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Brown-envelope journalism and the practice of paying for column inches

I’ve just set my alarm for the third and final US presidential debate. I can’t wait.

Being based in the UK, this does mean waking up at 2am and losing an hour and a half of sleep on a school night but having gone through this process for the first two debates, I know it’s worth it. It’s easily some of the best television I’ve ever watched.

By the time this blog is published, the debate will have come and gone. The second debate took place just two days after the infamous Access Hollywood video was leaked, which unless you’ve been living in a locker for the last two weeks (sorry Trumpy – couldn’t resist!), you’ll know involves the Republican candidate bragging about kissing and groping women without their permission. Since then, a handful of women have come forward claiming that Trump touched them inappropriately in the past. Two of these women were interviewed by the New York Times and later that day, Trump’s lawyers sent this letter to the publication’s editor claiming the article was “reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel per se” and demanding a retraction.

The New York Times’ response to this has since gone viral and it’s safe to say the article will never be removed from the publication’s website, but the squabble did get me thinking about countries where Trump’s lawyers may have had better luck. The World Press Freedom Index - a ranking of 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists - has been on a rapid decline since 2013 as a result of tightening government controls on state-owned media. Given that it’s known for its liberalism, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Scandinavian countries hold three of the top five positions, while places at the bottom of the Index are held by the likes of China, Eritrea and North Korea. The UK ranks 38th in case you’re wondering.

Over the course of my career so far, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a number of different countries and work with on-the-ground teams, sharing best practice and learning about different media landscapes. Nigeria (ranked 116th) is one of the places I’ve visited that I wanted to discuss in this blog as it was there where I first encountered a practice known as “brown envelope journalism”. Nigerian journalists are typically very poorly paid and many are forced to wait months before they get their salary. Last year, the Nigerian Union of Journalists picketed the premises of This Day – one of the country’s most well-read daily newspapers - protesting the non-payment of nine months’ worth of salaries to its employees.

As a result of ongoing struggles to pay members of staff, there are some papers that run on quid pro quo arrangements whereby powerful companies and individuals pay for advertising in exchange for favourable editorial. In some cases, journalists are encouraged to make up for the shortfall in their income by directly asking for payment from individuals or organisations in exchange for publishing their stories. The wads of cash are usually distributed to the media at the end of press conferences, interviews and corporate events, sealed in brown envelopes.

The concept is something I’d never come across before, not least because my PR career up until that point had generally involved dealings with UK journalists and as a member of the CIPR, I am bound by its Code of Conduct. This clearly states that I must “maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour and integrity”, “deal honestly and fairly in business”, and “raise and maintain professional standards”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure most people have at one point or another in their career, wished they could have paid their way out of a pickle(!), but ultimately part of what makes our job so interesting is having to strategise and devise the perfect pitch that will hopefully lead to the perfect headline. Being able to pay for it is not only unethical, but it also takes the fun out of it. The problem is that these practices have been going on for so long that many newcomers have no idea that it’s unethical, it’s just the done thing.

So where do we go from here? As PR practitioners, I think it’s our responsibility, even when doing work overseas, to help stamp out these practices. This could be through working with editorial teams to define best practice in regards to employee remuneration; establishing editorial committees; writing editorial policies; managing expectations with clients to avoid setting a precedent; and working with media bodies such as the International Press Centre, the Ethical Journalism Network, and Journalists for Transparency to do all of the above.

By Valentina Kristensen, MCIPR

Head of PR and Marketing at OakNorth Bank.


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