ASBPE Ethics Advisory: An opinion from the American Society of Business Publication Editors

Proactive marketing effort is editor’s best response when publisher seeks to increase ad/editorial swaps

Issue: Advertiser pressure for more editorial tie-ins continues to be the dominant ethical issue editors confront. In many cases, the ad sales team responds correctly by inviting editors to recommend possible tie-ins offering lead generation potential. But at other times, unfortunately, a nervous publisher coping with ad sales slippage attempts to trample editorial colleagues.

Response: Sometimes the conflict rages because a newly-promoted publisher has a hard-sell background. Editorial values never entered during the pitch. Instead, promises of coverage were a regular routine. So when someone like that is running the show, no concern is given to preserving top quality via delivering content readers clearly want. Result: Publisher and editor engage in a continuous sparring match. Instead, the editor should be proactive in submitting a list of possible editorial/ad tie-ins that perform a dual role of preserving editorial integrity while providing desired exposure for advertisers.

Background: The party requesting an ethics committee advisory described a situation where a new publisher immediately started to make waves in terms of interfering with editorial content decisions. Soon after joining the staff, he began lobbying for cover stories featuring advertisers/prospects as a revenue-building device. At the same time, he pressed for greater personal visibility in the publication. But when offered the opportunity to write a regular column for the publication, he declined. The probable reason for the turndown, observed one committee member, was that the publisher probably lacked the writing skill or industry knowledge to contribute an authoritative column. Of course, such columns can be ghost-written, but the negative reaction clearly is a further reflection of a very difficult relationship.

Recommendations: Instead of assuming a defensive position, the editor’s best response should be a proactive marketing effort. It may be possible that the editor can recommend many possibilities that the publisher – due to past inexperience – would never have considered. The following excerpts from comments submitted by committee members address the possibilities. To a certain degree, the strategy will succeed only if the editor is comfortable wearing a marketing hat. In fact, it seems common that inquiries the committee receives that are presented as an ethical concern can best be resolved via a marketing solution.

Jamie Green: “I’d say the future is not looking too bright for the editor if whoever hired the publisher is not a strong proponent of editorial quality and independence. Maybe I’m jaded, but I have my doubts that a lecture on how editorial integrity (translates to reader loyalty, which translates to engagement, which) enhances the commercial viability of the brand would have an effect other than to further marginalize the editor.

“My advice to the editor would be to become very, very proactive in suggesting editorial projects (e.g., special sections, roundtables, special issues, directories, digital offshoots, webcasts, etc.) to bring in additional revenue. If, as noted, the company has some sales problems, then a lot of what the editorial team is working on is not being monetized. The editor probably has a pretty good handle on what needs to be improved and what can be sidelined in favor of projects more likely to generate interest from audience and advertisers alike.

“My guess is that the publisher has plenty of problems to focus on and he’s taking the short view by attempting to sell editorial space. If the editor floods him with ideas to sell around, the publisher might focus on other areas which, in theory, gives the editor time to build trust and a closer relationship.”

Mike Antich: “My hunch, and I have nothing to base this on other than cynical intuition, is that the publisher is looking for a reason to find another editor who is more accommodating to “bartering” editorial for advertising.

“This is really a sales problem and, ultimately, an HR failure. I base this on a previous advisory pontification that the art of selling is a dying art and the advertising profession is attracting many individuals who are not true salespeople, even though they fancy themselves as such. I’ve heard salespeople say companies will only advertise when there is “compatible editorial,” yet ignore the fact that their sales approach encourages this type of advertiser behavior. Unfortunately, these pseudo-salespeople are incapable of selling value and can only survive in a quid pro quo environment.

“The editor’s best allies are his or her readers. A true editor knows who the movers and shakers are among his/her core readership. If these readers are dissatisfied with quid pro quo editorial, then they should let the magazine’s management and advertisers know. Their opinions carry weight. If you are a qualified reader of a trade magazine, you are constantly being bombarded by sales pitches. Over the years, these readers have developed a keen eye in identifying pseudo-editorial promoting an underlying advertising message.

“Unfortunately, unless you have close relationships with your readers, the response from readers will be silence. Trade magazine readers receive tons of magazines and they can’t read everything. My hunch is that the editor’s magazine will wind up in the pile of magazines set aside to be read later, but never are.

Robin Sherman: “As I often do, I see this as a choice that management must make between doing journalism or marketing. If the publication is merely a marketing vehicle for the publisher, then editors are not journalists, they are marketing editors. Thus editors must choose what they want to be: journalists or marketers. If the former, they must try to move on . . . unless they want to fight the battle.”

Roy Harris: “Collisions like this one – where the very purpose of the publication is at the center of a disagreement – should be viewed as a real opportunity for an editor (albeit a scary one, perhaps.) The editor must flat-out take the role of the reader’s representative here, and make the publisher understand that the reader has got to be respected above all.

“The spirit of compromise, with the editor’s offer of a regular column of the publisher’s opinion, was excellent (within the reason that comes from editorial review, of course.) Clearly, the readers deserve to have spelled out for them what their publication’s leadership thinks. But the current disagreement between publisher and editor (even if it seems to be turning personal fast) does require the editor to take a stand. And if the two can’t get along, at least the editor will have tried to make sure that the reader’s interests had their day in court.

“In a way, it’s a manifestation of the oldest publisher-editor conflict in the book. And coming to terms is what keeps publications strong.”

John Bethune: “The publisher’s energy and desire to improve revenue are admirable. So perhaps the editor can redirect that into alternative approaches, such as custom publishing, advertorials, and other ways of helping the advertiser through content.

Howard Rauch: As always, we welcome inquiries for ethics advisories from ASBPE members.
In the above series of observations, one implied caveat was how top-notch publications can experience a serious quality shortfall when a publisher with limited experience in promoting editorial values has the upper hand. Right now, the publication is top-notch. Another concern was during my initial screening conference with the inquiring editor, the focus primarily was on print media. If the editor believes he has his hands full now, wait until his publishing colleague starts meddling with digital. So as suggested by other committee members, our inquirer shouldn’t wait. His package of marketing proposals definitely should address on-line content possibilities.

Meanwhile, if anyone reading this review believes they can offer informed commentaries in response to ethical dilemmas, I do have an ethics committee vacancy. If you’re interested in discussing what’s involved, e-mail me: ethics@asbpe.org.