A speaker from ASBPE’s GenerationB2B conference explains why strong ethics are good for business.

Advertisers strengthen B2B publications, but readers and trust are essential to the industry’s survival. Sometimes advertisers go too far and risk the health of your magazine and their own business models.

It’s up to publications to set limits, according to Kerry Knudsen, one of the speakers at ASBPE’s GenerationB2B conference this past May in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Kerry Knudsen

Kerry Knudsen

“If that ever happens to you, you have three choices. You can either kneel and cry, you can take the hit, or you can take that gun away from them and stick it up their nose,” Knudsen, Editor and Publisher of Coverings and Wood Industry magazines, told the attendees at his session “Strong Ethics are Good Business.”

At the conference, Knudsen shared his experiences and perspectives on B2B media ethics while offering tips for editors on navigating today’s blur between advertising and editorial content and the growing pressure from some publication sponsors.

Standing for ethical journalism

Knudsen says he learned some lessons years ago when a few unscrupulous advertisers forced him to make hard choices about the direction of a magazine he purchased in 2008. Retelling his story and distributing printed copies of the editorial he published in response to that incident, Knudsen urged business journalists and editors to stand for their journalistic principles.

To Knudsen, this is all based in deeply personal experience. He started in B2B publishing as an editor-turned-publisher who had to renegotiate advertising relationships that his former publisher had arranged. From the beginning, his ethical commitments caused strain on these established partnerships, Knudsen said. When he rejected their proposals, he was met with immediate backlash.

Unfortunately for publishers and editors, it’s common for some advertisers to take things too far. Editors who allow advertisers to impact the magazine’s direction risk permanently losing readers’ trust, however.

“The natural relationship of advertiser to reader is predator to prey. The advertiser may ruin the magazine and then the readers disappear,” Knudsen said. “The natural relationship of the magazine to the readers is the gatekeeper and shepherd protecting the sheep.”

The value of readers’ trust

B2B magazines and even advertisers ultimately suffer without editors and publishers to protect the readership. Knudsen argues that it’s only a matter of time before compromised publications lose their value and ultimately lose support from their sponsors as readers go elsewhere. Luckily, Knudsen said he recognized this and established trust with his readers by taking a risk and publicly calling out the advertisers.

Instead of destroying his magazine and his business, bringing this issue directly to his readers resulted in new sponsorships and rejuvenated interest in his publication’s mission and vision.

“Strong ethics equals good business. It’s also the only sustainable option,” Knudsen said, adding that while many of those unethical businesses no longer exist, his publication is still going strong.

Kaitlin Morrison is a member of the ASBPE board. She also works as a freelance writer and content marketing specialist in Kennewick, Washington.