Mary Anne Keane

The Danger of Pay-to-Play Earned Media

By: Mary Anne Keane | July 9, 2014 | 
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The Danger of Pay-to-Play Earned MediaBy Mary Anne Keane

This past week was an interesting one for me.

I had two telephone calls that left me shaking my head in frustration.

Both originated as calls direct to a client, whose follow-ups were forwarded to me.

The first call was from a journalist for a B2B magazine geared toward decision makers – CEOs, presidents, CFOs, HR executives, and the like.

She wanted to do a profile piece on our client for an upcoming issue, which was focused on extraordinary leadership. Our client had just been named as a finalist for a prestigious award honoring CEOs, so I thought she was following up as a result of his nomination.

Prior to returning her call, I did a little homework. I researched the publication, as I was not familiar with the name. Its website was what I would expect from any high-end magazine: Editorial and advertising opportunities, well-written content, and an editorial calendar that included a fall issue focused on extraordinary leadership.

I was impressed and returned the call.

The woman with whom I spoke painted an impressive picture of the magazine’s readership and reach. So, I continued to listen as she described the nature of the piece. It was a perfect fit for our client.

The more she spoke, the more I began to listen with some trepidation as I got the feeling that she was now pitching me. When was the last time you were pitched by a journalist? Red flag.

Pay-to-Play Earned Media

My instincts were right. I knew it as soon as she uttered the words, “We are a free publication.”

She went into her spiel on how they are able to produce such an impressive publication by asking the companies of profiled CEOs to provide a list of its vendors. They would contact them to determine their interest in advertising in this particular issue.

She kindly explained they were very careful with how they handled these calls and would not pressure anyone to commit.

“Gee, thanks,” I thought.

She added, “The ads ranged from $3,700 to $12,000.”

Had I not been so irritated by the conversation I may have laughed. Instead, I opted to explain that under no uncertain terms would we advise our clients to provide their vendor list in exchange for editorial. She thanked me for my time and we parted ways.

A Twist in the Story

Five days later, I received a similar message. After my previous experience, I was a bit cynical. I returned the call on the chance it was a valid editorial opportunity.

The conversation played out much the same way, but with a twist. I quickly realized this was another pay-to-play earned media opportunity, but listened on.

When the journalist mentioned the magazine’s readership of 70,000, I asked if it included a pass-along rate. I wasn’t surprised when she replied it was four times the subscribers.

She went on to say, “We would need a list of XYZ Company’s vendors who we would contact to see if they would be interested in taking out an ad congratulating [our] client on being profiled in the magazine.”

Out of curiosity, I ask how long this feature piece would be. She explained it depended on the number of ads placed by the company’s vendors.

The magazine is laid out in three columns. The right column is strictly for ad space. If they secure one ad, the article will be the length of the ad. If they secure two ads, the length of two ads, and so on. This one was new to me and I have to say, I was dumbfounded.

As I had before, I explained we wouldn’t recommend our clients engage in these types of opportunities and politely ended the conversation.

Why is this the position of Arment Dietrich?

Gini Dietrich has explained it best:

It is our job to present our clients – or bosses – in the best possible light. It is our job to help manage their reputations.

By playing by these unethical rules, we create the opportunity for slander, investigative reports, and negative stories. All things that not only are bad for the organizations we represent, but can get us fired.

Buyers Beware

I wonder how many companies take part in these pay-for-play earned media opportunities thinking they are getting fantastic coverage for their company and its executives, only to find to they are receiving little ROI for a whole lot of money.

If you should receive an inquiry that is questionable, don’t be afraid to ask whether there is a financial commitment tied to the editorial coverage.

While these publications may look impressive and the sales pitches are convincing, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

About Mary Anne Keane


Mary Anne is a marketing communications professional with more than 20 years experience serving a diverse client base, from international not-for-profits to some of the country's largest corporations. She specializes in project management where she is skilled at assessing clients' needs, incorporating their direction, and ultimately producing results.

  • The scary thing is that both of them seem to be surviving enterprises, meaning a lot more “features” have given them what they are asking for in exchange for being written about. Integrity is rare these days.

  • I’ve actually done this at newspapers.

    We’d publish a variety of special sections, for example “Focus on Industry,” and offer a half-page story in exchange for a half-page ad.  Likewise, I’ve targeted vendors, when doing a section on a new school opening for example.

    It is an effective way to generate revenue, and in my view, this practice is OK as long as the publication is transparent about it.

  • I know there has always been a silent quid pro quo when possible with the caveat being all bets are off if the Brand does something wrong that has to be reported about. Nothing wrong with it. You have to be seriously a dumb media CEO if you didn’t reward/back scratch when possible (meaning where it fits in the normal scheme of your publication) your paying advertisers. As an advertiser I would be dumb not to buy more ads from places that give me a positive image if I have to choose where to spend. Again as long as it fits with the customer demographic or industry publication.

    That all said….to be up front to me is a problem. I experienced this with a client. I inquired how to get listed into the best of Orange County (OC Weekly). I was told if we bought an ad placement for that issue and do a three month placement that will get us listed for the voting.

    And to be fair most of the businesses that get listed advertise in their free paper. Its a big market and very competitive. That said I did win some positive coverage for them via efforts on twitter and email including a featured review. But once they did some coverage I would get a weekly call from their sales team. 

    I think my biggest issue is while I prefer honesty and publications being brutally honest…..they aren’t being honest with their readers! And that is a huge ethical problem have surpassing the honesty for ad sales.

  • ClayMorgan See, I always hated when the advertising department did special sections where you’d get coverage for buying an ad, because it confused people. They didn’t understand that the newspaper itself didn’t function that way. “Why won’t you write a story about me?! We advertise in the paper!”

  • ClayMorgan I agree with you from the sales end. What about the readership. Did they know? Do you think this also holds with TV and Radio? Or maybe it depends on the property. Obviously easier fro CNBC or Bloomberg to do it than Cartoon Network.

  • Howie Goldfarb ClayMorgan We generally labeled the entire thing as an advertising supplement. Not sure about TV or radio. I was just a digital/print guy.

    Isn’t native content pay for play? Even if clearly defined as such (or as advertorial)?

  • Howie Goldfarb Those “best of” sections can be huge money.

    I remember my first as an editor. We compiled results and took them to the publisher. He then changed results so that people he knew would not advertise did not win.

    The flip side is as publisher, my contests were heavily reader driven. This however caused problems too. The last one had an issue where there were two related categories: swimming pool sales and installation, and swimming pool service.  The problem is that the same company won both categories, but had NEVER sold or installed a pool. They were purely service/repair. However, this was the overwhelming will of the readers per their votes.

    Ugh. That was a long day, fielding calls from pool sales companies.

  • Wow. I would ask, “How much ad space do we need to buy if we get to write the feature ourselves?”

  • NancyCawleyJean

    Thanks for writing this post. When handling media relations for hospitals, we have been approached many, many times by these pay-to-plat industry publications, and there are many of them. Their approaches are deceiving and you honestly believe it to be a credible opportunity to position your CEO and the organization in a national spotlight among a targeted audience. The first time it happened, I was naive, and believed it to be a true opp for our president and CEO, who at the time was a doctor who was well-known in the surgical community. I asked the questions I thought were appropriate, and found it to be a good opportunity. I set up the interview. At the end of the interview, we THEN got the request for the vendor list. I was dumbfounded and felt completely incompetent in front of the pres/CEO, who trusted me with his visibility plan. That didn’t happen again. Over the years, I’ve also found that they change their names often, because people start catching on. Giving out a vendor list is something we will never do, and I’m glad to hear you recommend the same to your clients. We also had an ask for $35,000 for one article. I don’t think there would be any benefit to getting a story placed under those circumstances. In fact, I think it’s detrimental to the brand’s reputation. Nice to see others in the biz hold the same opinion.

  • ClayMorgan yes native is pay to play. Fortune and the Economist do this very well

  • RobBiesenbach and I would put that into a power point presentation with a lot of bullet points and use my red laser pointer for emphasis!

  • MyrnaKJ

    I spent 2 years in the tourism industry in Anchorage, Alaska and received about a half dozen of these calls from “production companies” who wanted to feature our city on their show. They had quite a spin on their viewership on XYZ channel. They talked about how we could select the best locations of our city and we’d be featured online, yada, yada, yada. And then they told me they would do it for the low price of say $10,000. End of discussion. Usually the show aired during the wee morning hours on an obscure satellite tv channel. 

    I honestly don’t think they did their homework on Anchorage. Our city received a huge amount media attention without ever having to pay for it (think you ex-Gov Palin)

  • I was totally floored when I first heard about this little set up and I’m still shocked! Such a good ‘Buyer Beware,’ I’ve known waay too many businesses that have fallen for this and thing ‘it’s just the way things are done”

  • Howie Goldfarb RobBiesenbach I’ll bet there’s a great parable/example story on the internet that you could start that power point presentation out with!

  • bobledrew

    MyrnaKJ From Boca Raton, right?! Tons of those pitching companies are from down there. Tourism and higher education are prime targets. Often they’ll try to get right to an organization’s CEO office and bypass the comms folks.

  • MyrnaKJ

    bobledrew Yes, Boca Raton was one place, there were a few from Southern California. We had a very good receptionist, who as soon as they said video, she sent them to me (so I got to be the lucky one to hear the pitch and tell them no).

  • CommProSuzi

    Thank you for your post! These folks talk a great game, don’t they? 
    Print and television production crews would call me and generously offer to write a glowing article about our company for the cost of an ad that no media person in their right mind would include in an ad buy or to “cover production costs” to the tune of $25,000. It left me wondering, “Are there really pros gullible enough to buy into this scenario?” 
    I have come to the conclusion, and I may be wrong, that it’s not the pros that are falling for this game but small business owners who are trying to market their businesses without the benefit of a professional to guide them.  What’s sadder is the formerly legitimate publications that have adopted this model after the bottom dropped out to increase ad revenues.  I also suspect that the people making the calls are interns or fresh out of college professionals who are getting the wrong idea about the profession.  
    If your experience is anything like mine, now that they have your name and number, they’ll call, and call, and call. You’ll repeat your policy until you are purple, and yet, they’ll persist. 
    I cherish relationship building with reporters.

  • Where have I read a parable about this, hmmm. Something about beware of wolves who write on sheepskin cloth or something like that 😉 Sure warm and fuzzy to touch but in truth not really all that soil repellent when bias-cut. I can empathize with the small business guy who may not be aware but chuckle (as in comeuppance)  at the CEO who chomps without consulting his communications team.

  • Jen Novotny

    My mouth dropped open at the “If they secure one ad, the article will be the length of the ad.” Oh my goodness. What a racket. I’m so glad there are still professionals who won’t play the game. And good information for those who don’t know otherwise!

  • Your piece ballyhoos you have a different of experience in this point. Can you express me to further questions about this? I slant propose this

    http://ebook-of-success.com/membersarea

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