The Celebrity Plug Goes the Way of the Dodo

Could the celebrity plug — that beloved loathed centerpiece of many celebrity PR campaigns — be going the way of the Dodo? If the UK’s Guardian newspaper is any indication, it may be. And this could have profound effects on public relations.

To get the background on this movement, you have to go back to a somewhat obscure point in The Guardian’s updated editorial code. According to PRWeek, the revised code includes a new clause addressing the inclusion of promotional material in editorial. By its updated code, The Guardian — one of the world’s most influential newspapers — no longer allows its reporters to “promote products” in order to secure interviews with a PR pro’s client.

PRWeek documents a somewhat mixed reaction to this news among PR pros. Much like the Hollywood PR scene and portions of Manhattan’s publicity culture, Britain’s media is fueled by the back-scratching culture where reporters are granted access to celebrities and high-profile public figures in exchange for plugging their latest book, movie or perfume. Indicative of this culture is a quote from one agency boss who told PRWeek that, “If you didn’t deliver that footnote or plug, it would be considered by a client as a failure.”

Thankfully, others aren’t so cavalier.

Many PR pros see the value this new editorial code, and others like it in journalism, will bring, both to good journalism and ethical PR. Eulogy CEO Adrian Brady told PRWeek that he is pleased with the news, noting that the concept of the media being granted access to celebrities just for endorsement plugs “makes for lazy PR, lazy journalism and a boring read for the consumer.”

I echo Brady’s sentiment.  The quid pro quo aspect of celebrity PR, in which “no plug, no interview” has dominated for years — both in the U.S. and the U.K. — has led to boring copy, lazy PR and the proliferation of sameness among some media outlets. For the media to truly differentiate itself in the digital age, and to add real value to readers’ time and money spent on the product, they must find better ways to produce insightful and interesting reports that don’t rely on outdated practices. In that regard, The Guardian appears to be leading the pact.

Despite a cottage industry in celebrity publicity, the fact remains that getting a “plug” for a client isn’t the province of modern public relations. It harkens back to the days of Sidney Falco in “Sweet Smell of Success,” but is an outdated method of building a brand. And one that, if The Guardian’s effort is any guide, is quickly being fettered out by the media and consumers.

From a PR perspective, this announcement continues to push us to modernize ethical standards and best practices. In an era where clients are demanding more proof of our value and clearer metrics, showing a plug for a product in an interview isn’t exactly the best indicator of public relations’ true business value.

Our value as public relations professionals is and should always be more than helping to plug a client’s products or services. Modern public relations has evolved far beyond publicity. It is now a multifaceted management function. With that comes greater responsibility and external expectations to deliver value that isn’t rooted in outdated tactics.

Celebrity plugs have their time and place. But in an increasingly cynical media environment, where the public is more knowledgeable about how we do our work, and who we seek to influence, we should keep in mind that our actions are intensely transparent. What we do, and how we accomplish it, will eventually come to light. Embracing this reality is helping to put PR on a strong path for future success.

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  • http://twitter.com/John_Trader1 John Trader

    Great post Keith.  It’s been interesting over the last few years to watch the paradigm shift of PR from a rather opaque entity to a more lucid, transparent medium but there is still work to be done.  I applaud this move by The Guardian as it brings all of us PR Pros a step closer to establishing a reputation for value added work instead of “lazy PR” as was pointed out.  Anything we can do to advance the cause for ethics in our profession is a good thing.  Wonder how soon 

  • http://twitter.com/John_Trader1 John Trader

    Great post Keith and a bold move by The Guardian.  It’s been interesting to watch the paradigm shift of PR over the past few years from a rather opaque entity to a more transparent medium.  Seems like anything that can be done to dispel “lazy PR” as was pointed out will help to strengthen ethical standards and propel our field into a more favorable light.  It’s going to take a lot of work and a much more concerted and industry wide effort for us to get there though.  Wonder how soon (if any) other publications will follow suit with this?  The Guardian can definitely be seen as a trail blazer on this.

  • Latoya English24

    Thanks Keith, this is really good to know since my freelance work is mostly entertainment PR. Great post!

  • Harrison636

    I like that The Gaurdian has mandated that rule about celebrity endorsement in the paper but from a perspective of a younger generation like myself, I have to stay that I really enjoy seeing celebrity endorsement in my reading material. It’s hard to admit but as a young 20-something young Hollywood is very influenctial on the way I dress, the movies I see, the television I watch and the products I buy. And I do very much agree that there IS a time and place for celebrities to put thier two cents in but I have to say that if there’s a product or service out there that wants to be heard and seen that attaching some type of stardom on it is key to boosting awareness and sales. Just ask Kim Kardashian.

  • KristinM

     I’m glad to see that The Guardian has implemented this new rule.  As Keith said, the current standard of quid pro quo has led to boring, repetitive stories in the media.  As a 27-year-old consumer, I actually find that these practices have hurt more than they have helped, at least in my consumption habits.  I’m much less likely to either purchase magazines, watch certain programs or read online or print material when I know that pretty much the same story about the same celebrity and the same celebrity’s products are going to be the focus.  I hope that The Guardian’s rule catches on with other media outlets, so that consumers are provided with more interesting, unique news stories.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com/ Keith Trivitt

     Thanks for your input, Kristin. The thing I typically find with many publication is that, as a PR pro, I can quickly tell which stories were written because a PR pro pitched that story (or at least pitched their celebrity/CEO/source) and which were well-sourced, originally-reported stories. That doesn’t mean I think the PR-pitched stories have any less value, but for many publications (and The New York Times’ BusinessDay section may be the worst offender of this), some stories clearly read as though a PR pro pitched them and made sure their clients’ products were plugged a few times.

    As a general news reader, that’s really a disservice to us because the reporter and publication are basically saying that their reader is not smart enough to realize some type of quid pro quo arrangement is going on. But I think most readers are intelligent enough to realize when this is taking place.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com/ Keith Trivitt

    My guess is that few, if any, publications will follow suit with The Guardian’s effort. I say this because many American publications seem to have this air about them that they are totally above board when it comes to practices like this. Now, reality is far different, IMO. As a PR pro,  I find it pretty easy to tell when a story or product/service has been plugged by a PR pro into a story. Consumers are going to catch onto this (if they have not already), especially as our society becomes more transparent and media savvy.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com/ Keith Trivitt

    My guess is that few, if any, publications will follow suit with The Guardian’s effort. I say this because many American publications seem to have this air about them that they are totally above board when it comes to practices like this. Now, reality is far different, IMO. As a PR pro,  I find it pretty easy to tell when a story or product/service has been plugged by a PR pro into a story. Consumers are going to catch onto this (if they have not already), especially as our society becomes more transparent and media savvy.

  • Heather Caldwell

    I think that the Guardian is making a bold move by implementing an actual code to not allow reporters to do product plug stories to secure interviews.  While I think this is a great idea, I do agree that most people can see the difference between a product placement interview and  a true, original story.  Do you think that Guardian reporters may miss out on getting a great interview or story if they aren’t allowed to do a product promotion article in order to gain access to a celebrity or high profile interview?

  • josh

    celebrityplug.com