Dear WordCount is a weekly advice column answering your questions about writing, blogging and running a freelance business. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear WordCount: I have an ethics question. A company wants to hire me to find markets and place articles that, of course, circle back to the need for their product. If I pitch a paying publication, can I get paid for an article I write about my client? I would think that I would need to tell the publication about the relationship. But is there anything I should do beyond that? — C.
This is an easy one: the short answer is no.
In the scenario you describe, the company hired you as a publicist. In that capacity, you’re pitching something to a publication with the hope that they will run the copy and the company will benefit from the exposure in some way.
This is a common practice at many trade magazine. They run articles, columns or blog posts written by a CPA, lawyer, financial adviser or company officials familiar with the field. Years ago when I was the editor at a home health care trade, we regularly ran columns by physical therapists, respiratory therapists and the like who could share information on trends, policies or procedures that readers could learn from. Some of these types of articles are ghostwritten by writers such as yourself.
But if you’re acting as a publicist for a company and pitching columns or other content from the company, you can’t turn around and accept payment from a publication for the same services. Besides double dipping – getting paid twice for the same work – it’s not ethical, especially if the writer doesn’t disclose his or her relationship with the company they’re querying a publication to write about. This is what the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics warns against when it cautions reporters to “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two,” as well as to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
There’s no hard and fast rule that says if you work both as a freelance publicist and freelance writer, you should not pitch stories about a company or companies that you’ve previously work for as a publicist. If you do, though, follow the SPJ code and disclose such a past relationship to any publication that you’re pitching. However, it might be best not to pitch stories on former clients at all, especially if you think those companies would want to hire you for any future public relations work.
I would go so far as to say if you’ve had prior dealings as a publicist with an editor or publication it would be tough to turn around and pitch them a story as a freelance writer. But I know writers have done it – in fact this Dear WordCount post covers that very question.
If you freelance as a publicist and writer, how do you separate the two? Share your experience by leaving a comment.