A judge in the US is presiding over a patent hearing, where database giant Oracle is claiming $1 billion from search giant Google for alleged infringement of its intellectual property in software programming language, Java. The judge has demanded that both defendant and plaintiff reveal the names of any reporters, bloggers or industry commentators they have a commercial relationship with.  Both companies have agreed to comply.

Should the line between ‘writer and ‘written about’ ever be blurred?

The judge fears that any biased analysis or commentary published by any of those third parties in the run up to the hearing may have been trying to influence the legal outcome.  The event has re-ignited the debate in communications circles over ‘earned’ versus ‘paid for’ media and whether the lines between ‘the writer’ and ‘the written about’ should ever be blurred.  This is not a new debate.

During the economic slowdown of the early to mid 1990s, trade press advertising went on a go slow.  With revenue in reverse, a number of trade publications introduced something called ‘colour separation charges’.  It wasn’t ‘paid for’ editorial, the publishers assured us, but we had to appreciate that the printer wanted payment.  If the advertising department wasn’t able to oblige, the comms department had a budget, didn’t it?

With some publications the press release would not have been used if the agency or client refused to pay up.  Furthermore, if the press release (printed on A4 and sent in an envelop) wasn’t accompanied by a glossy 7” by 5” colour photograph, the news might be deemed unworthy of editorial attention.

Colour separation charging eventually gave way to advertorials and sponsored supplements.  At the end of the day, newspapers and magazines are businesses chasing profits as well as exclusives.

There is also a number of freelance journalists who will happily accept paid for writing assignments from companies and PR agencies.  A small minority of freelancers have, have the years, agreed to interview executives for stories they’ve been commissioned to write, but only if the interview takes place in an expensive restaurant.  The bill, the understanding went, would be settled by someone other than the freelance.

I don’t support this minority behaviour but it happens.  Social media isn’t immune either.  Today, a number of global brands – including Audi, American Express, and Samsung ‘reward’ influential bloggers with various items from high end sports cars to ‘test drive for a week’ to VIP tickets to glamorous awards ceremonies and free flights. These businesses use companies like Klout to identify the most influential bloggers and to manage the logistics of discharging the ‘rewards’.  Mark Schaefer covers this is detail in his recent book, Return on Influence.

But while social media may not be exempt, it may also, ultimately, eliminate the practice of paid for coverage.

Increasingly, brands are becoming less dependant on newspapers, magazines and bloggers to reach their customers, investors and other stakeholders.  Social platforms enable direct communication and engagement with the people that are important to a brand.

In many ways, social media delivers the perfect, unedited message a business wants to get across.  Of course any business that thinks that implementing a social media is free is destined to fail.