According to IPRA president Alasdair Sutherland, executive vice president of international strategic development at Manning Selvage & Lee, “This is a world issue, not just a Russian one. The credibility of any publication can only be based on its independent objectivity. As long as the practice of illicit paid-for editorial continues in any marketplace, the local public can never have confidence in what they read.”
The practice was illuminated after Russian public relations agency Promaco revealed that it had disseminated a phony press release announcing the opening of a non-existent store in the Moscow area. One Russian paper ran the release without checking the facts, and 16 publications—including some of the largest in the country—offered to run the story as a new item in exchange for payment.
Under Russian law, paid advertisements must be identified as such and separated from editorial content. Nevertheless, many reporters at the press conference attacked Pomarco for its actions and appeared unrepentant. Noviye Izvestia editor Igor Golembiovsky predicted that the stunt would mean the end of the firm’s business in Moscow. “No one is going to deal with them anymore.”
Golembiovsky insisted his paper had done nothing illegal because the transaction was on the books and the relevant taxes were paid. He dismissed the idea that the publication was guilty of misleading its readers. “Our reputation is not going to suffer a tiny bit," he told The Moscow Times.
There is apparently some ambivalence in the Russian PR community too. Andrei Terebenin, who heads Triangle Porter Novelli in Moscow, said that while the practice persists in some quarters, it is rare in the business press. He says that reputable PR firms do not engage in the practice, and that Triangle uses its refusal to pay for placement as “a reputation indicator.”
According to Alexei Sitnikov, president of Image-Contact public relations in Moscow and a senior IPRA member, more work needs to be done on public and media education. “It is important for westerners to understand that many people here do not yet grasp the concept of a free press, and believe that everything still has to be paid for. We must educate people that a free press means just that, that press information should, and must, be considered only on its merits.”
Sutherland says that IPRA’s code of professional conduct, first published in 1961, expressly forbids “corruption of the integrity of communications channels” and said the association would now bring pressure to bear to halt the practice. He said a committee would be established using the organization’s international website, www.ipranet.org, and that members in 80 countries would be asked to report on the extent of pay-for-placement in their markets.
“This initiative is long overdue,” says Sutherland. “IPRA has long been aware of this unethical practice in a number of marketplaces around the world, especially in some where the concept of a free press is comparatively new. It takes a bold step for an agency to expose corruption in a way that may risk temporary negative feedback, but in the long term we hope and believe that this action can only increase Promaco’s professional standing.”
Sutherland says the Russian Anti-Monopoly Committee has announced plans to stamp out the practice of zakazukha and will hold a round table discussion of the issue with the Moscow Journalists Union and other interested groups this week.