When an advertiser invites you to speak at their event

A few years ago I was invited by one of our biggest advertisers to keynote their annual conference for major customers and business prospects. The invitation posed several ethical dilemmas.

Accept or decline?
This was one of our largest advertisers, and they were asking a favor. To decline would disappoint them and to accept would give us a credit in their favor bank—but would accepting the invitation align myself with them in an inappropriate way, and perhaps lead to expectations of editorial coverage?

Also, the attendees were our readers, which made it an excellent opportunity to promote the magazine, demonstrate thought leadership and network for story ideas—but the conference was a commercial event, so might attendees view me as endorsing the vendor?

The publisher and I agreed that I should accept the invitation. I felt that my presentation could be vendor-agnostic and that the benefits of spending face-to-face time with readers would be invaluable. And of course my publisher felt that my participation would help build the business relationship with the advertiser.

What about the costs?
The advertiser offered to pay all costs of travel, and this posed another ethical quandary. The event was located at an expensive resort hotel on the other side of the country, so the cost of my participation would be high. Meanwhile, though, our ethics policies prohibit editors from accepting offers from vendors to cover their press events or conferences at the vendors’ expense.

The publisher and I went back-and-forth on this one. I felt our policy required us to pay, but there was another consideration. At the time, we were a small, indiependent company—and we were struggling. (Some months earlier, all employees had taken a pay cut.) The publisher decided we’d let the advertiser pay for my travel, and in the end I was okay with that. After all, we weren’t covering the event. Plus, we’d already decided that I should accept the speaking invitation, so whether we paid my way or the advertiser did would make no difference on the public perception of my participation.

(Here’s another way of looking at this payment question: if you agree that it wasn’t a sin for me to speak at the advertiser’s conference, you should agree that it wasn’t a sin to have them cover my travel. And if you do think it was an ethical violation for me to do the keynote, then certainly I wasn’t compounding the sin by getting my expenses covered.)

There was one final ethical issue: the advertiser had offered to pay me a modest speaker’s fee. This was tempting; the trip would require leaving on a Sunday and spending two nights away from home. (And see note above about pay cuts.) Nevertheless, I declined the fee; that was a bridge I just didn’t want to cross.

Upshot and what-ifs
This turned out to be a win for everyone. The attendees enjoyed my presentation, the advertiser was grateful for my participation, and I came away with promising story ideas, several commitments for guest columns and even a speaker for one of our own upcoming events. Our business relationship with the advertiser continued, and I never felt compromised as an editor.

Finally, in discussions about ethics, it’s always interesting to address what-ifs. So what if the event had been near me, requiring only one night away and at a less expensive hotel? (I still would have agreed to let them pay my costs.) What if the advertiser had asked me to cover the event in my magazine? (Easy; hard no.) And this one: what if the invitation had come from a company that was not an advertiser? (Tougher question; I probably would have declined because of the hassle factor, but I might have accepted if they let me bring, at our own expense, our ad sales manager.)

What do you think? Do you agree with my decisions? Have you had a similar experience? Let’s discuss at the Ethics Roundtable at our 2019 national conference!

JD Solomon is the editorial director for two sister publications in the education field. He serves as an ASBPE board member and is chair of the ASBPE Ethics Committee.

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