Ethics Nemesis Report: Outside Interference and Supplier Puff Pieces

By Howard Rauch

If you think you have it bad when it comes to editorial ethics intrusions, you are not alone. Here are two examples submitted to ASBPE’s ethics committee. The first deals with an association publication where the noneditorial liaison overstepped bounds and attempted to dictate policy on every aspect of content. The second instance addresses a typical situation where a B2B publisher insisted on the regular inclusion of “Meet Your Supplier” columns.

(1) Meddling with competitor’s copy. Sticky ethical situations are not always spawned by editor/advertiser clashes. There are cases where the editor-in-chief of the magazine must contend with an ethical adversary who is neither editor nor publisher/sales manager. The nemesis can be chair of an association’s editorial committee or the corporate point guard for a contracted magazine.

I remember one case where one of my clients landed a contract to publish a magazine for a major hi-tech manufacturer. We fought bitterly with the editorial liaison over just about everything. Our publisher backed his editorial team to the hilt. Result: We turned out some great issues, but eventually lost the contract because we were not “cooperative.” Sound familiar?

Anyway, my source for the current case described how a new editorial liaison began efforts to overrule the staff on basic editing technique and almost everything else. The low point occurred when the liaison insisted that copy be changed in an article focusing on a company that happened to be competitive with his employer.

The besieged editor fought the good fight – even referring to ASBPE guidelines in the process – to no avail.

The only lesson we may learn is that ethical guidelines should be in place that anticipate every situation. Even then, sometimes it seems that the best written guidelines get ignored, especially when times are tough. Often, says ethics committee member John Bethune, the problem “is not a gap in the guidelines, but the lack of interest in them by the person in control. The bigger question may be how to expand concern for ethics beyond editors.”

(2) Coping with “Supplier Spotlight” columns. Speaking of “when times are tough” brings us to the focus of our second case. Unfortunately, it’s a common practice at many B2B magazines, because of publisher insistence, that a regular Supplier Spotlight column appear. Typically a one-page event, the article becomes an exercise in puffery. In essence, it is of no value to either readers or advertisers.

In the case in point, my source advised that the publisher wanted the Spotlight report to be in the news section. The article layout, including a special heading, was designed to imply the information was sponsored. (Note: In this case, the heading simply should have carried the “advertisement” label, but sales types usually prefer euphemisms.) The wrinkle in this approach is that editors were required to write the copy.

The one thing in favor of this approach is that at least some effort was made to distinguish the article from regular editorial copy. What happens more often is that such articles are treated as regular editorial copy. Some top editors attempt to dump these assignments on staff. Other times, the publisher demands that a senior editor do the deed.

Unfortunately, because the article is clearly an advertising ploy, assigned editors don’t exert effort to make a decent story out of the assignment. But in my experience, if I tried hard, the meet-the-sponsor stuff turned out several cuts above the usual “puff” piece. It all depends on whether or not the editor has built a past relationship of his or her own with the supplier in question.

Establishing that relationship, perhaps, is a worthy discussion for a future blog. Meanwhile, I welcome your comments pertaining to the above two situations or any other ethics dilemmas. Write in confidence to ethics.chair@editsol.com or call me: (201) 569-7714.

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