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Can A Writer Serve Two Masters?

By Jim Rhodes

Last week, I was invited to be a panelist at a joint meeting of Marine Marketers of America and Boating Writers International (BWI) at the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show. The question for debate was, “Can A Writer Serve Two Masters?” The subject is timely. Many freelancers are being driven to seek PR and advertising work to supplement the dwindling income from journalistic assignments. Here are excerpts from my comments:

There are actually two questions here. First, can a writer serve two masters as a journalist-for-hire and a PR writer? And second, how do you do it?

 


The answer to the first question, to my mind, is a guarded “Yes,” but the devil’s in the details.

A number of years ago, I was one of the Gang of Three (or maybe it was Four – it’s hard to remember these days – I’m finding that the gray cells seem to decay in direct proportion to the increase of hairs of the same color). Anyway, we formed a small committee to draft a set of ethical guidelines for BWI members.

The subject of writers crossing over between journalism and PR did not figure prominently in our deliberations. Back then, the major boating magazines had staff editors and staff writers, plus a chain of contributors who got regular substantial assignments from the publications – enough to make a decent living without having to supplement their income from PR work. So, while we didn’t address this issue specifically, we did include certain broad-brushed provisions concerning conflict of interest.

“Writers and editors should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, whenever possible. To that end, any potential conflict of interest, which might affect editorial content, must be disclosed prior to publication. Writers must notify editors, and the editor in turn must disclose this information to the readers. Editors and writers should not accept substantial gifts, services or merchandise from organizations or individuals that may be affected by editorial content.”

I would suggest that the last sentence could be construed to include accepting payments from PR clients for articles you are also selling to a publisher.

A lot has changed in our industry since then. Some boating magazines have disappeared entirely while others have converted into online journals. Editorial staffs have been savaged, and staff writers are – if not extinct – at least an endangered species. Freelancers are being squeezed by lower fees and late payments. I don’t need to tell you that it’s pretty damn hard to making a living as a boating writer these days. It’s only natural that you should look to PR work.

For this discussion, I will take the position that working as a PR writer and a journalist is not inherently unethical, but as I said, the devil’s in the details.

To be sure, some things are clear violations. On these we can probably agree. For instance, suppose I, as a PR guy, sell a story to a magazine that affects one of my clients and I don’t disclose that information to the editor. That’s double dipping, and it’s unethical.

That’s easy enough, but let’s consider a more complicated scenario. Let’s say you are listed as a “contributing editor” on the masthead of a boating magazine. You take a second job writing press materials, brochures and web copy for a manufacturer of VHF radios. The reason they hired you to do this job was because of your well-known expertise in the field. So far, you’re in the clear. You write the stuff, and they do whatever they want with it. But now suppose your editor assigns you to write a review of the latest VHF radios on the market. Now where is your loyalty? Your client certainly has the expectation that his product will get a favorable review, maybe even preferential treatment over the others. Your editor expects an objective and balanced article. Now you’re definitely skating onto thin ice. Now let’s say you’re invited to a press conference by one of your client’s competitors to unveil their brand-new VHF radio technology. When you see their new product you can see it’s clearly superior to your own client’s radios. Now what do you do?

I personally don’t see how you can escape from these sorts of ethical dilemmas when you try to serve both masters in a narrow vertical market like the boating industry.

The best you can do, I believe, is follow the “full disclosure” rule, and try your best to create a wall of separation between the two. It won’t be easy.

Let me just say that I wrestled with this early in my career. I was a young writer trying to produce income for a growing family. I took whatever writing jobs I could get. And at the same time I was growing my PR client base. I have to confess I was guilty of crossing over the line between the two more than once. Eventually my conscience kicked in, and I realized I couldn’t keep doing it. So I did the arithmetic, worked the sums, and realized that if I wanted a steady paycheck I’d better stick to the PR business.