Edelman’s Steve Rebul on the need for sponsored content to be transparent

With elections in key states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi around the corner, India’s Election Commission has tightened its grip on undeclared paid news. First EC included social media within the ambit of paid news, and then went on to appoint professors of Journalism to monitor the news for paid for content.

According to popular media watchdog blog “sans serif”, leading Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar: “carries an emblem in Hindi alongside the masthead, in the space usually reserved for ear-panel advertisements, proclaiming “No Paid News”.” The blog goes on to say that: "Two years ago, the Bombay newspaper DNA, in which the Dainik Bhaskar group held a stake (which it later divested in favour of Subhash Chandra‘s Zee) too carried a similar logo." The blog adds that: “When The Hindu started printing an edition from Mohali in 2011, its then editor-in-chief N. Ram made a front-page declaration that it would not serve up news that somebody else has paid for.”

In this context it is worth taking a look at how PR firms are handling sponsored content in countries such as the US. In July this year, Edelman took out a report titled, “Sponsored Content: An Ethical Framework”, based on research with 30 U.S. media companies, by Steve Rubel, Edelman’s Chief Content Strategist. Apart from disclosure, Edelman delineates editorial-style sponsored content clearly from that which is earned by a successful pitch to a journalist or owned by a company to creating separate teams for sponsored content.

According to Richard Edelman, the Edelman guidelines: “Will separate our day-to-day earned media work from paid content deals. We are in the process of hiring media buyers who will manage the negotiations with the business side of the media. This is a true church-state division of responsibility. We will not have any quid pro quo discussions and will not tolerate pay-for-play in any market.”

Certainly there is much in the report that India can also look at, including declaring a clear policy of sponsored content. PRmoment India Editor, Paarul Chand, spoke to Steve Rubel, Edelman’s Chief Content Strategist to understand the challenges of sponsored content better, especially in the digital age.

Paarul Chand: Is the consumer today more accepting of sponsored content, given the rise of social media feeds where sponsored and self-generated content mix on the same feed?

Steve Rubel: Generally, they could be in certain channels but not in others. It all comes down to context. On social networks and mobile devices, because they are new, we don't have expectations yet for where advertising and organic content belong. Whereas in print we do since we've been interacting with it our entire lives. 

Paarul Chand: How does sponsored content benefit the reader?

Steve Rubel: By amplifying earned or owned content in a way that helps the reader see something they may have missed but hopefully wanted to see.

Paarul Chand: Will having separate teams affect the skill set of PR professionals who are expected to understand the whole range of content creation from pitching to sponsored deals?

Steve Rubel: No, it won't. All we are really separating here is the transaction. Those who still pitch stories will be coming up with ideas for sponsored content. They just won't be negotiating a buy with the same media brands they pitch stories to. 

Paarul Chand: How does one ensure quality control of paid content?

Steve Rubel: By thinking and acting like a journalist would. That's why we think PR is well suited to play a role here. 

Paarul Chand: How can PR agencies address the criticism that sponsored content can lead to content being decided by a few gatekeepers who can control access to information.

Steve Rubel: We've seen time and again that the Internet loves alternatives. It will never be controlled by a single entity. There will be lots of media businesses that don't have a model based sponsored content because they are able to monetize through other means like subscriptions.

Steve Rubel, Chief Content Strategist, Edelman