Fine line of between news and promotion: Where are the ethics

Mark Penn is a fairly well known public relations executive for PR agency Burson-Marsteller.  He is known because he was dropped from Hillary Clinton’s campaign after Burson-Marsteller signed the country of Columbia to a contract—a conflict with Clinton’s position on Columbia.  Fear not, Mr. Penn stayed in the public eye.  The Wall Street Journal hired him to write a online column for them called Microtrends.  Microtrends is the name of a book published by Mark Penn.  You can find the online columns at  http://www.markpenn.com/.   So the column is by name, publicity for his book Microtrends:  The Small forces behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.  There is a Facebook application for Microtrends as well.  But how far should a supposed news column go as promotion?  Remember on complaint against public relations is that it creates news content that people do not know is really PR.  True, public relations uses news releases and video news releases to stimulate media stories about their clients or their own organization.  Media relations has been a standard element of public relations since newspaper became popular in the early 1900s. 

Penn wrote a column about glamping.  Glamping is some glamorous form camping.  The idea is that instead of a tent and a sleeping bag.  You have a “tent” that recreates a luxury hotel room for you.  You can learn more about glamping at http://goglamping.net/.  So what is the ethical concern?  After the column was written, Burson-Marsteller used the column in efforts to generate business.  Gawker.com broke the story and their take on the events are below:

“By Monday, according to an internal email obtained by Gawker, Burson was already trying to recruit companies from the industry featured in the column as clients. Burson Executive Vice President (and former Bill Clinton speechwriter) Josh Gottheimer urged Burson’s senior staff—including Founding Chairman Harold Burson, US President & CEO Patrick Ford, and others, to use Penn’s column as a tool to approach clients in the camping industry about business. Not only that—he recommends that Mark Penn “send a note” to the CEO of these potential clients requesting a meeting.”

http://gawker.com/5346078/leak-how-mark-penn-converts-his-wall-street-journal-column-into-pr-clients?skyline=true&s=x

The main stream media picked it up from Gawker.com.  The New York Times ran a story questioning the ethicality of the column.  Here is a part of their story:

“The Wall Street Journal said on Thursday that it would keep the public relations executive Mark J. Penn as a columnist, and that the paper’s ethical standards were not violated when an executive at Mr. Penn’s firm set out to use one of his columns to drum up business.

In a column published online last Saturday, Mr. Penn, president and chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest public relations firms, extolled a kind of luxury camping (called “glamping”) that he wrote was an untapped market for hotel chains and resorts. Two days later, Josh Gottheimer, executive vice president of the firm, sent an e-mail message containing the column to colleagues, and wrote, ‘This is a great excuse to call’ sporting goods companies and other businesses, ‘this week while the column is fresh.’” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/28/business/media/28penn.html?_r=1&ref=business

The defense offered by Penn was that he did not know his company would use his column for promotion.  But he added that he saw no reason that this would not happen again in the future.  So Penn did not plan to write a column for his company’s benefit.  But his company saw a potential benefit and acted upon it.  Neither sees a problem with it and say they might do it again in the future.  The Wall Street Journal accepted this idea and Penn continues to write his column.  The Journal noted that their was an element of promotion to any guest journalist—having a column is promotion for the columnist.

Questions to Consider

  1.  Why does this situation make Penn and Burson-Marsteller look bad?
  2. What are the ethical issues in this situation?
  3. If you were management at Burson-Marsteller, what would you have said about the effort to gain clients from Penn’s column?
  4. The column was used to solicit clients.  Does it matter whether or not Penn intended the column to be used in that fashion?  Why or why not?
  5. What is the problem with letting guess columnists use the Wall Street Journal for their own promotional ends?
  6. How aware are readers that guest columns will have a promotional element to their writings?
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