Member question: Editorial-advertising communication

Recently an ASBPE member submitted this question to the Ethics Committee: What are the ethics of a trade magazine providing the names of vendor-authors to the ad sales team before the articles’ publication? As Ethics Committee Chair, I responded as follows:

It is common practice at many B2B publications for editors to provide ad reps with information about upcoming editorial content. Most commonly this is in the form of an editorial calendar, which details what topics are being covered in future issues of the magazine. In the weeks prior to each issue’s ad-close date, some publications also give ad reps a memo providing additional detail about the planned content in the upcoming edition. The goal is to help the reps close sales with companies who might want to advertise in an issue with editorial content that aligns with their products or services. There is nothing inherently unethical about this.

Things become dicier when an ad rep asks an editor, “What companies are going to be mentioned in the stories (or, in your case, columns) planned for next month’s issue?” Clearly, the ad rep will use that information to try to sell ads to those companies. Here’s why this is problematic:

Editors frequently need to change plans about what goes in the magazine, often at the last minute. In the case you describe, the expected column may not be good enough for publication. Or maybe it has to be cut because the book size gets reduced. Editors should be able to make such decisions based on their editorial judgement about the merits of the content. But if the ad rep has gotten a company to buy an ad in an issue based on the rep’s promise that the expected column will be published, then suddenly editorial judgement is removed from the formula by which the editors determine what content is published in the magazine. Over time, such situations lead to a sense by readers that the editorial content of the magazine is dictated by advertisers.

Here’s another reason the practice you describe is problematic. Let’s say that in some percent of instances the ad reps are successful in getting the company to advertise in the same issue in which their column appears. The connection between vendor-supplied advertising and vendor-bylined content will not be lost on readers, leading to a drop in the perceived value and veracity of the bylined content. That’s not in the interest of either the vendor or the magazine.

Finally, I would add this: Several years ago, my publications decided to ban contributed content (aka bylined articles) from vendors. It was a no-win situation. If we published a piece by a non-advertiser, our advertisers would demand that we publish something by them. And if we published a piece by an advertiser, other companies (and readers) would assume we were trading editorial pages for ad pages. Instead, we created a category of advertising called a “Thought Leadership Ad,” in which a bylined article would be purchased as, and labeled as, sponsored content. This policy has actually helped our ad reps because it leads to more sales. And, it ended a very problematic violation of business journalism ethics.

JD Solomon chairs the ASBPE Ethics Committee and serves on the ASBPE board.

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