Though marketing, advertising, and public relations all play in the same “sandbox,” traditionalists in the world of PR will tell you that the industry doesn’t have much to do with paid placements or marketing pieces. And for the most part, they’re still correct – public relations by definition is about earned media and public perception crafted through “free” coverage. However, thanks to social media and the rise of content marketing, the lines are blurring. With the latest controversial push for native advertising, the lines are closer to disappearing completely.

What is native advertising?

Similar to the term content marketing, the definition of native advertising involves some gray area. Essentially, native advertising is a piece the mimics the form and function of the platform it appears in, such as an article in a magazine or a sponsored post within a user’s Facebook timeline. PR has utilized the “contributed article” in thought leadership programs for some time; the concept is similar, but differs in that native advertising is a paid placement.

Why is it controversial?

Forbes advertising

Check out the small black box – that’s native advertising at work.

Though nine out of 10 PR agencies in the UK believe they are best suited to control their clients’ native advertising pieces, the tool isn’t what PR typically looks like. With a contributed article, the idea is pitched, and editors typically only accept pieces that aren’t blatant sales pushes and add value for their readers. Getting articles placed is often easier when relationships with journalists have been built, and the client has a good public perception.

While most outlets offering native advertising aren’t going to just publish any old thing, it takes away a certain layer of trust for readers. Contributed articles must show value and actually come from a thought leader; native advertising articles can be placed for a certain price. In addition, the FTC set strict guidelines for native advertising and how it must be labeled recently, and most publishers aren’t following the rules. Whether it’s the intention or not, readers discovering an article was a paid placement when the publication wasn’t upfront about it can lead to a feeling of being duped.

In addition, many journalists and editors aren’t a fan. Forbes recently placed one of their native advertising pieces on the front cover, leading to questions about their ethics and integrity.

Should PR play a role?

While native advertising isn’t a typical PR tactic, there are arguments that it should become one. Though the content is paid, PR pros can still control the content and direction for clients. It’s easy enough to just write an article about how your client’s product is the greatest thing since sliced bread and pay to place it as a native ad, but does this really sound like something your target audience would like and get value from?

Pieces should still follow standard contributed article guidelines – no sales push, avoid holding up your product as the be-all, end-all, and think about your audience first. When paying for native advertising, get a clear answer on how it will be labeled. Though it might seem better to hope the publication is sliding under the FTC guidelines, transparency is always good. Articles should be labeled as a native ad, “sponsored content,” or “paid placement.” Honesty is appreciated by your audience.

And don’t discount traditional contributed pieces. There’s still room for these, and there are still editors who prefer this content over native advertising.