Ethics @ Work: Public service or public relations?

'Matte releases' occupy an in-between ethical limbo.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
A basic distinction in business ethics is advocacy vs. advice. Salespeople are expected and allowed to be advocates for their products, making a truthful presentation of the desirable features of their products to prospective buyers. Sellers don't have to be objective; it is the responsibility of the buyer to obtain information about competing products and any possible disadvantages of the seller's wares. However, the seller must disclose any outright defects. An advisor, on the other hand, is expected to be disinterested and give balanced and impartial advice on all competing products in order to advance the interest of the client. While both roles are legitimate, problems arise when the boundaries are blurred. Here is a classic case from the Israeli experience: Many banks here used to have "investment advisors" in-house. The problem was that these so-called advisors were actually salespeople who got commissions from selling the products of their own banks. This obviously made it impossible for them to act as impartial advisors as their title implied. This practice was ultimately outlawed and - hopefully - eliminated. Another example is the advertorial. Sometimes a company will place an ad which is carefully designed to look like a news article. The unsuspecting reader thinks that the point of view is that of an objective reporter or editor, not knowing that the piece is actually advertising copy. Again, reputable newspapers never print advertorials unless there is a clear indication that they constitute paid advertisements. A fascinating borderline case is what is known as a "matte release". This is a press release which is written like a complete news story. A publication of the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines a matte release as "a free non-copyrighted preformatted news article made available to newspapers (typically second-tier papers) looking for stories." The hope is that smaller newspapers, hungry for content and short on budgets, will print the item in its entirety as a regular news item. These special press releases may be sent out by commercial firms because the content favors their product or image; they are also a common tool of nonprofit organizations which use them to get out their message. Many "public-service" articles are actually matte releases of public-service organizations. Another source is government agencies, like the CDC. At first, a matte release sounds exactly like an advertorial, which would obligate editors to label them. But there are some significant ethical differences. For one thing, the editor is the ultimate judge of the suitability of the item. This doesn't get the issuer completely off the hook, because some editors will always be careless. The organization must do its best to make a fair presentation of the facts and not take advantage of editors who are asleep at the wheel. It is certainly unethical to try and foist advertising copy on editors in the guise of news. But in the case of the matte release, the editor's judgment will not automatically be colored. It's true that running a matte release saves the paper time and money, but unlike the case with advertorials, the paper is not being paid - read "bribed" - to include them. Another difference is that the issuer does not actually dictate the content. In my opinion, it would be unethical to send out a "take it or leave it" matte release, allowing the editor to use the content only in its entirety. But in fact, issuers generally allow editors to use all or part of the release, and some editors do make selective use of the content. An ethical use of the matte release format would be to write up a genuinely newsworthy item in an impartial fashion, because the information provided will make readers aware of the benefit the issuer's product can provide, for example: a particular over-the-counter remedy doesn't induce drowsiness, but some competing products do. A matte release alerts readers to the dangers of driving while taking drowsiness-inducing medications, and mentions that alternatives are available. This in itself is a valuable public service. (The actual release in question also mentioned the name of the product. This is legitimate only if other remedies of comparable benefit are also mentioned.) Editors should be clearly informed that they are under no pressure to use the release at all, or to use it in its entirety. This assertion needs to be backed up by a lack of sanctions. For example, publications shouldn't be blacklisted for advertising or for future matte release distributions because they edit them or don't run them enough. Editors in turn need to be alert and responsible. Many matte releases, especially those from public agencies or public service groups, are unproblematic. However, there is no question that some present problems. One Web site advises that firms shouldn't use matte releases if lawyers are in control of their public relations strategy, which I interpret as a hint that lawyers wouldn't allow some of these releases to be issued. So editors must examine all matte releases critically and be fully convinced that they meet all editorial standards of their publications. Choices between releases of competing firms should be decided on editorial criteria, not commercial ones. The matte release is a fundamentally legitimate public relations tool which, however, lends itself to easy abuse. Editors must exercise extra caution to make sure that these releases meet all relevant standards of quality, objectivity, and newsworthiness; issuing firms must do their best to create releases which meet these standards, and not try to sneak advocacy content past careless or overworked editors. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.