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Managing risks, maintaining standards and ethics in sponsored content

The resounding consensus we heard from summit participants was that upholding the publisher’s own brand and integrity, and thereby its readers trust, is an important principle.

The best protection for a publisher is to encode a set of standards and processes for handling sponsored content, so each piece is not left to varying degrees of inspection or care.

These brands seeking sponsored content partners are coming to publishers not only for their audience size but for their trust and integrity, says Rebecca Davis of Ogilvy. The brands know deep down that publishers have to safeguard that trust in order for any of this to continue to make sense. Publishers can push back on brands when they feel they need to.

The risks of a misstep in this field are significant for any publisher.

Brand credibility is at stake, of course. But furthermore The Federal Trade Commission is watching closely to determine if it needs regulatory intervention. An FTC a workshop on Dec. 4 will examine sponsored content practices and encourage self-regulation within the publishing industry. And the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the consortium that sets standards for online ads, has a task force trying to set a framework for native advertising.

The best protection for a publisher is to encode a set of standards and processes for handling sponsored content, so each piece is not left to varying degrees of inspection or care.

The Atlantic established new standards and processes from lessons learned by running a much-criticized native ad from the Church of Scientology.

Kimberly Lau, vice president and general manager of The Atlantic Digital, notes that a large amount of time was spent thinking about proper labeling of the content and the transaction of that sale. What hadn’t been thought about enough was how that particular native ad would fit within the personality, brand and mission of the publication.

Now, every native advertising campaign has to be about thought leadership and has to fit comfortably within context of the Atlantic’s brand. The publication’s new advertising guidelines state that:

The Atlantic will refuse publication of such content that, in its own judgment, would undermine the intellectual integrity, authority, and character of our enterprise.

And:

The Atlantic may reject or remove any Sponsor Content at any time that contains false, deceptive, potentially misleading, or illegal content; is inconsistent with or may tend to bring disparagement, harm to reputation, or other damage to The Atlantic’s brand.

The American Society of Magazine Editors recently released new editorial guidelines that include rules for sponsored content, based in part on the Atlantic and the New Yorker as models. Its basic overall principles are:

  • Every reader is entitled to fair and accurate news and information
  • The value of magazines to advertisers depends on reader trust
  • The difference between editorial content and marketing messages must be transparent
  • Editorial integrity must not be compromised by advertiser influence

Regarding “marketer-provided content and native advertising” for digital media, the ASME guidelines say it “should be prominently labeled as advertising, and the source of such content and the affiliation of the authors should be clearly acknowledged.” It also recommend that “native advertising should include a prominent statement or ‘What’s This?’ rollover at the top of the advertising unit explaining that the content has been created by a marketer [or] that the marketer has paid for its publication.”

In addition to transparent labeling, content quality and standards are essential. Publishers should have policies that uphold the readers’ interests. Each publisher has to decide what level of brand influence and control it is comfortable with, and what type of content is is willing to publish.

Separating the sponsored content teams from the journalism teams is important. But it can be hard because a publisher’s resources may be limited. Also, some summit participants suggested that readers may not understand the difference anyway.

Lau said her rule of thumb is that the content should be so useful and accurate that the reader wouldn’t care whether it was sponsored or not. If the reader would be upset to learn after reading that this content was sponsored, then somewhere you’ve crossed a line.

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