Against all odds, and the results of most eye-tracking studies, it happened.

While reading an article online, a banner ad flickered in the corner of the screen and caught my attention.

“We invest over $20 billion annually on 140,000 miles of U.S. rail infrastructure — so taxpayers don’t have to,” read the ad from the Association of American Railroads.

The fact I looked at the ad, let alone wrote about it, would lead many in the advertising industry to label it a success. Something about the ad’s main point, however, struck me as misleading.

 

U.S. freight railroads, you see, are privately owned. While tremendously vital to this country’s infrastructure and economy, they benefit their private ownership and business customers first.

The benefit of public relations, a discipline steeped in the ways of earned media, is that it serves as a sounding board to keep half-truths from becoming your primary message.

Implying that taxpayers, in an alternate universe, would be on the hook to help maintain them is a stretch. Yet the Association of American Railroads uses the point frequently in its and paid and owned media.

It’s a classic case of viewing paid and owned media as a blank check to publish any message your organization so chooses. The benefit of public relations, a discipline steeped in the ways of earned media, is that it serves as a sounding board to keep half-truths from becoming your primary message.

If a reporter wouldn’t buy your main point, your ad shouldn’t be selling it.

Consider it a best practice to stress test your messages before publishing them. It’s the only way to keep your communication genuine and limit criticism in a world where everyone is a publisher.

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