PR Case Study: Gawker Plays the Ad Press Like a Fiddle

There’s paid media, there’s earned media, and there’s burned media. A controversial HBO campaign now running on Gawker Media sites somehow wrangled all three.

Here’s what happened in case you missed it: Gawker executed a custom sponsorship for the HBO series True Blood that involved a phony vampire blog that was passed off as a newly acquired site in the Gawker portfolio. That sleight of hand pulled the wool over the not-very-discerning eyes of New York tech blog Business Insider. ClickZ avoided initial coverage in part because it’s unseemly to dwell on the embarrassing mistakes of another publisher — hey, everyone’s entitled to a mistake — and in part because it’s a somewhat ham-fisted execution on Gawker’s part.

But the ensuing coverage — by Mediapost, Adweek, AgencySpy and others — have transformed it into a case study on the PR potential of micro-scandals. And Gawker has shown repeatedly that it can milk such scandals for all they’re worth. (Update: per Brian’s comment below, I should say Adweek ran a straight story relative to the many others who led with the scandal.)

To fill in the details, in recent weeks HBO and Gawker laid the groundwork for a supposedly vampire-written blog called BloodCopy. The site was unveiled over the weekend and presented jokingly as a recently acquired member of the Gawker family. Gawker provided the architecture and wrote the blog, which has been syndicated to other Gawker sites in the form of sponsored posts. At first, these were not always clearly labeled as ads. Campfire was the creative agency behind the campaign.

Two days after BI ran its straight-faced story on the vampire site, Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder objected, writing, “Gawker Media has been taken to the media criticism woodshed over this one. What’s advertising should be called advertising and what’s edit should be called edit. It hurts both to blur the distinction.” Gladly he noted an earlier post trumpeting the “acquisition” of BloodCopy had been deleted.

However Snyder’s victory rang hollow when BloodCopy’s supposedly objectionable post was later reinstated — proving who really wears the pants in the Gawker family (VP Sales Chris Batty). As the week wore on a number of trade rags weighed in, generating valuable publicity for Gawker — never mind HBO.

Reactions from Gawker’s management were mixed. Nick Denton issued an ambiguous mea culpa, retweeting media writer Rachel Sklar’s comment, “The news is that Gawker Ad leveraged (+ undermined the credibility of) Gawker Editorial to promote an ad campaign.”

Meanwhile Chris Batty defended the strategy, telling the Nieman Journalism Lab, “If we’re around in three or four years, the majority of our advertising revenue will be in sponsored posts like this.”

Hyperbole or not, Batty’s message to advertisers — undeniably favorable to Gawker’s sales efforts — is this: We’ll go the extra mile for you, editorial priggishness be damned. And if we cross a line with our readers, we’ll back off.

And what’s wrong with that, really? It’s certainly worked for Gawker in the past. Recall that in 2007 Gawker sold a site takeover to Evian, which plastered the whole site in pink. Editor Choire Sicha complained then too, and Denton apologized.

Does Gawker engineer these little outrages? I don’t think so. Does it cultivate them? You decide.

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