Crack the code: B2B media ethics

Background photo: Mark Turner via / CC BY-NC-SA
Background photo: Mark Turner via / CC BY-NC-SA

By Joelle Harms, Senior Digital Media Content Producer

In the world of business-to-business (B2B) media, ethics are a bit complicated.

As an American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) 2016 Young Leader Scholarship recipient, I made the trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, for the association’s national conference.

“B2B ethics vs. revenue smackdown,” a presentation by Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at The Poynter Institute, stressed that having a code of ethics is vital to your B2B publication. Yes, many challenges will present themselves when trying to create a code, but don’t let that shy your company away from creating one.

“Ethics is a process,” McBride repeated throughout the presentation. “Spend a lot of time getting the process down, and solving each individual issue will come easier.”

B2B vs. MSM

B2B differs from mainstream media (MSM). B2B publications may have fewer resources and full-time staff, more contractors and freelancers, and unstable or declining revenue. However, McBride says that MSM is having the same issues when it comes to revenue, e.g. Runner’s World — back in 1981.

The 50-year-old magazine made a tough ethical decision after publishing an article rating running shoes: It vowed get rid of its grading system altogether after Nike pulled its $1 million contract when its shoes didn’t do so hot on the scale.

The decision Runner’s World made showcases how ethics and revenue can battle head-to-head, but the two don’t always have to be competitors.

One step at a time

“Ethics is a process,” remember? Here’s the workflow McBride recommends when creating an ethics guide:

1. Principles. The first thing a B2B company should do when creating a code of ethics is to address its core values. Why does your company exist? Once you have those values laid out, they can then be translated to principles.

There was much discussion in the room about one word that related to principles: transparency. Can you be too transparent? Not transparent enough? Maybe, but B2B has a unique relationship with its readers. By respecting that relationship, your audience will appreciate the honesty you bring to the editorial review process and take the time to acknowledge it.

2. Journalistic purpose. After you’ve outlined principles, identify your company’s journalistic purpose. Remember, a piece of content could not serve a journalistic purpose, yet it falls under your company’s principles.


Leadership is key

When creating a code of ethics, take a look at your company leadership. McBride shared four types of B2B media company ethics styles:

  • Clear internal guidelines and strong leadership.
  • Vague guidelines and strong leadership.
  • Vague guidelines and weak leadership.
  • Clear internal guidelines and weak leadership.

It’s obvious which would be the best situation (The first one!), but can you guess which style is the worst? B2B publications need leadership to execute guidelines, so having clear internal guidelines and weak leadership takes the cake. It’s even worse than having vague guidelines and weak leadership.

“The biggest danger is a disconnect between what you say you stand for and what you actually do,” McBride concluded.


3. Questions. As with any set of rules, it’s important to question them after you’ve laid down the groundwork. Ask yourself what your company has promised, how it can be transparent and what conflicts of interest editors may have. Also ask how you’ll manage those challenges.

4. Alternatives. It’s impossible to predict every circumstance, so have a range of alternatives ready, but take a look at which possible alternatives maximizes your company’s purpose.

5. Solutions. After you’ve addressed numbers one through four, figure out the solutions. Since transparency should be one of your values, decide exactly how you’ll be transparent to your audience. Will you incorporate more Editor’s Notes? Will you link to a Terms of Engagement page on each editorial piece on your company’s website?

Kickoff the code

It’s time to get started. McBride recommends using a “Green Light Ethics” approach, which means your code of ethics will list what to do in certain situations (green lights) instead of what not to do (red lights and stop signs).

She also said a good code of ethics addresses conflicts of interest, anticipates challenges, states company values clearly, contains standard practices, allows deviation through other established pathways and allows a certain threshold for that deviation.

The process still may seem overwhelming, but the ASBPE offers a list of ethics codes for several business, trade, association and professional publications — so there’s truly no excuse to get started.

Start processing your company’s ethics code to avoid possible future hardships.