Ethical gray areas stretch beyond Chinese media

Last week I talked about the African PR market, how it was at a stage where China was 30 years ago, and how it was set to become the next great growth area for communications.

Last week I talked about the African PR market, how it was at a stage where China was 30 years ago, and how it was set to become the next great growth area for communications.

But a front-page story in The New York Times this week underlined why China itself still has some way to go before it can be considered a mature PR market. The story picked up on the issue of paying for media placements in newspapers and on television, with tales of a CEO profile in a magazine going for $20,000 and TV appearances on news shows costing $4,000 a minute.

Several agencies were quoted on the subject, though only one – Ogilvy & Mather – actually went on the record, which you could characterize as brave, or maybe just naïve.

Top agency execs I spoke to on the subject adopted the “there but for the grace of God go I” approach usually favored in these situations. They emphasized that their policy is not to participate in such transactions and that if instances were uncovered in their agencies the offending parties would be fired.

They affirmed that when agencies are acquired in China and the wider Asia-Pac region such practices, should they be in operation, are immediately discontinued.

Other grayer areas were also discussed in The Times piece, such as companies or PR agencies paying for journalists' expenses to go on trips and visits, which subsequently result in coverage of the company concerned. A trip to a Moët Hennessy chateau in western China organized by Ruder Finn was cited as an example of this.

But I can't help detecting a faint whiff of hypocrisy and a holier-than-thou attitude on display in The Times article. “China is not alone in bending boundaries… even the United States may venture into various gray areas,” it opines, and “the ground rules of The New York Times prohibit such practices,” it points out.

This is indeed true. Poor old Times journalists can't even accept a free lunch or drink from a contact – they have to pay their own way. But at least they can head back to the office with their integrity intact. On the other hand, isn't this the same media outlet that brought us well-known plagiarist and fabricator Jayson Blair?

And, widening out the canvas to another bastion of American journalism, who can forget the shockingly self-justifying editorial that ran in The Wall Street Journal last summer in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed its owner News Corporation?

It's clearly different to pay for play, but let's not pretend China and other developing regions have a monopoly on dodgy editorial ethics and standards. Everyone agrees pay for play is unacceptable, but it takes time to change practices deeply entrenched in cultures for decades, centuries even.

The fact is the media world is fundamentally changing – and it's producing more of these gray areas. Agencies and brands are becoming content producers, and this content is getting picked up by mainstream media outlets. Corporations are paying journalists to produce content for them or to blog on their websites. What happens when those same journalists find themselves covering a story involving a company that has been paying them?

It might not be pay for play, but some of these issues stray onto the same territory and require a new code of conduct for media in mature and developed markets such as the US, never mind fast-growing BRIC nations such as China.

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