotten so much as a hint from a reporter that he or she would “adjust” a story for certain inducements. I’m not saying it never happens, just that I’ve never experienced this as a journalist or as a public relations professional.

Many years ago, while working for a large PR agency, I was involved in a retail promotion that drew huge crowds into a client’s store. The store was part of a national chain that previously had relied exclusively on advertising.

Our PR team found several angles that were of interest to the news media, and we were successful in generating a lot of publicity for the store, which resulted in the large turn out. In addition to the pre-event coverage, we had several reporters onsite.

I’ll never forget when one of the chain’s VPs asked me how much we paid the reporters to show up. I politely explained that we didn’t pay them anything, nor would they have taken our money if we had offered. The reason the reporters were there was because we had been successful in communicating to them that this was a good story worthy of their time.

That’s the way I believe it works with the vast majority of reporters. There are legitimate reasons to be critical of the way some news media outlets operate, but taking “cash for coverage” is not one of them.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

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