Advertising vs. Public Relations.  Advertorial content vs. editorial coverage. Any second-year journalism, public relations, advertising, communications, or business major can tell you the difference.

Traditional social media and blogs have blurred this line a bit in the past decade with sponsored content showing up in places like BuzzFeed or mom bloggers being asked to review products sent to them for free.  We, in the public relations industry, have come to expect this and most outlets cite when content has been “paid for” or “sponsored by” a third-party company. This is similar to the long-standing practice of print advertorials in newspapers and magazines, or on a larger, more obvious scale, infomercials on TV.

For me, those opportunities feel lazy and uncreative as your sole source of public relations coverage. In the public relations world, it’s not simple or easy to gain coverage for clients. We work with the client to fully understand their offering. We develop a researched media list to target, which reporters have covered a topic recently and as it relates to the client offerings.

Imagine my surprise when a television station I’ve been working with for a decade proposed that I pay for a client interview on their morning show — not a commercial, not an infomercial, but a standard interview —that isn’t identified as paid content until a screenshot at the end of the segment. Like many news and lifestyle programs, this show occasionally has cooking segments for which I proposed a quick, healthy snack recipe segment provided by a popular local restaurant. I was told that I’d have to pay for such coverage.

When I probed about what would be free content and what would be charged content in the future, I was left unclear about where the line was drawn. For example: a doctor talking about a public health issue is paid content now? What about a CPA advising viewers about new tax filing information? Or an educator counseling parents about when open enrollment starts to make sure students are registered for classes?

The viewing public relies on news to provide unbiased advice and expertise. Now that these segments are ‘pay to play,’ the unbiased factor is seemingly nonexistent. Providing a public service is now secondary to making a profit.

This feels wrong, right? Unethical? Immoral? Possibly illegal by FCC standards? (I didn’t dig into the research on it, but perhaps I will).

What do you think? Have you experienced something similar? I’m curious if this is how local TV stations are going to make up for lost revenue or if my experience was just a one-off with a specific TV station. Let me know your thoughts.