There is no other way to describe the way I suspect countless journalists and PRs felt when Lucy Kellaway’s column An old-school reply to an advertiser’s retro threat appeared on FT.com.
Kellaway had received an email from the Hewlett Packard Enterprise comms chief Henry Gomez in response to a column she’d written the previous week about his boss Meg Whitman.
The FT columnist said the email she got from Gomez was “aggressive”. He had signed off with this:
“FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.”
Gomez has since hit back, releasing the full text of his email. A fascinating public spat, exposing PR-Journalist relations at their most testy.
But the spectacle of confrontation obscures quite an interesting question. What if it had been the other way round?
She says that the ‘good old-fashioned bollocking’ and, most pertinently, the threat of withdrawing of advertising have largely disappeared. She will know far better than I on the former, but on the latter, the question of the balance between commercial is as relevant now as it ever has been.
Just as PRs have sometimes used advertising for leverage over journalists, it is rare but not unheard of for some publications to use the prospect of editorial coverage as leverage over advertising spend.
The line between commercial and editorial has been further blurred in recent years by some media houses that offer ‘native advertising’ and ‘sponsored content’. Outlets as distinct as The Telegraph, The Guardian and Buzzfeed are among those who offer paid-for content published in the house-style as a product to advertisers.
Communications has traditionally been seen at arms-length from other marketing disciplines. The key to PR’s exceptionalism within the marketing mix is the idea that editorial coverage is earned, not bought.
Lucy Kellaway rightly identifies that editorial independence as the reason why people read the Financial Times.
The more subtle point is that it is also the reason why companies want to be written about by FT journalists. The value of effective PR rests on the third-party legitimacy provided by reputable independent publications.
The debate about the relationship between journalism and advertising is as old as newspapers themselves. In truth ‘native advertising’ has always existed. It just used to be called advertorial.
Kellaway’s piece reflects her distaste at the implicit questioning of the FT’s editorial integrity. But make no mistake, her conflict with Henry Gomez of HP Enterprise is not a proxy war with journalism on one side and the communications industry on the other.
Quite the opposite. Editorial independence in journalism matters for firms who care about their reputations just as much as it does for the media itself.