Media organizations constantly confront an irksome question: How far can we go to accommodate a sponsor?

The Atlantic last week designated its “screw-up” over a Church of Scientology advertorial as a mistake made as the magazine company explores “new forms digital advertising.”

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Let’s accept their claim at face value. Still, the principles have been in the making for more than a decade and often mirror ones reminiscent of print and broadcast.

Getting an answer to “how far?” can force a delicate balancing act between making money — precious revenue needed to keep the operation afloat — and doing something that causes more damage than the money is worth.

A Dozen Principles

Here, then, are principles a publisher can use to determine which ads to accept, and how to place them. I’ve developed them while working on both the editorial and business sides at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News, here at PBS MediaShift and with numerous clients of Teeming Media. Since 2001, I’ve often been asked to push boundaries, and had to find ways to strike the right balance.

  1. Develop policies. Before you even start accepting ads, you need to consider what your principles are. How free is the speech: Will you let someone say in an ad what you wouldn’t allow in editorial areas? Do you require that someone not make unfounded claims (as PBS does)? What is your policy on comments on ads (moderation of which by the marketing department seemed to help get The Atlantic in trouble)?
  2. Be ready. With policies in place, you’ll be ready to explain your principles and the reasoning, get others on board and, if you need to, pull an ad and say why to both the community and the advertiser.
  3. Listen to the voice in the back of your head. Sometimes you get a sense that this ad, that wording, some image, might cause offense or cross a line. It’s easy to slough that off in the rush to sign a deal.
  4. Develop the voice. Some people, especially those without editorial backgrounds, don’t have sense of what goes too far. Try to develop it, and not be tone deaf. At an Ogilvy advertising conference I attended, many executives were excited by the prospect of retina-tracking ads as shown in the movie “Minority Report” without feeling the creepy undertones of ubiquitous public tracking.
  5. Balance long-term harm against short-term revenue. The damage to your brand, and the ultimate loss in viewership and revenue, can be worse than the money you may lose in the short term. Consider that.
  6. Act quickly if something is wrong, especially if the ad is already running. Every minute counts. Had The Atlantic pulled the Scientology ad and come out with its statement sooner, it could have forestalled some of the criticism. This is not always as easy at is sounds; ad servers can be finicky, and it can be hard to block only the offending ads. In one case, our team had a difficult time blocking ads from a luxury car dealer on a story about a horrific car crash, without pulling ads from all of ABCNews.com.
  7. Strike a balance. Make sure a reasonable person would know when an ad is a paid placement, but allow the placement to be seamless enough that it flows nicely. What’s “reasonable” changes over time. Pay attention to current standards.
  8. Involve others, either in your organization, or trusted third parties. You may be surprised how much perspectives can vary.
  9. Work with the advertiser. Reasonable advertisers will understand that they are, in large part, buying access to the community you’ve cultivated in a venue you’ve nurtured, and that you best understand what might be damaging or wrong. (Did no one, for example, tell Qualcomm how a CES crowd might react to their over-the-top keynote?)
  10. Be willing to say “no.” Even reasonable advertisers may have business models or requirements that don’t match what you can give. Sometimes you have to be willing to open your clutched fist and let the money go.
  11. Serve the community, first, but accommodate the client. Your first obligation is always to the people consuming what you do. When wire service articles appeared in a sexual health sub-section of a major news site noting dangers of erectile dysfunction medication, my team offered an ED maker sponsoring the section the right to pull its ads from the section, but not to pull the stories — some of which referred to major heart problems caused by ED drugs combined with other medications.
  12. Have perspective. Some issues, as in the point above, are matters of life and death. Others are not, and you can allow yourself to compromise. Absolutism works only in theory.

Historical Lessons

Working out whether and how to run particular ads requires judgment, finesse, and a long-term view from a perspective that understands more than that week’s, or even a quarter’s revenue — but also understands the worthwhile hard work of getting to “yes” with a client while preserving standards.

Some are characterizing the brouhaha over The Atlantic’s ads as an issue of digital “in-stream” advertising. But the issues are not, in the larger context, new.

Media are confronting changes in the digital era at blinding speed. Still, it’s important to pause and consider principles that lead to sustained health.

At the New York Times, there have been intense discussions over standards of when and how to allow paid placement of essays on its print Op Ed page.

If companies today will pay for analogous, or even stronger access, in digital, figure out a way to give it to them — while protecting the viability of the organization over time. And do it before you run that damaging ad.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.