A small bomb hit the political media world yesterday when Erik Wemple of The Washington Post insinuated that the very popular “Playbook” email newsletter, written by Mike Allen of Politico, is more a native advertising venture than a news ticker. If you want positive coverage, you just need to pay for it.
The newsletter has always accepted money from sponsors, with advertisers paying $35,000 for a weeklong promo run. The point of Wemple’s reveal is how closely the “editorial” content resembles the “paid” content. Allen is, essentially, reprinting certain advertisers’ press releases by giving hands-off coverage to their PR work. Case in point: Allen reported BP’s post-oil spill damage control campaign as news and linked to a PDF of the company’s print ad. He later linked to a video spot, and Wemple strongly implies that Allen’s friendship with BP execs facilitated this coverage (for which Politico did not charge).
The newsletter also consistently quotes press releases from regular sponsors like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, writing things like:
Ahead of tax day, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce promotes its agenda for tax reform: “Renew all expiring tax rates and incentives right away. … Stop threatening small businesses with higher taxes”
The average Joe on the street will understandably say “of course the media is biased and politics is a pay-to-play game” while shrugging his shoulders at this story, but it’s big news to anyone who does PR in DC. The money quote after the jump:
So enticing is the prospect of dumping an announcement in the loving hands of Mike Allen that many PR types around town have gone around beat reporters at Politico in search of a little plug in “Playbook”
…they know he’ll play it totally straight, not letting any dissenting voices muddy up whatever PR the source is trying to get out
We don’t read Playbook and we have little doubt that Allen deserves praise for his hard work, but there’s an ethics issue at play here. As we all know, the line between paid and earned media grows blurrier by the day—and it certainly looks like Playbook crosses that line on a regular basis.