“Brown Envelope Tactic” or Best Practice in Public Relations Strategy?

by Elizabeth MacDonald

[This is the second article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of  their graduate programs.]

money changing handsIn some parts of the world, mostly developing parts of Africa and Asia, the ‘brown envelope system’ of journalism and public relations is not only alive and well, but common-place. The brown envelope system entails news sources, including some public relations practitioners, providing money or other incentives to journalists in return for favourable editorial news coverage.  It differs from advertorial in that it is positioned as reported news by a journalist and is an expected part of practice.

This practice most likely is considered unethical, perhaps illegal and unthinkable to most of us who live, and practice public relations, in western democracies in the 21st century.

However, if two Canadian taxpayer-funded government entities exchanged cash in a confidential agreement which resulted in positive and extensive editorial news coverage over a period of numerous months for one of the parties, would we would consider this an acceptable public relations strategy or bordering on something akin to brown envelope journalism?

This situation occurred recently in Canada and is now the subject of an ethical debate. The agreement involved CBC news coverage about Parks Canada’s search for the missing Franklin ships which were lost in an 1845 attempt to find the Northwest Passage.

In the fall of 2013 it was revealed that this positive editorial coverage was the result of a non-disclosed “administrative agreement” between the two federal government entities whereby Parks Canada paid $97,728.75 cash to the national public broadcaster including paying travel costs for national anchor Peter Mansbridge and a film crew to join the search team in the Arctic. It was also reported that this agreement was treated as confidential by both parties, an approach which violates both agencies’ ethical codes of conduct pertaining to transparency and disclosure and suggests a clandestine arrangement

Parks Canada paid cash to receive favourable and extensive editorial news coverage, reach millions off Canadians with its messages, and CBC delivered.  Was this simply brilliant public relations strategy, or did both parties cross ethical lines? In my view, it was unethical for both parties for the following reasons:

–          In Canada, we have an expectation that when public funds are spent, the government organizations spending those funds will be fully transparent and will disclose full details.  Ethically, and legally, Canadian government departments are bound by policies and laws to be transparent and to provide full disclosure to the Canadian taxpayer. The labeling of the transaction as “confidential” is a serious violation of ensuring taxpayers’ dollars are spent in a transparent manner.

–          CBC’s Conflict of Interest Policy states that “accepting free travel to help in newsgathering, creation of content or for research puts us in a conflict of interest”, however, CBC accepted travel compensation from Parks Canada.

–          Parks Canada gave CBC exclusive access to the research ship, to the search team and to the search site through this agreement. Government is not permitted to grant any journalist or media outlet exclusive access, and in this case, Parks Canada not only gave exclusivity, but paid the major media outlet to accept exclusivity.

–          Finally, there is the perception that this was unbiased editorial coverage that CBC covered for its genuine newsworthiness.  We have no idea whether CBC would have covered this story to the extent that they did if they had not been paid.  CBC defended the decision after the deal made news headlines (http://j-source.ca/article/cbc-denies-accepting-money-parks-canada-exchange-positive-stories), in an online blog post, however once cash has been exchanged and a deal classified as “confidential, her credibility in defending the deal is lost.  We all know that editorial coverage is more valuable, inch for inch than advertising, because of the assumed objectivity of the media. When any money changes hands, we need to question the objectivity of the media which compromises the credibility of not only the editorial coverage, but the two parties involved. This is why advertorial is obvious to the reader/viewer – if we pay, we must disclose. Canadians were led to believe that Parks Canada earned this editorial coverage when in fact they purchased it.

Any organization, especially government entities, may want to avoid duplicating this deal.  Although the goal was a basic and valid public relations strategy – to reach target audiences with messages in order to inform and persuade (that this is a venture worthy of their tax dollars and in the best interest of preserving Canadian history and identity), the non-disclosure moves this agreement into troublesome ethical waters.

Elizabeth MacDonald has 23 years of experience as a communicator and marketer for the federal government.  A 1990 Bachelor of Public Relations graduate from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, she is now completing the Master of Public Relations degree.

Sources:

Brown, J. (2013). What exactly did Parks Canada secretly pay the CBC $65,000 for? Maclean’s magazine. Retrieved from http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/09/23/what-exactly-did-parks-canada-secretly-pay-the-cbc-65000-for

McGuire, Jennifer (September 23, 2013).  CBC denies accepting money from Parks Canada in exchange for positive stories.  CBC Editor’s Blog.  Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/community/editorsblog/2013/09/the-facts-about-our-coverage-of-the-search-for-franklin.html

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2 thoughts on ““Brown Envelope Tactic” or Best Practice in Public Relations Strategy?”

  1. This is so interesting, Elizabeth. I’m not sure where I was to have missed this whole situation when it happened! I’m shocked that this deal actually went through. I’m sure there were many people involved on both sides of the agreement but no one spoke up loudly enough to question the ethical implications of this decision. When there is a money exchanged for editorial, is it still news? CBC’s argument is that the money was for a website and a charter plane but there was still an obvious money exchange. The root similarity with this situation and my blog post on The Atlantic’s advertorial is simple: the lack of disclosure.

  2. Interesting post Elizabeth
    I remember the coverage and thought at the time how fortunate CBC was to be in on this exciting story. I never really thought about whether other media outlets were given an opportunity to participate. I agree that there should have been more transparency, but I also trust that the side deal would not have influenced editorial content. Based on CBC’s response and the way they included the reference to editorial content in the contract, it seems like they thought about the ethical concerns that might arise from this partnership in advance and were satisfied their approach was ethical.

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