(This article was originally published in Public Relations Tactics, July 2004, page 11)

The plagiarism scandals that have rocked the New York Times and USA Today are prompting questions about common public relations practices. Greater scrutiny of written submissions to publications – op-eds, contributed articles and letters-to-the-editor – may signal the end of using so-called “template” or “sample” documents.

Such submissions fail the “original work” demands of editors and, with the increasing adoption and use of tools such as Lexis-Nexis and Google, more editors are discovering and discarding writing that is unoriginal.

The issue was widely exposed in an op-ed penned by William Adler first published in the Washington Post. Adler’s piece exposed a number of academicians across the country who each had submitted an op-ed in support of a national nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The problem was that the op-eds were pretty much the same. In fact, they were largely the same as an op-ed that had been published 10 years beforehand.

The story gets worse. Confronted by Adler, several of the professors insisted they had written the pieces and dismissed it as a coincidence that basically the same op-eds had been published earlier under the bylines of others.

The failure of these professors to explore whether the op-ed had been previously published and their decision to deny the truth about its source has harmed each man’s reputation and has cast a shadow over their respective institutions. One University of Texas professor went so far as to submit a written apology that was published in the Austin American-Statesman, the same publication that featured his name on an op-ed that had been previously published.

The Value of Template Materials

Providing template language for op-eds and letters-to-the-editor gives voice to those who agree with a particular point of view but lack the time or the skills necessary to articulate their opinions.

It is a common public relations practice, as illustrated by a Google search of the term “sample op-ed.” It turned up nearly 1,900 pages with ready-to-sign and submit op-eds from organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Points of Light Foundation, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Education Association and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, among many others.

The results of the search illustrate that through the use of template materials, organizations can extend the reach of important societal issues into hometowns across America.

However, the primary reason that those responsible for engaging and mobilizing grassroots supporters have become increasingly reliant upon using template materials is that it works. Through the use of template materials, an organization can maintain control over the message, make it easy for local supporters to participate and satisfy the demands of editors for a local voice and local angle.

Like many who are in the business of engaging and mobilizing grassroots supporters, I have developed and disseminated template materials 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 as well as potential copyright constraints. 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 or has copyright constraints that require crediting another publication.

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.

Dan Keeney, APR, is president of DPK Public Relations (www.keeneypr.com), which specializes in issues management and strategic marketing communications. Keeney is the president of PRSA Houston.