Pay-To-Play: The Spam of the Journalistic World

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As a business owner, especially one looking to expand your brand, it can be exciting to receive messages that “you’ve been shortlisted for an article of top companies” or that “you’ve been chosen to be featured in an article.” As a PR executive, I receive emails like this for my clients on a daily basis. Many times, clients will also get hit with the request and forward to me, hoping I can help determine the validity of the opportunity. Unfortunately, the bottom line is that most of these opportunities are just plain spam.

What is pay-to-play?

At Compriseagency, we define a pay-to-play opportunity as any editorial opportunity or award that requires additional funds to print or guarantee a “win.” As an agency, part of our media relations activities include securing valid, valuable editorial opportunities and award wins for our clients based on the merit of the company and the pitch, not on how much money you throw toward the opportunity. Public relations, by nature, allows businesses to recruit legitimate third-party endorsements of products or services. When you pay to be a part of certain lists, to be mentioned in an article or to “win” an award, you remove much of the validity of these third-party “vouches.” For us, when it comes to considering pay-to-play opportunities for our clients, the answer is almost always a hard “no.”

How to recognize a pay-to-play

Because these opportunities are meant to trick business owners into thinking they are legitimate, it can sometimes be hard to recognize them right away. The following outlines top things to look out for when determining the validity of an opportunity:

  • Too good to be true: You’ve heard the saying, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” If your startup is being offered a full-page in USA Today before you even speak to a reporter or editor, you can bet there is something fishy going on behind the scenes.
  • Knockoff of a “real” publication: Many times, pay-to-play prowlers will purposely name their publication something that can easily get confused in your mind for a publication you actually know and read. For instance, “ABCnews.go.com” is a great source for information, but “ABCnews.com.co” is a purposely similar name for a much less credible (and less read) publication designed to imitate the original site.
  • Asking for money: Perhaps the most obvious way to spot a pay-to-play opportunity is when your initial “congratulations” email or phone call also includes a request for a “donation,” “advertisement” or “small fee” in order to move forward with publishing your content.
  • Asking for access to partners/vendors: This tactic is often the hardest to recognize. A way of getting around asking your company for money is to ask your company for a list of vendors and clients you work with. Trust that this list will be abused as salesmen from the “pay-to-play” will contact your distributors, asking them to advertise on your behalf. Beware of “journalists” looking to get close to your clients in lieu of asking you for money directly. Besides making your company look bad in front of your vendors, the publication will likely never publish anything on your behalf unless your clients “pay” for it in the form of advertising.
  • “We want to feature you on Fox Business!” We get these all the time, but they usually try to go around us and speak directly to our client. Even when we return the call, they often call our clients and tell them they just can’t reach us. There are a number of production houses who buy remnant space — 30 to 60 minutes at a time — from Fox or another network, or from the airlines to fill in-flight time. The programming is not from the outlet, and they often air at non-desirable times.

Are these opportunities ever worth it?

As legitimate media outlets work to modify their business models, we’ve found a couple of recent opportunities that actually made sense. There are two things we think are critical to even consider an opportunity: the inclusion of a bylined story by a staff writer and a strong targeted fit (e.g., a special issue for a cybersecurity trade show pitched to a cybersecurity company). Anything less will be seen as what it is — advertising.

How can I get “real coverage?”

Unfortunately, these pay-to-play stories aren’t easily recognized. Now you’ve not only paid for something that likely didn’t do you much good, you may have actually damaged your brand’s reputation. As with most things in life, good opportunities are earned.

One way to guarantee earned media for your business is to hire an agency that is familiar in your space to do the heavy lifting (e.g., pitching) for you. Alternatively, if you have a good story to tell, we recommend hitting the ground running and developing a solid pitch to tailor to each outlet you reach out to. This can be time-consuming, but again, all good things come from a little extra work.

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