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The Jewish Ethicist - Public Service or Public Relations?

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Is a press release masquerading as a news article ethical?

Q. My public relations firm distributes "matte releases" -- press releases that are published like a regular news article. Is this ethical?

A. Let's explain this distinction a little further for readers. An ordinary press release is an information sheet issued by an organization with information they believe will be of interest to the media. The hope is that information from the release will stimulate a news article about the organization or its products and activities. A matte release goes further: information favorable to the issuer is presented in the style of a complete article in the hope that content-hungry publications will publish the entire release as is. A publication of the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines a matte release as "a free non-copyrighted preformatted news article made available to newspapers (typically second-tier papers) looking for stories." These special press releases may be sent out by commercial firms because the content favors their product or image; they are also a common tool of non-profit organizations which use them to get out their message. Many "public-service" articles are actually matte releases of public-service organizations. Another source is government agencies, like the CDC.

In some ways this sounds like an "advertorial". Sometimes a company will place an ad which is carefully designed to look like a news article. The unsuspecting reader thinks that the point of view is that of an objective reporter or editor, not knowing that the piece is actually advertising copy. In a previous article {LINK to #79 Hidden Agenda Oct. 6 2002}, we explained that an unmarked advertorial is forbidden. The reason is that an advertorial is advocacy, or salesmanship, camouflaged as objective editorial content.

Jewish law permits salesmanship. While salespeople must provide only accurate information and reveal any defects, they are allowed to make a one-side presentation which shows the customer the benefits of their product. The Talmud states that it is not unfair competition for a storekeeper to offer customers inducements to come specifically to his store, since competitors are welcome to do likewise. (1) By the same token, a storekeeper can point out the benefits of his own product, allowing competitors an equal opportunity to tout the benefits of their own wares.

But someone who claims to be giving advice must be completely objective and reveal any conflicts of interest. Such a person is not allowed to act like a salesperson. The Torah commands us, "Don't place an obstacle before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14); Rashi's commentary explains that we should not place an obstacle before someone who is blind to the best course of action, by giving self-serving advice. Since readers assume that a newspaper is neutral and does not advocate products for its own benefit, a hidden advertorial violates this mandate.

It also forbidden for the PR firm to simply rely on the editor to ensure that content meets editorial standards. If the material is likely to cause him to deviate from these standards, the PR professional is at fault. The Mishna tells us that someone who has a barrel of diluted wine may not sell it to a merchant even if the merchant is informed, because the merchant is so likely to sell it to his own customers without informing them. (2)

In the case of advertorials, the content is almost invariably "advocacy", and the judgment of the editor is very likely to be swayed by the fact that it is a paid advertisement. Matte releases are a slightly different story. They are not paid for, though they do save the editor money. And unlike advertorials, the issuer does not dictate the format of the article. Editors do not print every matte release, and they sometimes will print only part of one.

Thus, it is the issuer's job to ensure that the press release meets accepted editorial standards of newsworthiness, balance, and accuracy. Otherwise, he is in effect trying to dupe the editor into betraying his obligation to his readers – like the wholesaler selling diluted wine to a retailer. But if these standards are met, and the editor himself is informed that the item is a matte release, it is not unreasonable to rely on the judgment of the editor to apply these standards.

An ethical use of the matte release format would be to write up a genuinely newsworthy item in an impartial fashion, because the information provided will make readers aware of the benefit the issuer's product can provide. Example: a particular over-the-counter remedy doesn't induce drowsiness, but some competing products do. A matte release alerts readers to the dangers of driving while taking drowsiness-inducing medications, and mentions that alternatives are available. This in itself is a valuable public service. (The actual release in question also mentioned the name of the product. This is legitimate only if other remedies of comparable benefit are also mentioned.)

Editors should be clearly informed that they are under no pressure to use the release at all, or to use it in its entirety. This assertions needs to be backed up by a lack of sanctions. For example, publications shouldn't be blacklisted for advertising or for future matte release distributions because they edit them or don't run them enough.

Editors in turn need to be alert and responsible. Many matte releases, especially those from public agencies or public service groups, are unproblematic. However, there is no question that commercial matte releases often present problems. One website advises that firms shouldn't use matte releases if lawyers are in control of their public relations strategy, which I interpret as a hint that lawyers wouldn't sanction some of these releases. So editors must examine all matte releases critically and be fully convinced that they meet all editorial standards of their publications. Choices between releases of competing firms should be decided on editorial criteria, not commercial ones. And these safeguards shouldn't be left to chance; rather publications should adopt explicit policies regarding the placement of matte releases.

The matte release is a fundamentally legitimate public relations tool which however lends itself to easy abuse. PR firms and editors alike must exercise extra caution to make sure that these releases meet all relevant standards of quality, objectivity, and newsworthiness.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 60a. (2) Mishna BM 4:11.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.


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