In 2014, Inc.com created an “open contributor” network, in which a few hundred outside columnists (some paid, some unpaid) post their columns directly to our site. For the most part, this system has served us and our readers very well.
There are nonetheless some risks in the process. One I didn’t anticipate is that a crop of unscrupulous marketers has emerged who will pay our outside contributors several hundred dollars or more to mention and link to their clients.
On the one hand, paying for coverage is nothing new. A New York media veteran recently reminded me that in the 1970s and 1980s, public relations companies would show up in newsrooms or at press events and hand out $20 bills in return for write-ups of their clients. On the other hand, giving external contributors access to a media publishing platform can take the already-dubious PR practice to disturbing new levels. Indeed, the bolder outfits apparently use their access to publishing platforms to recruit clients, basically promising that they can get them mentioned on our site, Huffington Post, Forbes.com and others.
The pay-for-placement practice is a blatant violation of the code of ethics that we give our contributors when they come on board. It is also to my mind a clear violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s endorsement guides. Specifically, the FTC says that its deceptive advertising law applies “if an advertiser – or someone working for an advertiser – pays you or gives you something of value to mention a product.”
Technically, I suppose, someone paying an Inc.com contributor $500 to mention XYZ Widget Corporation is not an advertiser. The principle, however, is the same: A reader ought to be confident that any product or service he or she is reading about on Inc.com is completely independent of the publication and the contributor.
When I learned about these marketing pitches a few weeks ago, I filed a formal complaint with the FTC, providing the name and e-mail address of a marketer who’d approached some of our contributors. Given the shady nature of this practice, and the difficulty of proving that money has changed hands, I am not sure if the agency can really do much to stop it.
So we’ve done our best to take the matter into our own hands. We have strengthened our code of ethics, and asked each contributor to sign it; any contributor who won’t loses the privileges to publish on our site. I am confident that the overwhelming majority of our contributors will sign this without hesitation. We’ve also implemented other checking systems to help us weed out suspect columns.
New publishing technologies and new business models can bring many benefits, but they can also require new forms of vigilance. At Inc.com, we’re committed to taking the task on; the relationship we have with our readers and our legitimate advertisers is too important to risk.
Before joining Inc., James Ledbetter (@jledbetter) was the Opinion Editor of Reuters. He was the founding editor of Slate’s financial site The Big Money, deputy managing editor of CNN Money, and has published five books.