Today I stumbled across an online discussion in a LinkedIn marketing group about what we in the PR industry call “pay for play,” or the requirement that a company pay for an ad or sponsorship in order to be included in editorial coverage. The discussion was started by an associate publisher at a trade magazine company (read here “ad sales executive”).
He wrote, “Over the last few years PR firms have become increasingly aggressive in pushing editorial ‘collaborations’ for their clients, many of whom are nowhere to be seen from a publication advertising support perspective!” His message: companies that don’t advertise in a particular publication shouldn’t expect to be covered unless what they’re offering is groundbreaking news. Implied in his statement was that advertisers do deserve the right to be covered, whether or not they have anything newsworthy or of interest to say.
As a PR firm owner and practitioner with many years of experience, preceded by journalism experience (both newspaper and trade media), I maintain that journalists have no obligation to cover anyone – advertisers or non-advertisers. The only obligation they have is to inform their readers/viewers in an honest and timely way. If this means they end up not covering an advertiser because the company has nothing worthwhile to communicate, then so be it. If the advertiser doesn’t like this, there are always other media to advertise in.
Non-advertisers deserve the same balanced editorial coverage as advertisers.
It’s our policy as an agency to decline pay for play offers. Sometimes a media outlet will approach a client directly and offer the opportunity to be included in a special issue of a magazine, or to be interviewed by a news broadcaster, or take part in a film, if the client would just pay a certain amount to “cover expenses.” On a few occasions clients have been tempted by these offers. Generally, a little research on the publication or TV production company has demonstrated that the offer isn’t the great opportunity it was cracked up to be.
A couple of years ago, one of our clients received a call offering an interview on national TV, “Inside Business,” with Fred Thompson, the Republican politician, columnist and radio host. Our client was told there would be a fee of about $20,000 to cover the production company’s costs, but still thought this would bring some valuable visibility. We did some looking around online and found websites with discussions from other businesses that had taken the bait and were bitterly disappointed and angry at the outcome. Their biggest complaint was usually about the distribution of the video that was produced. Their interviews were aired at some ungodly hour when nobody would be watching TV – say, 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning. When we showed our client these discussions, he thanked us for stopping him from wasting his company’s money.
Years ago when I was a journalist I fought with publishers who constantly pushed the editorial staff to cover advertisers. The battle between advertising and editorial has only intensified over the years as both ad revenue and readership have declined, bringing tough financial times for many media companies. However, good, balanced journalism is what attracts readers and builds circulation, not pandering to advertisers or demanding quid pro quo for media coverage.
It’s the job of the PR professional to understand and counsel clients about what’s news and what’s not. If a company hires a PR agency to “get ink” and yet has nothing special to offer the media, it’s the agency’s responsibility to manage the client’s expectations while seeking news nuggets and finding innovative ways to create news, if necessary. Let’s be clear: pay for play is not media coverage, it’s advertising.
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