DC Trawler

President of Atlantic magazine explains Scientology advertorial “screw-up”

Last week, the Atlantic ran a very creepy Scientology advertorial and then pulled it after less than 24 hours:

On Friday, Romenesko published a leaked memo about it from Atlantic president M. Scott Havens. But when you go to that page on Romenesko now, it’s gone. The Google cache is still there, though.

In the interest of historic preservation, here’s how Havens explained the Scientology “screw-up” and instructed his staff on how to deal with the fallout. It might be instructive for anyone who’s thinking of running advertorials and/or taking money from Scientology:

From: Havens, Scott
Date: January 18, 2013, 6:08:51 PM EST
To: companywide.TheAtlanticMonthly
Subject: This Week…

Dear Atlantic Staff,

Clearly, things were a little rocky this week, so before we leave for the weekend, I wanted to update our team:

What exactly happened?

We ran a “native advertising” campaign for a new advertiser that, while properly labeled as Sponsor Content, was in my opinion inconsistent with the strategy and philosophy for which this program is intended. In this case, we did not adequately work with the advertiser to create a content program that was in line with our brand. In addition, because we had not fully thought through the issues around commenting on Sponsor Content, we made some mistakes trying to moderate the commenting thread. The general media climate also played a role here.

Once these issues came to light and I had the opportunity to assess the campaign, I made the decision to suspend it pending further review. To be clear, our decision to pull the campaign should not be interpreted as passing judgment on the advertiser as an organization. Where I believe we erred was in the execution of the campaign.

We then issued a statement to the press admitting we were at fault. When we make a mistake, we admit it. Our highest priority is The Atlantic’s reputation and credibility. That’s why so many readers trust us and why advertisers want to work with us.

Why did it happen?

Quite simply, we did not have clearly established digital advertising guidelines and policies in place, and when you’re innovating in a new territory without standardized guidelines (we’re not alone in the industry on this issue, by the way), mistakes can happen.

One important note for everyone: casting blame on any group or any individual is both unfair and simply not what we do at The Atlantic. And we most certainly should not speak to the press or use social media to attack our organization or our colleagues. We are a team that rises and falls together.

What is our plan going forward?

We are currently finalizing new policies and guidelines to govern advertising overall, with a specific focus on Sponsor Content.

Very shortly, we’ll publish these new policies, and I’ll be discussing them publicly with the press.

My hope is that we’ll turn this issue into a moment where, as a leader in digital advertising, we will help move the industry to a better place.

If you have ANY questions or potential concerns about something you’re working on, please don’t hesitate to push it up the chain. Push it up to me—and if I think I need to, I will include Justin and David, not to mention Linda, Natalie, Bruce, Aretae (our new deputy general counsel), etc.

It seems fitting to quote one of our founders, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” This isn’t the first, nor the last time that WE will make mistakes, but what is important is how we handle them and what we learn from these moments. In this particular case, we’ve learned a number of important lessons. I am confident we’re going to walk away from this with a stronger team, a smarter business, and, ultimately, in a better position to continue producing the best journalism in the industry.

I am available at any time (including this weekend) should you wish to discuss any aspects of this week in further depth.

Have a good weekend.


M. Scott Havens
President, The Atlantic

Translation: Stop talking about this, don’t talk to the press, don’t badmouth Scientology because they’re notoriously vindictive and litigious, shut up, shut up, shut up.

Chin up, M. Scott. This isn’t the biggest debacle in Atlantic history. That would be hiring Andrew Sullivan and allowing him to natter on about Sarah Palin’s “fake pregnancy.” This is a distant second.