VICE Discovers the Ethical Perils of Corporate Sponsorship

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Looks like the cool kids sometimes get tripped up on ethics, too.

According to reports posted earlier this week, VICE — the very organization that inspired Edelman to make a call to defend itself for working on sustainability projects while representing clients who deny climate change — has occasional brushes with conflict-of-interest problems.

A post on Gawker and one on Capital New York both demonstrate how VICE editors worked to squash stories that could have reflected badly on corporate sponsors and/or media partners.

This is really a classic PR/media condundrum.

SPOILER: It’s about the money.

In short: according to a couple of freelancers who once wrote for VICE, each piece mentioning a brand or “large entity” that the company might do business with at some point in the future must be approved by an editor. Nothing unusual, really.

Here’s a statement recorded by freelancer Charles Davis:

The controversy surrounded a recent post titled “It’s Time to Boycott the NFL” which apparently didn’t sit well with some senior editors. Why? Because VICE staffers often have to deal with the NFL’s PR team to get access to its videos for VICE Sports, which launched in June.

Seems Davis’s editors also weren’t too happy with a critical piece he wrote about the labor practices of the South by Southwest Festival either. (The outlet co-sponsored an event at the festival with AT&T.)

Peter Sterne of Capital New York writes that “Vice wanted both a lawyer and its editor-in-chief to review the [AT&T] story” but eventually killed it; a spokesman who talked to the site “denied that the decision had anything to do with [the story’s] effects on brand partnerships.”

So why did they kill it, if not to avoid pissing off sponsors and media partners? They didn’t say, but no one claimed that it had anything to do with editorial quality.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from the org’s official handbook:

“Employees, with the exception of those officially designated as a Company spokesperson, are prohibited from commenting or providing documents or information to members of the media … Employees must immediately report all media inquiries from media outlets about the Company’s business to the Communications Director or a Senior Manager before any response is made to the inquiry.”

Standard PR practices, really.

The takeaway, though, is that no media outlet — no matter how cutting-edge its coverage may be — is truly independent as long as a sponsor is helping to pay its bills.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting next time someone speaks ill of the PR discipline.