Various B2B business news outlets in the UK are regularly asking PRs for payment in exchange for news coverage in an apparent breach of Advertising Standards Authority rules.
Press Gazette has seen evidence confirming 14 different B2B titles had asked for payments before publishing press releases.
Sometimes the cost would be described as “admin” or “printing” fees, but usually they were described as payments to “ensure” that content would be covered by the different outlets.
In nine cases the outlets in question confirmed that the paid-for content would be labelled as news. One staffer at Business and Industry Today said in an email “if you wanted a title above stating advertorial or sponsored editorial, that’s now a problem”.
Press Gazette investigated the issue after being contacted by one PR who said they were regularly being asked to pay to have press releases placed at certain outlets.
After a call for evidence on social media, Press Gazette spoke to six PR professionals who said they had first-hand experience of being asked to pay for editorial mentions. Several shared screenshots of exchanges with B2B publishers.
One told Press Gazette that charging for coverage of press releases had been “quite general practice for about the last ten years” but that many more new publications came into existence during Covid “all seemingly wanting payment”.
Some 14 publications were identified as requesting payment for publication of press releases. Ten were owned by two companies: Fresh Media UK and Jet Digital Media.
Rates charged by titles for publishing press releases as news range from £65+ VAT to £299+VAT.
At two Jet Digital Media titles, Engineering Update and Automation Update, a PR was offered “unlimited editorial uploads” on their site for a fee of £229+VAT.
Fresh Media UK describes itself as “a service company providing writing, design, production and accounting facilities for a number of business to business newspapers and leisure publications”. It says it has “a team of highly skilled and fully qualified, to degree level, journalists boasting many years of expertise in the industry”.
Its titles include: Sustainability Today, Food and Drink Matters, Building and Facilities News, Business and Industry Today and Best Practice UK.
Press Gazette has seen multiple instances, shared with us by PRs, of Fresh Media outlets sending out almost identical responses to press releases all asking for £110+ VAT for inclusion.
A spokesperson for the company told Press Gazette their titles were “advertorial-lead” and they were not aware of staff insisting that labeling content as advertisements would be a “problem”.
Since being contacted by Press Gazette, Fresh Media UK has added a new note on its sites saying “the entire content of this website is advertorial based”.
Often, looking at the sites in question, the content is directly copied and pasted from the press release itself despite being labelled under categories like “news”.
At the time of first investigating, none of the sites in question contained any clear indication that they produced what seems to be largely paid-for content.
What does the law say?
There are two types of rules governing advertising in the UK. There are self-regulatory CAP codes, enforced by the ASA essentially as its rulebook for non-broadcast advertising, that dictate that advertising must be clearly labelled as paid for and must not be misleading to readers.
There are also statutory, legal rules: The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 Act and The Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 Act.
The former governs rules for adverts misleading consumers, while the latter covers issues between two different businesses and has stricter rules governing what is classified as a breach.
While the ASA is not able to institute any fines for breaches of CAP codes, it can ensure that advertisers do not work with those breaching the codes.
Uncooperative parties can also be referred to Trading Standards, the local authority bodies that enforce consumer protection legislation, which have the ability to bring legal action against those breaching rules, risking fines for the worst offenders.
The Advertising Standards Authority says that any press releases that aren’t used in the expected way (i.e. directly published by the companies themselves or voluntarily covered by news titles) would risk breaching its code.
A spokesperson told Press Gazette that any paid-for content must be “obviously identifiable” as an advert and the rules weren’t limited to just general news sites or blogs.
Nick Johnson, an advertising and marketing law specialist at law firm Osborne Clarke, looked at the examples of several articles posted on a website run by Fresh Media UK as well as several of the other cases investigated by Press Gazette.
He said that the cases seemed to be breaches of advertising law as a large amount of content did not seem to be clearly labelled as paid for – often appearing in the news section of the site and attributed to the outlet’s newsroom.
He added that he had rarely seen breaches of this calibre, and suggested one reason B2B sites like this seemed to have avoided ASA investigations was because they catered to a much smaller audience than mainstream news and influencers.
He went on to add that labelling oneself as “advertorial lead [sic]” rather than a news site would not substantively change the legal requirements for any titles that seem on other levels to be news titles.
Stuart Helmer, the UK head of advertising and marketing law for law firm CMS, said the cases highlighted appeared to be clear breaches of ASA regulations.
CAP codes stipulate that advertising must be “obviously identifiable”, though Helmer added that the companies paying to feature would likely be held accountable rather than the publishers who were demanding payments to feature content.
Helmer noted that in 2021, the ASA had 20,456 adverts amended or withdrawn most commonly due to “misleading advertising” and that even that figure was just the “tip of the iceberg” as the vast majority of these kinds of breaches go unreported.
What did the companies say?
Press Gazette asked every publisher cited in this article to respond to the suggestion they were in breach of ASA guidelines and two parliamentary acts governing unfair business practices.
Most did not respond to our requests for comment, despite repeated attempts to make contact. Jet Media and Fresh Digital Media both did issue responses.
Jodie Little, publishing director at Jet Digital Media, said: “Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. While this was an action undertaken by a member of the team, this staff member is no longer with the company. It is never our intention as a business to be in breach of the CAP code and all members of staff have been reminded that conduct of this manner is strictly prohibited.”
Tony Jacques, a director of Fresh Media, told Press Gazette that they “genuinely were not aware that it was a legal requirement to highlight that it was paid for and therefore advertorial”.
He added: “We will with immediate effect be reviewing our practices, re-training and making the necessary changes in order to address these issues. We would like to apologise to anyone for whom this misunderstanding has affected.”
Andre Laurent, another director at Fresh Media UK, told Press Gazette: “Our titles are advertorial lead titles, which, following your email and phone call alerting us of a potential breach of advertising standards, has now been made clear on both our print edition and websites to avoid any further misunderstanding.
“We do ask companies to pay for PR to guarantee inclusion but I would like to clarify that it is NOT company policy to as you claim, ‘insist that the stories themselves would not be labelled as paid-for content, but as run-of-the-mill news stories’ if you have any evidence to the contrary I would appreciate the sight of this, should I need to investigate this matter internally.”
No other companies responded to our request for comment.
Do you know of any publishers who charge to publish press releases as news? Please email email@example.com with your examples.
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Picture: REUTERS/Phil Noble