Fake news: corporate or individual opinion masquerading as independently vetted fact. Apparently it’s all the rage these days. We sit back, shake our heads, and wonder how rational, educated, human beings could be fooled by information (or content) where there is no editorial integrity or ethical standards as to how this material is produced.
And then we open up (physically or digitally) our favourite maritime news. We know some of this is PR driven and, let me be clear, PR is important. It gives businesses and executives a voice. Getting help articulating your message is perfectly acceptable. But there are a number of shipping ‘news’ publications which are, bluntly put, PR companies publishing their clients’ corporate messages as impartial industry news.
Glaring issues of ethics aside, from a corporate marketing perspective, this model has the potential to damage your brand and restrict your market reach in a number of ways. The boom in digital marketing has changed the way you need to use and distribute your messages, but it also increases the risk to your brand if you are not being honest.
Trust me, I’m in PR
You meet with a PR company, they tell you you’ve got a great story to tell. Sure, they can get you published. In fact, they have a great relationship with a reputable maritime publication. They can guarantee coverage. In fact, their relationship is so good that this publication will also distribute your article on the interweb and Facebook (trust me…I’ve seen them trying…it may as well be the interweb). It’s likely they’ll recommend that you back up this coverage with a bit of sponsorship. It’ll be great. People, many people, have told them it’s huge. Great quality. Complete success.
They may not disclose to you that they, in fact, own this publication. Your PR guy and the editor might even be the same person. If this is the case (again…ethics aside), content quality control is likely to be low. You’re paying them to get media coverage; it’s in their financial interest to run whatever is produced (the thin edge of the fake news wedge perhaps?).
So, for your brand, what are the implications of this scenario? The whole point of producing content is to influence a defined target audience. Usually the people you do business with, or those you hope to. To influence the market you need high calibre ‘quality’ content, but this is only worth producing if it goes to the right people. A good PR agency, with no ulterior motives, should know this. A good PR agency will try to get content placed in the right publication to achieve this.
If quality is King, distribution is Parliament: Where are you driving traffic?
If the point of PR is to raise awareness and start conversations, where you drive your content is vital (i.e. you want it to go to the people worth having conversations with). If your article (or press release) has your PR agency as the point of contact, you are essentially promoting the people you are paying to raise your profile.
On social media where you drive traffic is even more critical. The point of social media is to engage with your audience (it’s why it’s called ‘social’ media), the conversations are the key metric of success. If your PR agency ‘tweets’ or ‘posts’ your content on their social media sites they are essentially driving digital traffic and potential client conversations away from you. You are paying someone to reduce your digital footprint and marketing presence. Think about this. For your brand it’s important.
In the ‘old days’ (circa 2012) getting published was the end game. You relied on a publication’s distribution database to deliver your message into the market. But social media has changed all this. Company social media accounts/databases now dwarf the reach of most publications (Maersk has over 140,000 LinkedIn followers).
Due diligence, marketing, and sales
Unfortunately, as a consumer of services, you need to do your due diligence on your suppliers. Are they working in your best interests, or theirs? Are they promoting their sales, or yours? Are they really looking after your brand?
I was offered an advertising contract with a major maritime publication guaranteeing a number of editorial features or articles as part of an advertising package. I insisted this clause be removed for two reasons. First, I would never want to put an editor (who I respect greatly) in the position of having to put anything in a publication they didn’t want to. Secondly, if my articles weren’t good enough to be published on their own merits, I needed to get another job.
Ethics define our personal and professional lives. If your PR company is ‘self-publishing’ then you should be asking yourself what this says about your brand (and theirs). In a nutshell, if a PR agency also runs a publication they are taking you and their readers (perhaps your clients), for a ride. And a piece of advice, if that’s the path you want to go down, just put your ‘article’ on your social media platforms and your website – your clients and stakeholders are more likely to see it there…and you can save on your PR costs.