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Media mistakes 4: house style and advertorials

I edit a couple of publications, one regularly (Professional Outsourcing Magazine) and I’m one of a group of people editing supplements for the New Statesman. Sometimes we have external contributions from people, occasionally in the form of “advertorials” in the New Statesman (although we don’t carry those in Professional Outsourcing).

I enjoy both positions and have edited sponsored supplements for other publications, too. If I could change one thing about corporate contributors to either of them then it would be the view that says we will adopt the writer’s house style every time. We won’t.

Here’s an example. Someone was writing a piece for the one of my magazines a while ago and said they wanted their picture to appear by it. Now, unless you’re a regular staffer on the New Statesman (in which case you might well have a picture byline in the main magazine), that’s just not something the magazine does.

The writer’s logic was that he/she was paying to take part in an advertorial and should therefore be able to dictate terms. This isn’t actually how it works. If you’re writing for an established publication it will have its own style, and will adjust your copy to accommodate it. This might be as simple as changing every reference to the number “2” to “two”, or putting job titles in lower case (I’ve actually had complaints from people for not putting their job in capitals before now). But the house style is going to stay – it’s got our brand on it, and the Guardian, Times, Professional Outsourcing or whoever you’re writing for will want to stay consistent.

Publishing rules count

The other matter on which we’ll be very strict is libel. Even if you’re taking part in an advertorial, we won’t let you slate your competition or – as one company once tried to do in a magazine I won’t name – accuse a government of intimidation without rock solid evidence.

We’ll have been trained in the laws of libel and will know what you can and can’t say. Unless there is proof, the fact that something is true may not be an actual defence in court because the perpetrator will be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. And saying – as happened with one client – “We’re paying X amount so you’ve got to publish what we say” – isn’t going to cut it. We’d rather send the money back than compromise our publication.

None of this means you won’t get to state your case. You’ll simply be bound by the same ethics and legislation that controls the rest of the journalistic world. Generally these are there for a very good reason, such as protecting the genuinely innocent.

So if you’re going to get involved in advertorials here are some general guidelines:

  • It’s not an advert so you can’t just put in any old thing. Excessive mention of your brand, for example, will be frowned upon.
  • The magazine, newspaper or website may want to put its own house style into your item. This is a good thing as it will make the whole enterprise seem more professional and your article is more likely to be taken seriously.
  • Try to make a point and offer thought leadership rather than “we’ve got this new product or service”. You want people to read this rather than write it off as an advert.
  • Try to understand that the editorial team doesn’t always welcome the imposition of advertorial articles from the commercial side. It’s one of those professional tensions that exists in publishing – accept it, respect that the journalists to whom you speak might not have read every word of every advertorial and you should get on just fine…

Do you need help writing for or talking to the press? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

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