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Pay for play

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BY MIKE WALKER
In the public relations industry, our work with writers and corporate and agency people enables us to keep an ear to the ground on many topics. One such topic that comes up with such regular frequency that it’s almost as reliable as night following day is “pay for play.” That’s a crude name applied to the actions of advertisers or their ad agencies trying to influence editorial coverage by promising to increase or threatening to reduce the media’s advertising schedule.
To think that this sort of “negotiation” doesn’t happen in our industry would be naive. Predictably, in many examples we’ve been privy to, the editors and freelancers privately vow revenge in the form of actually reducing exposure when they are forced to comply with the pay for play deal.
We realize many ad agency representatives and some on the client side in advertising or marketing may disagree and even have a success story they could use as a rebuttal to dismiss this memo as a self-serving public relations rant. Nevertheless, after 30 years in this business, we believe that pay for play is not in your best interest in the long run. Indeed, it’s more like opening a Pandora’s Box.
Few ad agencies understand the labor-intensive efforts a public relations program requires. It is much easier to merely wave the checkbook in front of revenue-starved media. Clients should ask their agencies if this “strategy” is just another way to grind out the billings.
Some may say they don’t care how they get the ink, just so long as they get it; so what’s the big deal, anyway?
The bottom line is: Does pay for play work? Once or twice, maybe. But there’s always going to be a company with more money available to trump this gambit. If you happen to be the category leader, then your products will get in the news on their own merit. And, if you’re launching a new product or innovation, the news will follow. It’s in getting the follow-up and repeat publicity — this is the mark of a good PR program.
Every now and then, someone, either at the client’s ad agency or on the sales staff of the media, thinks she’s discovered lightning in a bottle – the Holy Grail – and it always involves raiding the client’s budgets for more revenue.
This “solution” is to control, or attempt to control, the editorial content, receiving favorable media exposure by paying for it, rather than earning it through the traditional publicity methods.
This is the selling out of a media’s most precious asset: its editorial integrity.
And when editorial integrity is compromised by pay for play, it can take years to earn it back.
The agency account executive, attempting to impress his client with media acumen and clout, declares authorship of what is known as in the business as pay for play.
This sounds like a great idea, but if so, why hasn’t it caught on? It’s not caught on to any large scale because someone, perhaps on both sides of the selling equation, puts a stop to this because it is a foolish gambit.
The reader or viewer is smart and can smell a rat from a long ways off. There is a trust relationship between the reader and the media. When the editorial starts reading like ad copy, the readers will rebel, and savvy media management knows this.
While some may scoff, offering the opinion that this does indeed go on, I agree. But it doesn’t go on in the media that make a difference. And no company can afford to pay for both editorial and advertising.
I’ve had clients actually say they were going to wave their checkbook (ad schedule) in the face of the magazine. And, if it works at all, it works only once. The company may get one shot at this kind of a deal, but it has forever made an enemy of the editorial side.
Some ad agencies that seem forever hungry for more projects that can be billed to the client just don’t get it.
Companies cannot dictate what will be covered. The power of a long-term relationship with the editorial side is what will benefit your company.
Al Golin, McDonald’s PR man, coined a phrase “trust bank,” in which he encouraged McDonald’s to always do the right thing and then some. Be a good contributing neighbor and be forthright on the occasional problem and McDonald’s will benefit in the long run. His trust bank approach worked for McDonald’s and it will work for your company.
One company, whose PR director had left for a new job, assigned its PR efforts to several freelance writers at the urging of its ad agency. The hope here was that the freelance writers’ buddies would want to help their friends and would, therefore, run the material.
In fact, it backfired. Few helped these writers with any editorial placement. Why? They didn’t get a piece of the action. One was even so naive and clueless that he showed up at a competitor’s press event and proceeded to hand out his client’s press material, hats and the like. He was promptly asked to leave. Long-term this gambit failed, and the writers have gone on to lesser careers , devoid of the respect of their peers.
Yet another company tried this same program with a writer. The writer was so unprepared for the actual work of a PR campaign that he actually asked us if we would bail him out by giving him our press mailing list, because beyond a couple of buddies, he didn’t know who wrote for which media. Did we help him? We built our list the hard way. No way. Here’s why.
As a former client once said: “Advertising is something we buy, PR is something we sell.” ♦
— OWAA President Mike Walker, mike@walkeragency.com
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