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Surviving in a Pay-to-Play World

Most PR practitioners quickly learn that the wall protecting editorial integrity from the influence of paid advertising can be, like the Pirate Code, “more of a guideline than an actual rule.” For better or worse, at a great number of well-known and respected media sources, advertisers are often given preference in coverage. Media ethics forbid this, but advertising packages often come with editorial opportunities, access to journalists, or advertorials. Paid stories disguised as editorial.

Despite denials and indignation from journalists, money does talk at many prints, electronic, and online media sources; often in direct relation to the financial health and business prospects of its corporate owners. These quid pro quo arrangements are never in writing, and typically are communicated over lunch with a publisher or sales rep who, with a smile or a wink, assures the client or agency that, “I have no influence over editorial…but I’ll see what I can do.” The more reliant the media outlet is on ad dollars, the thinner the line between advertising and editorial.

Trade and professional associations are not burdened with an obligation of intellectual honesty akin to that of the Fourth Estate. But it’s safe to assume association membership expects that guest speakers and “experts” featured on the agenda of their organization’s annual conference will be selected on the basis of experience, insight, and presentation skill. A small number of these groups do restrict vendors from agenda participation, but at most industry conferences, any outside 3rd party can purchase a prominent place on the program agenda…and many of those presentations are poorly disguised sales pitches.

This sale of “thought leadership”– market visibility with inherent credibility – is neither a recent development nor a crime that deserves a congressional investigation. Pay-to-play is a fact of business life, and to deal with this reality, PR and marketing professionals can either:

  • Use the market advantage that deep-pocketed companies have over their (limited budget) client or employer as a convenient rationalization for their inability to generate (unpaid) thought leadership; or they can
  • Stop whining, get creative, and lacking economic resources, promote bona fide content and foster personal relationships as currency to generate thought leadership.

With the media, succeeding in a pay-to-play world means two things. First, it means creating content that’s timely, tailored for the recipient, and never delivered in a press release. Secondly, it means building goodwill with key journalists by consistently providing them with relevant information and ideas, regardless of whether it relates to your company or client, without any expectation of immediate return.

With public platforms, succeeding in a pay-to-play world mostly means advance planning. It can begin by attending the prior year’s event to get a sense of the organization’s membership, priorities, and culture, and to meet the group’s leadership. Conference agenda development can start 9 or more months in advance of the event, so it’s important to be online early with a topic likely to resonate with members. It also helps if your proposal features a dues-paying member of the sponsoring organization.

In both cases, succeeding in a pay-to-play world means managing internal expectations. From the outset, your CEO or client needs to understand that you’re running against the wind, and in exchange for that effort, you must be given permission to fail.

What do you think? Is there a separation between editorial and advertising? Have you experienced an instance where a magazine was more interested in your news after you become an advertiser? Do you completely disagree and believe journalism ethics are alive and well today? Let me know.

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