Four ethical pitfalls in vendor relations

The editor’s role as reader advocate can extend beyond the page. Editors in the business press sometimes speak at industry seminars or trade shows, for example, where they might give voice to the readership’s needs and preferences.

Suppose, for example, the editor of a magazine serving professional pilots attends a trade show and presents an analysis of proposed regulatory changes that are likely to make flying less safe. Editors of a regional arts magazine might argue that artists and the public would benefit if museums made admission free one day per week. The editor of an automotive magazine might use statistics to bolster an argument that air bags should be added to the backs of a car’s front seats to protect passengers riding in the back.

Editors have credibility in situations like this because they are speaking on behalf of a readership whose interests they understand well and are pledged to serve.

These are appropriate and common ways editors serve as two-way conduits of information between industries and their practitioners.

The ethical implications of this kind of reader advocacy seem clear: to speak out accurately and diligently on behalf of readers. But there are situations in which more complicated ethical dilemmas arise.

1) Connections with vendors: Beware of conflicts of interest

We all know that experts capable of writing intelligibly for the business press are in short supply. Within each industry, a few experts rise to prominence. Publishers compete with each other to enlist these experts as authors, columnists, or contributing editors.

Publishers rarely pay these experts full-time salaries, and therefore they seek other work — including work for the vendors they might write about. Experts are routinely called in by vendors to write marketing pieces, give testimonials, run seminars, or render advice on products or services.

Editors have a responsibility to keep track of these associations and, at the bare minimum, disclose them to readers in the authors’ published biographical statements. In many cases, involvement in the vendor community disqualifies some of the industry’s best-known authors from writing on certain subjects. But if you let those authors go, another publication will quickly snap them up.

Bottom line: When possible, choose authors who don’t have financial relationships with companies within the industry you cover. When authors have such relationships, disclose them in a bio statement accompanying each article or column.

ASBPE ethics guidelines state that editors and other staffers “should not hold other non-journalism positions that could represent a conflict of interest with an editorial position.” This statement, which appears at the end of a paragraph devoted to whether it is permissible for editors to contribute to a competitor’s publication, seems to prevent a publication’s staff from having a business relationship with companies they cover. Paragraph I.G. extends this rule to freelance authors, but only to online publications:

In cases involving non-employees who provide online content, such as blogs and news material, the above standards of conflict-avoidance should apply. Where bloggers have relationships with companies about which they write, a disclosure should be added to explain the connections.

I think it is impractical to hold freelance authors to the same rules as staff editors, as freelancers may need to support themselves by consulting with vendors. That said, the disclosure requirement in the current ethics guide should be extended and strengthened to apply to all freelance contributors.

2) Reader research: Stay away from the sales function if you’re explaining data

I could count on a busy travel schedule every year when our reader survey came out. Vendors selling products and services into our market read the survey with great interest and hoped to find insights to help them make their products more appealing to readers.

I often met with vendors’ product managers and their partners from marketing departments to step through our reader surveys. There is a legitimate editorial purpose to such meetings. Two-way communication about readership helps editors better understand readers’ needs and interests. Sharing survey results with vendors is not prima facie evidence that editors are engaged in aiding ad-sales efforts.

However, demographic questions helped identify our readers as vendors’ target customers. Product and service questions helped them understand what our readers hoped they would provide in their products. I liked to map the survey results onto our editorial calendar to demonstrate how our content spoke directly to readers’ most pressing concerns.

The ethical pitfall here is that like many publishers, my company conducted just one big reader survey each year. So the reader survey included questions about buying intentions, buying authority, and so on. As the virtual stand-in for the readers, I sometimes found myself discussing these factors with vendors.

But those are marketing questions, separate from the editorial mission. Convincing vendors that readers have the authority and budget to purchase their products is the task of the ad-sales department, not the editorial staff.

Bottom line: Stay away from the marketing questions during vendor meetings.

3) Product previews: Tell readers information might change by launch time

Vendors often accommodate long lead times by providing briefings and pre-release products to publications. This allows editors and writers to prepare coverage to coincide more nearly with the vendor’s introduction date.

In general, this practice serves readers’ interests. When a new product or service is introduced, readers are curious to know the details. An editorial staff that is briefed on those details is better able to provide them on short deadline.

The problem is that vendors count on editors to forgive the flaws in pre-release products and service announcements whose fine details haven’t been polished. “We’ll fix that before roll-out” is a common response to questions about a perceived shortcoming.

Being given advance information is a privilege that sometimes has strings attached. When your coverage is positive and forgiving of pre-release problems, you’re part of the family. If you’re too critical, you could find yourself cut off from future previews. There is, therefore, a meaningful incentive to soften criticism.

Bottom line: If you accept pre-release briefings or products, confirm every detail with the final version before publishing if possible. If not, alert readers that you are working with early information. Report flaws and problems, giving vendors an opportunity to comment on them.

4) Product preview event: Don’t give advice to vendors

Once I was established in the same industry for several years, vendors sought my feedback on products and services under development.

And it wasn’t just me. Product managers for a major software company held a two-day event for editors and writers years ago. The invitation promised attendees would not only get a preview of a major new product, but would have a chance to influence the feature set for the product.

This was a flattering and innocuous-seeming invitation. Given an opportunity to make a major product better seems like a good way of serving the readers and an appropriate use of editorial insight into readers’ needs.

Of course, the feedback given to that vendor wasn’t given to other vendors, who were then presumably at a competitive disadvantage. By participating in the event, writers and editors gave one vendor an unfair advantage.

Worse, when the product was finally released, it included features based on recommendations from industry editors. How could editors be expected to publish objective evaluations of products they had helped design?

Bottom line: Don’t help vendors improve products. If you have advice for the vendor community, render that advice to all companies in the pages of your publication.

J.D. Hildebrand, a member of the ASBPE Ethics Committee, began his publishing career in 1983 when he joined the staff of Portable Computer as assistant editor. He has edited a series of well-regarded publications in subsequent decades and has spoken on fact-checking and other ethical issues at Folio:Shows and other venues. He currently works as a freelance writer and editor.

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