Conferences, trade shows and other events offer business journalists unique opportunities to network with newsmakers, take the pulse of one’s industry and generate editorial content beyond the gathering itself. But such meetings can also pose ethical challenges.
The wrong decision can compromise coverage or, worse, taint a journalist’s hard-won reputation or the publication’s brand. To help you keep your coverage beyond reproach, here are some guidelines and best practices.
1. Take care not to give preferential treatment to advertisers. Trade show exhibitors who regularly buy print and or digital ads in your publication may seek to exploit the commercial relationship by securing favorable or unwarranted editorial coverage. Paying a courtesy call to an exhibitor’s booth or suite for a demo or to learn about a new product or initiative is fine — so long as no strings are attached.
And, provided, too, that the time taken doesn’t come at the expense of other onsite reporting that might hold more news value. Ultimately, information gathered from such meetings must be subjected to the same rigorous editorial standards one would apply to exhibitors who are not advertisers.
2. Stay clear of non-editorial discussions. Vendor representatives at conferences and trade shows may approach you about advertising, producing sponsored content or advancing other business aims beyond the scope of your responsibilities. These people should be referred to others within your organization better suited to handle their requests or pitches. It’s not your role to act as a go-between for them; stick to your editorial mission.
3. Maintain high editorial standards for tradeshow dailies. The line between editorial and advertising can blur in instances where a trade show sponsor pays your publisher to produce an onsite daily for attendees — and recruits you and editorial colleagues on staff to write the stories.
If content in such publications is to be viewed as more than puff pieces for exhibitors or sponsors, the same editorial standards that apply to your publication should also govern the dailies.
Firm ground rules should be established where event organizers want to have a say in coverage. A mutual agreement as to the permissible scope of show content may be acceptable. But if the organizers insist on reviewing and approving stories in advance of publication, it may be best to decline the job — or else label it all as sponsored content and recruit outside freelancers to do the work.
4. Make sure to vet freelancers you want to recruit for event coverage. Because of their proximity to or knowledge of an event to be covered, it may be tempting to tap freelancers to write about keynote presentations, workshops and other happenings. Often, however, they have existing relationships with event exhibitors or vendors, increasing the likelihood of overly favorable coverage about the companies. If potential conflicts of interest are unavoidable, then they need to be fully disclosed in the freelancers’ submitted work.
5. Ask for interviewees’ consent to recordings. Fewer than half of all states require that all parties to a conversation give their consent to being recorded. That leaves plenty of jurisdictions, New York among them, where only the trade show journalist doing the recording needs be in the know (so long as he or she is a party to the conversation).
Nonetheless, as a courtesy, it’s best to ask for permission to tape the interview. At a minimum, the reporter should disclose that the conversation is being recorded to ensure accuracy in reporting; and for subsequent fact-checking of complaints by interviewees alleging that they were misquoted.
6. Don’t go to an event where the “newsmaker” is picking up a big tab. Getting together with a source who pays for coffee, donuts or an evening drink likely won’t pose an ethical quandary. But if the gathering is happening at an expensive dinner or on a luxury yacht, ask your editor or publisher about covering the expense. Letting the event organizer pay the tab could pose a conflict of interest.
7. Be careful not to divulge too much about your own events. Many years ago, I worked for a call center-focused publication that was hosting awards for top industry managers and executives. A finalist in one award category called me — repeatedly — to find out whether he had won to justify a trip to the awards ceremony. I kept mum.
You should, too, when it comes to sharing information that competition organizers say must be kept under wraps until the appropriate hour. Revealing confidential information to certain individuals — representatives of top advertisers, trusted sources or highly valued contacts — is not fair to other competition entrants. Such disclosures could also potentially do harm to the competition and the publication if word gets to other event stakeholders.
8. When in doubt, ask for advice. These are but a handful of ethical issues you might encounter in event coverage. Others are likely to crop up in the course of your reporting.
If you’re unsure how to proceed, consult with your managing editor or your company’s own editorial guidelines. If your publisher doesn’t have one, check out ASBPE’s Guide to Best Practices.
Revised in 2013, the nearly 7,000-word document covers the gamut of issues faced by business-to-business writers and editors: from conflicts of interest, graphics and photography to social media, digital publications and, yes, conferences and tradeshows.
Failing all else, ASBPE’s Ethics Committee, led by JD Solomon, is here to help. Just drop us a line!
Warren S. Hersch is associate editor at Money-Media—A Financial Times Company. He serves as an ASBPE board member and is chair of the ASBPE Ethics Committee.