Like many who are in the business of engaging and mobilizing grassroots supporters, I have developed and disseminated template op-eds and letters-to-the-editor in the past. Until the newspaper community was embroiled in controversy, it never occurred to me that such a practice could be construed as plagiarism and, as such, endangers the reputations of good people.
Part of the problem is the way these grassroots engagement initiatives are typically executed. I know of no program that attempts to track placement of these op-eds. Therefore, those who sign them typically have no idea whether they have been published previously.
In fact, part of the problem with the use of template written materials is that there has been little difference between how a template op-ed is approached and how a ghostwritten op-ed is approached. In both instances, signatories typically are encouraged to “make it their own” by adding a personal anecdote and a local data point or two. And, just as a person who has had a ghostwriter assist with an op-ed might be coached to tell an editor that he wrote it, the person submitting a template op-ed may be told to do the same.
But there are tremendous differences that go to the root of concerns about plagiarism. By definition, a written work can only be “original” once. Ghostwritten pieces are original. Template materials are original until published. At that point, any work that derives from that original published piece should cite the original source.
Of course, many editors would not consider publishing a piece they know is not original. To those who hit this roadblock I say, "Nobody ever said public relations is easy!"
Protecting Against Plagiarism
Although it is a widely used practice, the use of template materials ignores the high state of alert under which most newspaper editors operate today. If your organization currently makes template op-eds, letters-to-the-editor or bylined articles available without clearly stating that the source of the material must be cited, immediately discontinue the practice. You are risking the reputation of each person who submits one of those written works.
In place of using template materials, organizations may want to consider the following tactics:
- Most organizations offer message guidance to supporters. Format your key messages to track with the flow of an op-ed. Include a description of the problem, the proposed solution, background on what caused the problem with appropriate data points, specific steps the organization advocates and, finally, a call to action.
- Provide clear advice on how to write an effective op-ed or letter-to-the-editor. Emphasize the importance of using personal anecdotes and observations to give the piece a personal and emotional footing.
- Include links to high-quality op-eds that you believe can serve as examples of best practices.
- If placing a local op-ed is considered strategically essential, budget the time and resources necessary to have an original op-ed developed in each market.
The time has come to end the practice of providing template materials and encouraging their wholesale submission to publications.
Public relations practitioners must acknowledge that times have changed. Every submission of written material for publication is under greater scrutiny than ever. In the end, work deemed to be unoriginal might harm your public relations efforts and, in the process, tarnish the reputations of individuals and organizations.