The following is an op-ed piece written by Susan Matthews and Lynn Medcalf, co-founders of News Generation, and published in several PR trade publications :

It has been over a year since we last broached the subject of the value of earned media over guaranteed placements, and the importance of distinguishing between the two. And in that time, it appears that the trend of trying to pass off guaranteed placement as something other than advertising has grown. News Generation continues to hold to our core belief that clients get not only much more “bang for their buck” from earned media, but so much more credibility in their message if it is earned, versus if it is bought. Certainly if a message is a strong one and one that carries valuable information, then buying time for that message simply degrades its legitimacy in the public’s view. As consumers we are all subjected to advertisements everyday, but it is the messages we hear in the content of our trusted news sources and information programs that really influence the life decisions we make for ourselves and our families.
This is not to say that “guaranteed placement” is not a legitimate marketing technique. Advertising can be an effective way to get a message out, but it’s imperative to know what you’re getting. One danger of paid placement is that the listener may tune out segments of radio programming that no longer bear the marks of legitimate news. In addition, guaranteed placements, situated as they are among advertisements, can easily be diluted by the messages around them.
The further danger of guaranteed placement is that PR firms are increasingly failing to make the distinction between earned media and guaranteed placement to their clients. In our view, there are clear ethical implications here. Trust is the foundation of any good business, and it is certainly the bedrock of the work that we do. Any weakening of this foundation of trust by anyone in the industry will result in the degradation of the overall standards in the PR industry. The PRSA code of ethics calls for PR professionals to accurately define what public relations can accomplish. Blurring the line between public relations and advertising directly breaches this ethical standard. Clients beware, there is a code, and here is the key – a PR firm’s “special arrangement” or “special relationship” with stations translates to buying time on the air.
So the question becomes, is overall public relations content getting weaker or are PR practitioners just taking the path of least resistance? We believe it is the latter. While we understand the temptation to use guaranteed placement to get coverage for a weak story, we believe there is a larger lesson to be learned. A client must be told that their story is weak and should not be a public relations story. As long as PR professionals help clients with weak stories find coverage by using guaranteed placement, we will all lose. Either a story is good enough to earn its place on the air or it isn’t. If it isn’t, don’t use “guaranteed placement” to hide that fact, use straightforward advertising for these messages that are too weak to pass PR muster. Our field of public relations was built on the foundation that strong issues have a place to be heard in the media.
In 2005, the FCC and the PR industry demanded that the broadcast companies be transparent about who they represent. This transparency needs to extend to the client as well. If a message is weak and therefore not suitable for earned media consideration, then the client should be made aware that guaranteed placement is simply purchasing time on the air or another form of advertising, but not earned media.
At News Generation, we are proud that we continue to take on strong stories and are consistently successful in getting these stories on air – within the content of news and talk programming. We remain committed to pitching stories and only seeking earned media placements. There is a risk in seeking earned media, but we know that risk is worth it, because we have faith in the strength of our clients’ messages. If your message is a strong and newsworthy one, then it deserves an earned place on the air and reporters and news directors know this. And in our opinion, the risk is no greater than the risk clients take in potentially having their message perceived as an advertisement that is merely masquerading as news.
by Susan Matthews Apgood and Lynn Harris Medcalf


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