6 A.M.

Sponsored Content: An Ethical Framework



We have just published a special report on the opportunity for public relations firms in sponsored content (you can download the report here or view it on SlideShare).

Steve Rubel, our chief content strategist, visited with 30 U.S. media companies to research this paper. Our assessment is that the public relations firms will make a different contribution to the paid space than the media buyers. The PR firms will use paid to accelerate or amplify earned or owned content, while the media buyer will have the paid content that is recommended and executed by the media company stand on its own. The PR industry will have journalistic sensibility on what makes a good story and how it fits into the earned stream, then to decide whether it merits further promotion. PR professionals have deep roots in social conversations, understanding the needs of communities. PR folks appreciate the need for unique angles for each publication, with speed and agility to fit into bigger stories. We must also have a different set of ethical standards than the media buyer or ad agency, because our profession relies primarily on its trusted relationship with earned media. Those principles fall into three broad categories: Disclosure, Quality and Process.

On Disclosure, we will delineate editorial-style sponsored content clearly from that which is earned by a successful pitch to a journalist or owned by a company as its contribution to the conversation. does this through its BrandVoice demarcation. We also want to facilitate conversation between client and community on every piece of content, whether earned, owned or sponsored.

On Quality, it is our goal to move beyond the former modality of “publish once and done” toward a constant updating of content based on new information. We also have added paid amplification to the center of our Edelman MEDIA CLOVERLEAF model, with search and visual content, to accelerate transmedia storytelling among the traditional, hybrid, owned and social leaves.

On Process, we will separate our day-to-day earned media work from paid content deals. We are in the process of hiring media buyers who will manage the negotiations with the business side of the media. This is a true church-state division of responsibility. We will not have any quid pro quo discussions and will not tolerate pay-for-play in any market.

I had breakfast with Lew DVorkin, editor of Forbes, last week to discuss this framework. He had the idea for BrandVoice, material contributed by the advertiser that supplements editorial product but is clearly marked as paid content. He wrote a blog post yesterday on “The New Math of Journalism” in which he predicts the end of the article page, contributor-activated commenting and conversation systems and the business case for continuous rolling screens. But most important of his 17 predictions is the next battle zone – ad agencies that have marketing as their mantra versus PR firms, which are focused on communications. We need to establish a separate budget from the central media buying pot, in much the same way as research for PR purposes is separated from overall brand research. We can play this sport in this stadium. Just watch the Pittsburgh Pirates to see what can happen; the low budget team that is scrappy, creative and determined to win.

Please click the four arrows above to view the report in fullscreen. You can also download it here.


Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

  • A very timely and needed report. Happy to see actual dollars in there as well!

    • Sanford Sklansky

      What would you say to David Cay Johnston’s response to this?

  • davidcayjohnston

    This report, the first volume in a projected series, is the antithesis of ethical.


Journalism should be distinct and separate from PR and from marketing. Totally and unquestionably independent.

    Would that we could resurrect the Knight brothers or E.B. White to
    explain this to Edelman. And if Richard Edelman does not instantly know to what
    I mean, in both references, he should feel embarrassed. If he does, he should
    rethink this awful plan to diminish integrity.


The long-term damage to our democracy from Edelman’s actions and ideas above — seeking to further blur what ought to be bright, unbreachable lines — will be enormous. 

    An ethical strategy would be for Edelman to work on making news organizations robustly financed so they can do their job independently, rather than exploit the breakdown of a four-century-old model of bringing buyers and sellers together by offering both of them news.

    To be sure, journalism may now and then hurt an individual client of firms such as Edelman — when that client engages in misconduct. And Edelman should tell a client who has misbehaved to take its lumps, though in my long experience it is rare for PR people to demonstrate their integrity by doing so because they fear the client will fire them for not telling them what they want to hear.

    The integrity of journalists — and their ability to report without fear or favor — is a critical support to liberty and prosperity because public trust depends on knowing where information comes from and what is honestly produced, rather than bought and paid for, however subtly.

    What Edelman pitches here is a subtle corruption. 

Edelman talks
    integrity, but the pitch is inherently exploitive. Integrity first and last.
    Act ethically and long-term profits will follow for Edelman and its
    competitors. Promote unethical conduct — polluting civic debate — as Richard
    Edelman proposes here, and the eventual and inevitable result for our nation will be

    I hope ethical corporate leaders who come across the Edelman plan to corrupt the news run away from it as fast as they can.

    • Olaf de Senerpont Domis

      Sponsored content is hardly anything new. At the news magazine I wrote for for over a decade, we ran large sections that dissected a particular topic of interest to a sponsor. Was it done particularly well? Not always. Did it pique my interest? Generally not. Did I, as an independent working journalist on the other side of the advertorial/marketing line, scoff a little at this kind of content showing up in a magazine read by a sophisticated audience? Certainly.

      But I never mistook that sponsored content for something other than that, and I’m pretty sure our readership didn’t, either. Even if it hadn’t been clearly labeled as such, it would have been obvious to me that this was a form of marketing.

      Edelman isn’t proposing to do anything unethical or blur any lines. He is proposing to better serve his clients, who believe in the power of quality sponsored content and are willing to pay good money for it. As ad dollars continue shrinking for news publications, it’s a crucial way to pay their their reporters on the other side of the bright line.

  • GregFieler

    Thanks for the interesting report. Yes, there do seem to be some growing pains but it doesn’t mean that we can ignore growing up.

  • David, first, thank you for your comment.

    To be clear, we have no interest or tolerance for “corrupting the news.” In fact, it is our hope that by raising these critical issues now we can avoid this by having a thoughtful industry-wide discussion that includes long-time journalists such as yourself. The lines are blurring regardless of what we say or will say.

    Journalism and PR have a lot riding getting the model, nomenclature and systems “right.” We have a long road ahead of us and need more voices to weigh in. We simply are putting out our initial point of view and are thrilled that you decided to join the conversation.


    • davidcayjohnston

      Steve, thanks for your comment.

      May I suggest a close reading of E.B. White on the Xerox-Esquire-Salisbury affair, which even Harrison concluded was spot on, as did the very responsible executives at Xerox.

      Step back. Way, way back. Notice that news organizations have this tendency to see the world through the eyes of their advertisers and that included “sponsored” content, or as I explain my last book THE FINE PRINT to see the world of banking through the eyes of bankers and bank owners (who are few) rather than bank customers (who are near universal). Looking back, how many investigations of unsavory practices have you seen of department stores and grocery chains, two of the biggest print newspaper advertisers, or of safety issues involving cruise ships and autos (big magazine advertisers) or price fixing in diamonds (jewelry being a big ad revenue source in print).


      Noticethe very subtle blurring of lines going on between straight reporting (where I worked for four decades plus) and reported opinion (where I have worked for five years). The NYT, WSJ and some others thing that a ragged left rather than justified layout of text is enough to alert readers, which is true only for the most sophisticated students of typography and layout.

      I see advertorial, especially in some of our leading business magazines, whose layout is designed to diminish not heighten distinctions between reported content and paid content. Having tested this with people I know many do not get the distinction unless there is a clear label at the top of each page of sponsored content.

      And where has Edelman been on the trend toward spokespeople (whose ratio to journalists has grown significantly in the last decade) who take questions and provide no answers? That is, spokespeople paid not to speak? Well, actually they do speak, but after the fact to complain about stories in which they refused to engage in advance, breeding contempt for honest news reports and, in my view, creating a long-term threat to the social stability if our democracy.

      Perhaps future installments will be more about obligations, duties and identifying bright lines Edelman vows never to cross. Indeed, how about a discussion of putting in every PR/marketing contract a clause that sets out bright lines and tells clients in large bold face type that if they ever cross any of the lines they will be publicly and loudly fired by Edelman, whose influence ought to be enough to move the whole industry in that direction.

      Ethics, integrity and concern about the society around you first; profits will follow.

  • Classic Steve Rubel material but I would like to see you step out of your comfort zone and look at the bigger picture. Edelman is at the top of the pyramid after all so it would be in your best interests to do that. A little adjustment here or there is not going to make any difference in the society we are living in today. As you can see our systems are not holding up and the winds of change are upon us – or should I say bearing down on us at full speed.

    How many more conversations like this can you have without talking about the extreme weather conditions across North America and a bunch of other things that are completely out of whack at the moment?

    The media is intended for a very specific purpose and as long as we are using it for other purposes we will continue to experience this negative feedback from Nature to everything we do. Any conversation about ethical behavior is not complete without taking a good look at the deterioration of human relations at all levels of society. You have to wonder if this is how we were intended to live or if there is a better future awaiting us where we don’t have to put so much effort into doing the right thing.

    Having said all that I think Edelman is a very ethical company …. operating in an environment that we all messed up together.

  • Very insightful and well thought out report. I just hope that as the discussions about how to identify and otherwise deal with Branded Content continue, that all media platforms are considered. The many abuses of the line between disclosure and integration of content in radio and television continue to go on despite FTC rules and content creators knowing “the right thing to do”, but the people who control the platforms need to be educated on why identifying Branded Content as such is important.

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