What is Plagiarism and How Can You Avoid It?

Elizabeth Snell, Oct 9 2019

categories: PR

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As a journalism major, plagiarism was an early and frequently discussed topic in college. We read the stories about reporters like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, who were accused of fabrication and/or plagiarism – no one wanted to become infamous for the same reasons.

Most people also likely were taught as early as middle school – if not sooner – that plagiarism is bad. Copying someone else’s work and then claiming it as your own, original work is wrong.

While plagiarism itself is technically not a crime, it can infringe upon intellectual property rights, copyright or trademark issues. Overall though, it’s a huge ethics violation. If you plagiarize as a professional, you’ve broken the trust of readers, coworkers, editors, and more.

As a PR pro, the same rule applies. You might not have “readers,” but you do have clients and they have customers. You don’t want to break their trust by posting work or submitting a byline that’s not original (especially if it’s under the client’s name). There are even cases where PR firms are unaware that content was lifted, and pitch it out as something original.

So, how can you be sure to avoid plagiarism? Are there any grey areas, like repurposing content?

Fact vs. opinion

It’s important not to overthink plagiarism. There’s no need to use synonyms just for the sake of changing a word when you’re describing something factual. Let’s say that you’re summarizing an article that was published in The New York Times, which said there was a three-car crash on a highway. You do not have to say, “An accumulation of vehicles occurred.” You can simply say, “There was a three-car crash.” It happened, that’s a fact.

However, if there was an opinion piece written about that same crash, that’s where things get tricky. Perhaps there was a car crash because one driver was texting. The author then writes a very specific opinion about the dangers of texting, how it can have far-reaching ramifications, and outlines how the government needs to take action. If you wanted to cite any of those opinions, that is a situation where you would need to cite the author’s text, since it wouldn’t be facts.

Can I repurpose content?

PR pros should also be mindful of how they “repurpose” content. Repurposing can be common practice because clients will often have key messaging related to their industry. Or, they decide what opinion their company will have on certain issues, and it is our job to make sure those opinions are expressed across numerous types of media.

Is it possible to plagiarize yourself? Of course!

This is where PR pros need to be sure that their creativity is flowing. You can keep the key takeaway or major point your client wanted to make the same, while still creating original content by changing the details or examples you use in an article. Did you cite one particular study? Find a newer study, one that shows similar results but is different, to help your story. Was one byline tied into something seasonal? Try to find a different current event that is applicable.

Original content keeps everyone happy

When I was working as a reporter, I adopted a phrase to help in the editing process: when in doubt, cut it out. If you’re unsure whether something is problematic in terms of plagiarism – delete it. Or at the very least, cite your sources. If there is not a good way to rephrase something without it becoming too convoluted, then be sure to attribute the quote or passage.

Remember: Google prefers original content (it keeps everything SEO friendly!). Your clients will also appreciate your ability to create fresh content for any occasion. No one wants to be known for copying and pasting someone else’s work. It’s much better to be remembered for crafting innovative and original content.


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