Texas Firm Admits to Bribing Journalists for Coverage

money bags

Well, maybe “bribing” is too strong a word. What’s a synonym for “we will pay this supposedly objective journalist for giving our client favorable coverage?”

In a story that seemed destined to break during PRSA’s Ethics Awareness Month, a Texas firm sheepishly admitted to offering a CNBC freelancer money to include their client in a story.

Guilty pitch email after the jump (emphasis ours).

“I would be asking you to include our clients in stories you’re working on (assuming there’s a natural fit) or pitch your editors on new stories that include discussion of our clients. We’re not looking for you to promote or shill for anything. Just include discussion of our clients in a natural, organic way.

What we’re paying varies wildly depending on quality of the secured hit. We’ve paid up to a dollar per word for great placement. What payment structure would you be comfortable with?”

“Wildly” is quite an adjective; did you know that some publications pay more than one dollar per word? Also: the offer itself seems to contradict the words “natural” and “organic”, no? (Side note: frozen peas can be organic; a news story cannot.)

After Jim Romenesko ran with this expose yesterday, the firm confessed to CNBC with some heavy qualifiers:

“We have, in the past, hired bloggers to write about clients of ours in exchange for product (or a small stipend) with the expectation that there would be disclosure between the blogger and the blog editor. We do not, and have not, asked people to write about clients of ours in news outlets without disclosure.”

That’s a great case study in ineffective damage control. The practice discussed is kind of like small-beans bloggers insisting that you give them a certain quantity of free stuff in exchange for coverage…no, wait, it’s actually worse than that.

While the firm didn’t include links to the pieces in question, we highly doubt that past bloggers included “we were paid to include this business in our story” disclosures at the end of any given post.

In short, this is everything people think of when they think bad thoughts about PR. It’s not quite as flagrant, in ethical terms, as the guy who offers to write an entire story for a journalist who will then just slap his or her byline on top, but it’s pretty close.

Please discuss, PRSA.

UPDATE: Readers seemed to take issue with the fact that we didn’t include the firm’s name in the original post. It’s Austin-based Status Labs (homepage here, Twitter account here, Facebook page here).

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.