All-star ethics panel tackles ad/edit challenge; creative edit ideas; harassment; transparency
Washington, DC — Editor/advertiser relations remain B2B media’s major hurdle. This dim view was shared by Ethics Roundtable panelists during last week’s American Society of Business Publications Editors National Conference. The agreed-upon top concern was a rising movement requiring editors to increase creative contribution to sponsored content program development.
“Pressure will come from print advertisers who expect publishers to create more ideas for print programs,” said University Business editorial director JD Solomon. “The difference is that editors will be required to collaborate.” Publishers should be wary of building relationships where they offer advertisers strategic direction, warned Solomon. Among the obvious minuses is the question “of what happens if the content recommendations don’t deliver results.”
As advertisers become more creative, editorial involvement will become more complicated, said ASBPE past president Warren Hersch. Even now, editors have their hands full with marketing matters, said Hersch, now senior reporter for Life Annuity Specialist. As evidence, he cited the flow of questions during an Ethics Roundtable program pertaining to advertiser resistance to labeling as well as requests that promotional copy be adjacent to complementary editorial.
Roundable moderator Roy Harris—an ASBPE past president now serving as interim Ethics Committee chair—observed that advertising pressure had been on the rise for some time. “I have heard growing concerns among members about such pressures from the ad and vendor sides often funneled through the publisher,” said Harris, a retired CFO Magazine senior editor and former Wall Street Journal reporter who was one of ASBPE’s early Ethics Committee chairs.
At HR Magazine, director of online news Beth Mirza faces the familiar concern about vendors seeking editorial coverage .. . with a wrinkle. “Vendors sometimes are the smartest people in the room,” she said, “so you can’t dismiss them as possible sources.”
Coping with vendor mentions
It’s not unusual to find B2B editors mulling best vendor satisfaction policy when it comes to editorial mentions. “Using vendors as sources is a quagmire,” admitted Solomon. “After all, which vendor do you reach out to: the most influential in the field or the one that’s the advertiser? And if you reach out to one advertiser for comment on a story, how many others do you have to include?”
As reps wanted to see more, not fewer, company mentions in articles, added Solomon. “So we came up with a new idea — a periodic sidebar to selected stories called Industry Insight, where we invite vendors with subject matter expertise to concisely answer a short question relevant to the article, and then quoted the responses.”
Industry Insight proved to be a good compromise for both editorial and advertising departments, said Solomon. “Editors were relieved from pressure of including vendors as sources in our main stories, and we could include virtually all relevant vendors in the sidebars because they jump from the print edition to our website.”
Solomon told me that his ability to resolve ad/edit challenges was aided by experience at a previous marketing position. His current editorial director title includes sponsored content supervision. If a top editor assumes the publisher post, he or she “should knowingly have responsibility for stepping in and out of the advertising world.”
(Even with best effort, vendor-mention omissions do occur. In the event this resulted from advertiser oversight, the offended party often denies being at fault. That’s why I advise documentation tracking how often attempts were made to obtain comment from companies that missed the preset deadline for editorial query response.)
Getting education via job-swapping
Some B2B editors find it beneficial to have staff members temporarily assume a job with a reader company. The time involved could be anywhere from a day to much longer. Afterwards, the assigned editor benefits from being able to provide more authoritative articles. But in some cases, as past ASBPE president Hersch learned, ethical considerations come into play.
In fact, he has developed a plan—yet to be activated—where he would temporarily transfer from his editorial slot to a job with a reader firm. During or after the swap, the assigned staffer could product exclusive, more authoritative articles. There would be obvious complications if the job assumed was of a sales nature.
For example, Hersch explained to me, “if you were permitted to conclude the sales transaction yourself, how could compensation be ethically handled. For example, should an agreement with a partnering insurance agency stipulate that (1) the carrier’s profit on the product sale (that portion of the customer’s premium not needed to cover policy costs) and (2) that the agent’s portion of the sale commission be donated to a philanthropic organization or a community initiative so as to avoid potential conflicts resulting from the compensation?”
Another consideration: “Would you need to recuse yourself from covering the company as part of your regular reporting for the duration of the sales activity?”
(Obviously there are several other matters to be resolved with the temporary employer before the transfer can be activated. Meanwhile there are several fields—especially retail—where a simplified arrangement can be made through store management cooperation. For example, an editor could pose as a salesperson for a day. And yes, ethical considerations would apply somehow)
Seek help from outside services
As an association publication, HR Magazine is in an authoritative position where it can advise readers—members of The Society for Human Resource Management—about best professional practices. Other publications wishing to provide take-away information on critical HR issues, such as sexual harassment, for instance, would have to seek input from outside industry experts. But SHRM also relies on outside firms, such as an ethics hotline provider, whose services are available to all businesses. Beth Mirza addressed important options concerning harassment guidance in her opening statement at ASBPE’s Ethics Roundtable.
“I’ve never been an HR professional but I write about them all the time. If you see something in your organization that you think might be harassment, then you need to say something,” she said. “You can say it to the person who is being harassed, say it to a manager or an HR person. That is what will turn this whole movement around. That will stop the culture wherein harassers are excused for their behavior, regardless of what they’re doing or who they are.”
An initial step in creating a harassment policy is to consult an attorney. “Assign someone to check out state laws to see if you are in compliance,” Mirza told me. SHRM also created an ethics true-false quiz that served as a conversation starter as opposed to being a policy setter.
Freelance challenges exist
During his Ethics Roundtable presentation, interim chair Harris focused on ethical issues pertaining to freelance writers. In the current B2B publishing environment, he said, there’s more pressure on freelancers to seek work writing for industry that would fill the gaps between work from independent publications.
“Industry-sponsored publications often pay above B2B rates, of course,” said Harris. “So it is incumbent upon editors to make sure they know what conflicts may lurk in a freelancer’s resume. In many cases, a freelancer’s work can be accepted if such conflicts are aired beforehand and explained when the article in question is published.”
Harris added: “Editors who are responsible for establishing such freelance transparency, however, also must draw the line if the conflict is too great—a writer who does major work within the very industry being criticized or praised, for example.”