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China has so quickly moved up the economic food chain, it’s easy to forget this is a country still under communist rule.

As Dorothy put it in The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

No, we’re not.

Which brings me to the story in The New York Times last week, “In China Press, Best Coverage Cash Can Buy.”

The story devotes 1,300 words to the practice of buying media coverage:

“China is notorious for censoring politically delicate news coverage. But it is more than willing to let flattering news about Western and Asian businesses appear in print and broadcast media – if the price is right.”

esquire chinaYou want specifics?

How about $20K for a page in the Chinese version of Esquire, according to the Times story.

This isn’t public relations.

There’s a word for such transactions.

It’s called advertising.

But before everyone scurries to the nearest pulpit, it’s worth remembering that the line between publishing and editorial can blur even in the U.S.

It doesn’t make for provocative copy, but the gray area of what constitutes “undue influence” exists everywhere.

If you pick up the lunch tab for a journalist, does this imply he or she will write a favorable story about the company across the table? I think I’m on safe ground in saying a $24 grilled Coho salmon does not constitute an editorial payment.

What is the dollar value at which undue influence starts to creep into the story?

$100?

$250?

Do I hear $1,000?

The New York Times story implies that the French wine and spirits maker Moët Hennessy crossed the line in paying for travel for several publications, including the Chinese newspaper, 21st Century Business Herald, which ran an interview of the company’s CEO:

The article appeared after the company, with the help of Ruder Finn, an American public relations firm, agreed to pay the airfare, lodging and food costs for nine journalists, including one from the 21st Century paper, to visit Moët Hennessy’s chateau in western China.

This goes on all the time, and not just in China.

We supported HP for a number of years, including when the company was heavily involved in the World Cup in France. HP footed the bill for journalists to travel to France, watch the World Cup, and, of course, report on HP’s technology underpinning the operation.

Did HP buy the coverage? No rate sheets were exchanged.

Did HP expect stories on their technology at the event? Absolutely.

Did the journalists understand that accepting the junket meant writing stories on the technology at the World Cup? Hard to fathom that they didn’t.

How does this compare to buying a page of editorial coverage in Esquire China?

I know it’s apples to oranges. My point is, there’s plenty of gray area to go around.

The same dynamic applies to tier-one media properties, not just niche verticals like “Refrigerated Retailing in Cold Climates.”

Here’s what I mean.

I think we can agree that VentureBeat and GigaOm are quality properties founded by journalists who made their bones in mainstream journalism. Both properties feed content to heavyweights such as The New York Times, BusinessWeek and Forbes.

Both properties also put on conferences. Paying to exhibit at a conference like DEMO or sponsor a conference like Structure can mean attention from the earned media side of the business.

demo homepage

Again, there isn’t a bundle on the rate sheet that says “20 X 10 signage in conference hall, tent cards on lunch tables and a 300-word article on your company.”

There’s more finesse to the proposition.

Which approach you prefer – Cream or sugar in your coffee? – I suppose becomes a matter of taste.

Note: If this post resonated, you might check out “The New York Times: All the News That’s Fit to Entertain.”


Comments

  • Compel agencies to certify ethical standards? | blog.holmesreport.com

    […] should also digress slightly here to mention that Lou Hoffman has an interesting post that looks at how these matters are hardly confined to emerging PR […]

    Reply
  • Sarah Lafferty

    You are absolutely right to point out that is definitely not a Chinese issue. I have had two editors in the UK tell me outright that they only cover companies that ‘support the publication,’ which certainly poses challenges for early stage companies and sells the readers short by failing to cover the whole industry. I’m afraid that many magazines are turning into sponsored advertorials but I think smart readers can spot the credible ones.

    Reply
  • Lou Hoffman

    Thanks for weighing in Sarah.

    A couple years ago I moderated a panel on earned media versus owned media at a journalism conference (INJO).

    It surprised me that the vast majority of people felt it doesn’t matter who’s behind the content.

    If the information is useful, it’s useful.

    I do agree with you that smart readers can determine the credibility of a given media property.

    But it can get foggy when mainstream media properties don’t offer the context for the reader to frame a story.

    I’m thinking specifically of Apple providing a photo of Tim Cook’s recent visit to a Foxconn facility in China. It’s facsinating to see how a photo taken and distributed by Apple ends up with a Reuters or Bloomberg attribution (BTW, The Telegraphy doesn’t even include attribution for the photo in its story)

    Hope to free up some time to post on this.

    Reply

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