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The Grey Paid Space

The PESO (Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned) framework for managing content is pretty well established amongst comms professionals – but a study published just last month shows that unethical behaviour in the paid space – otherwise known as advertorial, native or sponsored content - is still a problem.

Using data from NewsGuard, the Press Gazette found that four of the UK’s top news sites - The Sun, Daily Express, Telegraph and Metro – had failed to clearly label ‘sponsored content’ in a way that distinguishes it from editorial content. Among the top 50 sites, seven failed the test.

Legislation has been in place in the UK since 2008, making it a requirement for all print and online paid for content to be clearly labelled as such to readers/consumers.

It’s an issue that persists closer to home in the Channel Islands too.

Both Jersey and Guernsey fall under the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Authority, which sets out clear rules and responsibilities when it comes to paid content.

Nevertheless, specific legislation was introduced in Jersey back in 2018, designed to give consumers an extra layer of protection. Similar to the UK equivalent, part of the Consumer Protection Law focused on how messages are communicated and understood by consumers, including through the media.

It’s interesting to note, meanwhile, that Guernsey has not yet introduced its own specific legislation to cover this – though it’s been on the cards for some time and progress is expected in the near future.

The introduction of Jersey’s law was a positive move in bringing Jersey standards of practice in line with those in the UK. Where PR and comms professional standards are concerned, it has helped bring a welcome degree of transparency in distinguishing between earned and paid-for content. The point around paid space under Jersey law states:

Advertorials and the media

1. You must not use editorial content in the media to promote a product where the promotion has been paid for by a trader (advertorial) without making this clear to the consumer.

It seems pretty clear. If it’s paid for in any way, it needs to be obvious that is the case.

And for the most part since the law has been in place, it has been well adhered to, with paid for content by and large being badged up as sponsored in one way or another.

But it’s not particularly consistently applied, and it’s also a bit of a grey area.

I still see content being run by media platforms which I know is paid for, but which is not tagged as such.

Perhaps that’s just an inadvertent mistake or an honest oversight.

But there are also instances where there is not a clear dividing line between commercial commitments and editorial contribution – where editorial is accepted as part of a wider commercial package, for instance. It’s a grey area – but in my mind, if there’s any commercial backing that can be linked to editorial space, it’s essentially paid space, and there’s a requirement to be honest about that.

It’s seeped into the awards arena too. Certain awards, for instance, are veering towards a ‘pay to play’ approach – it’s understood that this is the process, but that doesn’t make it right.

In the online world too, media brands will increasingly include social media promotional opportunities as part of packages. That’s fine as long as it is clearly labelled up as such in social posts. Influencers should apply to strict rules around this too.

Why is this important?

It’s important in a world where fake news is a real issue. People deserve to be able to easily distinguish between what has been paid for and what is the subject of journalistic integrity.

It’s important for news brands because not clearly distinguishing between paid and earned space can undermine credibility.

It’s important for brands who are serious about transparency to be able to demonstrate that in how they promote themselves.

And it’s important for PR and comms professionals whose job it is to build relationships based on robust ethics and trust. Part of the CIPR’s code of conduct requires members to ‘deal honestly, transparently and fairly with others’.

It’s an evolving issue too – only earlier this year, the UK brought in new rules to make it illegal to pay anyone to write a fake review. It’s pretty unethical to do that anyway, but it’s now in law, black and white.

For firms, comms advisers and media channels, it’s important to make sure, when it comes to putting together comms plans, that they are aware of the obligations in this area. It can sometimes not be entirely obvious, maybe it’s a grey area at times, but if there is more of an emphasis on understanding just how important this is as an issue, it would make the media landscape a much better, fairer place for everyone.


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