One of our freelance writers got the following pitch from a PR outfit this week:
I would be asking you to include our clients in stories you're working on (assuming there's a natural fit) or pitch your editors on new stories that include discussion of our clients. We're not looking for you to promote or shill for anything. Just include discussion of our clients in a natural, organic way.
What we're paying varies wildly depending on quality of the secured hit. We've paid up to a dollar per word for great placement. What payment structure would you be comfortable with?
Yes, that appears to be an attempt to bribe a journalist to mention clients in stories he is doing for us and other media clients.
"I've seen some pretty incredible PR pitches — including offers to have the PR agency write the story and put the reporter's byline on it — but this is one of the most brazen I've seen," said Jim Romenesko, a noted media critic. "A publicist who suggests paying a major news outlet for slipping a client's name into copy has no idea how journalists do their jobs — or how ethical 99 percent of them are."
The outfit in question, Status Labs, appears to be a small shop operating out of Texas that, ironically, specializes in image/reputation management. Emails to them were unanswered and when contacted by phone, they hung up after the caller identified themselves as representing CNBC.
There's always been a tension between PR and journalism. And there have always been attempts by PR outfits to influence coverage. Usually it's on a professional level and kept within limits.
"This pitch would violate three, if not four, of the provisions in our code of ethics," said George Johnson, chairman of the ethics and professional standards committee of the Public Relations Society of America. "...In fact, this is probably the clearest case I've seen of someone in violation."
And, major media institutions have strict standards. Indeed, the freelancer in this case made us aware of the pitch (and his refusal of it) knowing that if CNBC got the faintest whiff that he was engaging in any hanky-panky in his work for us, well, he'd no longer be working for us.
Still, in this Internet age of citizen journalism, lines can get fuzzy. Take "mommy bloggers." Many that started out as independent voices transitioned into veritable spokeswomen for consumer-product companies.
The democracy and free-for-all of the Internet is all well and good, provided people keep in mind the more debatable practices going on in the background, like the pitch above. And maybe, for all the sticks and stones thrown at mainstream media, there is something to be said for its long tradition of keeping the journalism sacrosanct.
As the PR outfit above says on its Web site: "Reputations matter. Don't let a single event ruin the reputation you've taken years to build."
Update: After publication of this column Brad Burnett, director of operations for Status Labs, sent an email response to our request for comment.
"We have, in the past, hired bloggers to write about clients of ours in exchange for product (or a small stipend) with the expectation that there would be disclosure between the blogger and the blog editor. We do not, and have not, asked people to write about clients of ours in news outlets without disclosure."
--By CNBC's Allen Wastler