The Marketing/Editorial Firewall Explained

SAS-sponsored article in The Economist

It was a plum assignment.

Engineers at Regulus Cyber in Israel had discovered a way to spoof GPS signals and had used the technique to trick a Tesla into running off a road in Germany. I’d pitched my editors at Bloomberg Businessweek, lined up interviews, and I was all set to start writing.

And then I remembered. I had Tesla stock in my retirement fund.

This was in the days before the stock had gone wild, and the nay-sayers still outnumbered the fans. I never thought much about those shares, hadn’t touched them in years. But I knew I had to tell my editors. I did, and they reassigned the story. And I completely supported the decision.

Why? Because of the marketing and editorial department firewall.

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

The marketing and editorial department firewall seeks to avoid conflicts of interest by ensuring that writers and others involved in producing stories don’t profit from people or companies in those stories.

The firewall serves readers, who have a right to know the difference between paid content and real journalism, which makes every attempt to tell stories free of outside influence. That’s why, when you see paid content in a reputable news outlet, it’s prominently flagged as such, as in these examples from my own work (top and below).

Lenovo-sponsored article in CIO

Lenovo-sponsored article in CIO

There’s nothing wrong with paid content. But representing paid content as anything other than paid content — sponsored by a brand — is disrespectful to readers, dishonest, and degrades both brands and media outlets.

Conversely to my experience with Bloomberg, I was recently approached by a marketing firm that wanted to commission an article for one of their clients, to be placed in an outlet that shall remain nameless. I accepted and happily got to work.

The project soon raised a red flag, however. My client asked me to sign off on the publication’s terms of use, which explicitly forbid ghostwritten articles or articles written at the direction of marketing firms. My assigned piece was both.

“What gives?” I asked my client.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he advised. “We do this with this publication all the time.”

“They know about it?”

“Yes. The terms of use is just a formality.”

Worse and worse. It seemed the publication was trying to pass off paid content as something it wasn’t: editorial content. And if anyone caught them at it, they could just point fingers at the supposed writers of the content, saying they had signed off on the terms of use.

I get it. News outlets can’t always afford to pay for editorial content. That’s why so many of them have beefed up their content marketing departments, to fund that essential reporting. That’s why so much of my own revenue comes from the marketing side of places like The New York Times and CIO magazine.

But at reputable organizations, these separate activities are cleanly separated by the marketing/editorial firewall. The staffs are different. The writers are different. Each works without the input of the other. That way, readers can trust that what they’re reading isn’t designed to push an agenda.

That’s why, incidentally, quality paid content has to reach a high bar. Readers know it’s pushing an agenda. So, the good stuff avoids the hard sell and addresses the big picture of the sphere the sponsor operates in, making assertions backed up by outside research. It’s designed to provide useful information and not just sell.

The system isn’t perfect, of course. I believe advertising can influence what stories get covered and how. But money to pay for editorial content has to come from somewhere, and subscriptions alone can’t always get the job done. That’s just the news business, always has been.

Navigating the Firewall to Get Coverage

It’s also helpful to keep in mind as you look for places to cover your products or services. There are two ways to get in: through the editorial department or the marketing department.

The editorial department will get you earned coverage — that is, coverage you don’t have to pay for. But it won’t let you control how you are covered.

The marketing department will give you collaborative control over the content you produce together, but it will cost you. Sometimes a lot.

Take your pick, but keep your choice in mind when you approach a writer or anyone else affiliated with a publication.

I’m often asked for help getting placed in a publication I write for, and I have to make the distinction clear. If someone wants to place their own article, they’ll have to approach the marketing department (sometimes I can help direct them). If they want someone else to tell their story, I might be able to pitch it, but probably not at a place where I’m already doing marketing work. Two departments, remember.

The Bloomberg story turned out well, and I’m happy to have helped bring the engineers’ work to the editors’ attention. Meanwhile, I definitely notice my Tesla stocks these days. Yeah, I need to stay away from reporting on that company.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recommended Articles