There’s an unsettling trend in the PR industry that’s causing frustration for PR pros AND clients alike.
PR appears to be for sale.
Publications selling articles. Organizations hawking awards. Broadcast media peddling placements.
Public relations pros are shaking their heads. As if it weren’t already hard enough to explain what we do, now we have to explain that true earned media isn’t for sale.
True Earned Media Never Comes with a Guarantee
Let’s back up for a minute to say that, yes, there have always been opportunities to buy your way into the media. Sponsored placements, boosted posts, and of course, ads. When we as PR practitioners work with clients, many of us take the time to explain that true earned media is not something you pay for.
With true PR, there is never a guarantee. Let me say that again – when you pay a public relations pro to pitch your story or news with the goal of “earning” media coverage for your business, there is NO guarantee that it will happen. You are paying for their expertise, not for the actual media coverage itself.
On the other hand, if you pay for the space in which you appear – if any money changes hands for that space or airtime – that’s in a different realm. This falls more on the advertising or sponsored side of promoting your brand.
The Difference Between Earned and Paid Media
Where it gets tricky is when the line is blurred. And that’s what we see happening more now. Why does it matter? Because the value and power of true earned media are tarnished in the process.
Public relations pros who practice media relations will tell you that securing coverage for clients isn’t all that easy. Yes, sometimes we can make it look effortless – but a lot goes into it.
Another big difference between paid and earned media? Credibility. When a journalist writes about your client in the Washington Post, for example, it’s because the journalist sees true merit in your story. They deemed it newsworthy and thought their audience would value the information.
On the other hand, if all you need to do is shell out a few thousand dollars to buy your way into a publication, how credible is that? Publications like Forbes have lost much of their credibility because they now sell access to anyone willing to pay the price. But it’s not the only one.
Clients are often bombarded with emails to buy awards or pay to be placed on a Top 10 list. This type of activity makes reputable PR pros facepalm in exasperation.
“I’ve always advised against pay-for-play “opportunities.’ It sends a negative signal (is it ethical?) and usually scams (near zero value-add),” said Adnan Abdel, founder of ARQ Communications, on Twitter.
Not only does it cost the client money – it can cost them their credibility.
“I educate my clients on what to look for, like the word ‘sponsored.’ Also, I reiterate that earned media over quick in-a-hurry ads disguised as articles do more harm than good,” said Chandra Gore of Chandra Gore Consulting on Twitter.
Yes, some media outlets are desperate to stay afloat. But when they start selling space or airtime, they lose what should matter most to a news organization – and that’s credibility. When everything’s for sale, it’s no wonder the public no longer trusts the media.
Statistics back this up. According to data from Edelman’s annual trust barometer, fewer than half of all Americans say they have trust in traditional media.
“In some small markets that I worked in, it was also a death sentence for earned media: the relationship with the outlet would become entirely commercial,” Abdel continued.
An Example of an Ad Disguised as an Earned Media “Opportunity”
Here’s an example I recently received. The subject line read: “Garrett Public Relations has been shortlisted to be on the Cover Page of (Publication).”
In the body of the email, the sender went on to say (this is verbatim, by the way):
“The (Publication) will present a Full Cover feature. It will be five full page in depth feature about your company’s differentiators, products/services, challenges, road map, strength, unique proposition to the customers worldwide and a big photograph of the CEO/Founder on the cover page with an interesting tagline.
It is an excellent opportunity to share your success story and to showcase your company, product/services in front of 3Million decision-makers who could be your potential customers. It is undoubtedly going to optimize your visibility as it will reach 70,000 (Print subscribers) senior leaders and decision-makers in the global business community.”
Further down, it lists the cost – which it calls a “registration fee”: $5,000
I received that message – and three follow-up messages – in less than one week — all in vain.
I’m sure we can think of better ways for me to spend that $5,000 than on a paid “feature” in a print publication no one has ever heard of.
Steps PR Pros and Clients Can Take to Combat Paid Opportunities Masquerading as Earned Opportunities
So, what can PR pros do to help bring this issue to the forefront? And what can their clients do to ensure the earned media coverage they receive is just that – earned?
Public relations professionals can:
1) Call out the PR scams: Many PR pros call out these deceitful deals when they see them. When you notice something shady – call it out. I often tweet about it when I see these “opportunities” come up in my work with clients. I’ve seen others do this, as well. Perhaps we should start a #PRScam hashtag.
“We need to call these out – and encourage those around us to do the same. It dilutes our work – and the industry,” said Tonya McKenzie, founder of Sand and Shores PR.
Another one making the rounds right now is for a TV feature called NewsWatch, which the representative claims airs “nationwide on the AMC Network.” What it doesn’t say is that there’s a hefty fee involved. All the client may see is, “They want to feature us on TV?” A closer look reveals the truth.
2) Counsel your clients to steer clear of these scams: Be sure to educate your clients about these pay-to-play schemes. If they know to come to you first before agreeing to pay for any type of coverage, award or list, you’ll have the chance to steer them away from anything less than credible/shady.
It seems that the clients who take part in these unsavory paid scenarios are the ones who don’t understand how PR truly works – so they decide they’ll just throw some money at the issue and try to buy their way into a publication.
If they have the budget to spend on PR efforts, it might be better to spend it boosting a contributed article or a piece of content they wrote for their blog.
3) Tie it back to the client’s goals: If you need to convince the client not to participate in one of these shady (opportunities), tie it back to their goals. Offer suggestions about what they might do instead.
“I try to bring it back to the big picture and the client’s goal — does paying for XYZ ad or entering this award help us accomplish our goal/reach our target audience/etc.?” Olivia Adams, PR strategist, said on Twitter.
1) Ask their PR counsel for advice: Companies of all sizes should have a trusted PR counselor to turn to if and when these scams come their way. A reputable in-house or external PR pro will be able to spot these a mile away. Just be sure to ask before you agree to anything or spend your budget on anything that looks like it may be shady.
2) Work with ethical public relations professionals: An ethical PR practitioner will tell you when you’re headed down the wrong path. Be sure to hire someone – again, whether it’s an internal PR pro or an external consultant or agency – who understands the difference between a real earned media opportunity and one that isn’t. You should have a relationship with your PR counsel, just like you would with your legal counsel, in which you allow them to review any media-related offers you’re considering. If in doubt, always ask for their opinion before making a move.
Too many who claim to be PR pros seem to be willing to cut corners – and sell access. This won’t serve them or their clients well in the long run. Be sure to keep your eyes open for anything that appears to be unethical.
An example of this I saw recently involved a so-called PR expert who’d bought access to a publication, then published an article he wrote about how to hire a PR agency — badmouthing traditional PR agencies – complete with a photo of himself accompanying the article.
Here’s a line from it: “As one of the best PR agencies, our team at (Company) can get you great press guaranteed, without the ridiculous $4k monthly retainers of most PR companies.”
Further, if the publication had any ethics, it would be vetting these articles to ensure that this self-aggrandizing puffery never sees the light of the day.
Tamara Sykes, PR specialist at Postali, noted another example. A PR firm sent her a DM on Instagram about an “opportunity” to be featured in a Top 10 post. When I looked up the firm, it was a PR agency claiming to have the media at its “disposal” and charging anywhere from $10K to $30K for “guaranteed” media placements.
Often, when you see these types of businesses that claim they guarantee results, you can’t find them on Twitter – perhaps because they realize reputable PR pros would call them out.
3) Ask questions – lots of them: If you’re approached with a media opportunity, be sure to read the fine print. In many of these scenarios, the fact that it’s a paid scam is hidden in the details. They try to appeal to the client’s ego. The email subject line may read, “X Company – you’ve been selected for our Top 10 List.”
What isn’t in the subject line? That it will cost you thousands of dollars to secure that placement.
Even if you think it may be worth it to your company, consider it carefully before saying yes. Because when the article or award is published, it will note that this was pay-to-play, taking some of the shine off the “honor.”
Are ALL Paid Opportunities Bad?
One note here. Am I saying all paid opportunities are unethical? Not necessarily. If a company has the budget, perhaps it can seek out an arrangement for sponsored content in a publication that its target audience reads. I’ve worked with clients who have had close relationships with trade publications that will offer them a fair price on an arrangement that may benefit their digital marketing efforts.
Watch Out for “Opportunities” To Buy Your Way Into the Media
Use care when choosing a PR firm or pro to work with – and watch out for “opportunities” that aren’t what they seem. Ask questions. Get clarity before agreeing to anything. Consider if it will help you reach your goals – and how it will impact your reputation.
About the author: You’ll find Michelle Garrett at the intersection of PR, content marketing and social media. As a public relations and communications consultant, content creator, blogger, speaker and freelance writer, Michelle’s articles and advice have been featured in Entrepreneur, Forbes, Muck Rack, Ragan’s PR Daily, Meltwater, ThomasNet, Attorney at Work, FairyGodBoss, Freelancers Union and more. Michelle was named the sixth most influential PR professional by Commetric in April 2021 and a Top Digital PR Leader in 2020.