Op-Ed: Email string reveals PR challenges and need for branded content

Posted May 7, 2011 by Michael Krebs
An email exchange between a vice president at public relations concern Burson-Marsteller and an activist blogger revealed the underpinnings of the modern challenges facing corporate communications professionals and the need for branded content solutions.
The olden days of typing
The mechanical office typewriter, like this Underwood upright, was a mainstay in newsrooms until the 1970s.
Photo by Radiospike Photography
On its surface, an email string between John Mercurio, vice president at the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, and Christopher Soghoian, an activist blogger who has focused on privacy and cyber-security concerns, seems like a questionable corporate communications practice. However routine it may be to persuade an influential figure to write an op-ed piece on a specific topic for an undisclosed client is one matter, but the larger issue presented in this email exchange is the challenge that corporate communications professionals face in gaining meaningful visibility among thought-leaders and adjacent to valuable editorial environments.
Mr. Mercurio, a former political editor with the National Journal, likely knows how fragmented the media landscape has become and how overwhelmed and under-enthused the journalists assigned to covering a specific sector or focus have also become. This combination of broad diversity in media outlets, with news organizations competing for scoops and for awards in a bustling and hectic era of 24/7 news, and editorial bureaus tasked with producing more material across multiple mediums and with considerably less budget is putting notable pressure on corporate communications professionals to find other alternatives.
Mercurio's op-ed approach is not unique. However, it reflects a lack of modernity that is unfortunate and that is widely present across the stale methodologies of corporate communications, which encompass public affairs, marketing communications, and government affairs.
The challenge that Mr. Mercurio faced was in getting a credible third-party source to produce content around a specific issue. In this case, Mercurio needed content objecting to Google's privacy practices, and he needed that content to reside in a trusted media environment.
An op-ed seemed like an intelligent compromise with regard to acquiring a third-party source and to having that content placed in the right environment. However, the fact that the email string is now public information demonstrates how unreliable third-party sources can be, and how they can often blow up in your face.
A more modern and manageable alternative for Mr. Mercurio would have been to deploy some form of branded content, as the material produced would have been fully vetted and would have been an equally cerebral counter-argument to Google's actions.
Branded content, also referred to as custom publishing or custom content, has been utilized in traditional media for years, and it is now becoming embraced on digital platforms and within conference divisions. Yet, its implementation has largely been seen as an advertising function, and as such its funding has been contained within advertising budget line items. This is a structural challenge that public relations firms like Burson-Marsteller still need to tackle with their respective clients, many of whom still believe that their budgets for corporate blogs can best be served by skipping trusted media environments altogether and that earned media means free media.
This old-school equation that earned media equals free media is the source of the problem, and its correction will take some persuasion.
And maybe that persuasion could be relegated to an op-ed.