Ask the Director: Free publicity

Dear Director:

It seems like I am getting more and more requests for free stuff. In the last few days, I had requests to do a story from a casket builder, new coffee shop, a chiropractor and so on. I asked each a few questions to determine if there was any type of story there- there was not so I politely turned them down and suggested they buy an ad. None have.

I have no problem with doing something that would be of interest to the readership. I need to develop a written policy - any suggestions?

Panhandled

Dear Panhandled:

You're right to keep your focus on your readers, and on your editorial mission. It's not unusual to have companies, organizations, individuals and ministries contact a publication in search of free publicity. And sometimes these people have pretty interesting stories to tell. But more often, they're just looking for some free advertising.

If you want to develop a written policy, it should explain your editorial mission, and note that stories ideas that will help  you fulfill that mission are welcome. You might also include a list of qualities that can make a story newsworthy: timeliness,  proximity, prominence, impact, novelty, conflict, human interest. Presenting a list like that can help publicity-seekers understand what you're looking for.

A common and related situation is to have advertisers seeking free publicity. Some may even make blatant offers -- they'll buy a certain amount of advertising if you write a favorable story about them.

Don't do this. For one thing, it violates the EPA code of ethics, which states:

Advertisements in EPA publications should not defraud or mislead readers. Editorial favors are not to be predicated upon the sale of advertising, nor should non-advertisers receive unfavorable treatment or be excluded from articles because they do not advertise. The products and style of presentation in advertisements should not conflict with a periodical's Christian commitment. Paid advertising should be clearly distinguished from editorial content. Editors should not permit advertisers or product sponsors to vet articles prior to publication unless the publication has openly disclosed such a policy to its readership.

Here’s a thought on the reason to keep ads and editorial separate. The reason advertisers want a story is not just because it’s free, but because they know that stories get more attention and have more credibility than ads. And that’s because stories are chosen with the reader in mind, not just to sell stuff. If you start doing stories because potential advertisers want you to, the editorial part of the paper loses what  makes it special, and advertisers wind up killing the very thing they wanted.

I think you did exactly the right thing – you checked into the ideas to see if there was a story there, and then politely declined.

Most publications keep a wall between advertising and editorial. It’s really hard to do that when you have to wear both  hats. But in the long run, it pays off.

--Former Director, Doug Trouten