Is Sponsored Content Really More ‘Transparent’ Than PR?

To be honest with you, readers, many conversations about “content” alternately lull us to sleep and make us want to tear our hair out. Like most in the media, we have mixed feelings about the move toward a universal adoption of sponsored stories as a source of revenue for news outlets.

We have friends in the journalistic community who now write such stories for clients. They tell us that they see their role as supporting the work performed by their employer’s editorial team while managing to create content aligned with causes they support. (This is an ideal scenario, really.)

Still, we’ve noticed several people this week debating whether sponsored material is somehow preferable to “traditional” stories that involve a bigger role for PR. One anonymous “native” journalist interview by Digiday even went so far as to ask how PR-driven stories are “any different from native advertising, at the end of the day.”

The question begs for an answer.

Here’s one typical exchange initiated by the founder of the stratechery blog:

Sure, lots of people do hate ads. But that’s a serious oversimplification. And we really can’t agree with this conclusion:

Here’s what the argument boils down to: in the case of native ads/sponsored content, everyone knows that the client is ultimately out to promote itself while maybe giving the reader something of value — that “something” being directed by the client. Yes, it’s true that certain publications like BuzzFeed don’t generally let clients dictate what will appear in these paid posts, but this practice differs from pub to pub, and it does not create a greater sense of “transparency” than a standard editorial piece because it still requires the reader to trust the motives of both the writer and the company paying that writer.

Many tech blogs do essentially reproduce press releases — as do some trade blogs like the ones we run (cough cough). But the idea that a story “initiated by a PR agency” is inherently less honest than a native ad labeled as such displays bias against both PR and media by assuming that every tech blogger is a little worker bee waiting to deliver a client’s preferred narrative while posing as an objective reporter.

We all know that’s not true.

The difference is that the client does not have ultimate say over a story pitched by PR in terms of what it contains or whether it even runs in the first place.

For that reason, readers will always treat editorial differently than native — so we don’t even need to ask whether paid media can replace PR, no matter how blurry the line may be.

It’s just another tool in the box.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.