Pay-to-play: Journalism’s hairy underbelly

It’s a pet hate for all PR people: when your starry-eyed CEO passes on the instruction to help finalize the cover-story interview with a publication that you know serves no other purpose than to stoke the vanities and empty the wallets of unwary executives.

By the time the communications team finally gets wind of what’s going on, it’s often very late in the process to start pulling back from what sounds almost too good to be true: nevertheless, it’s still your duty to put a spanner in the works.

It’s never easy to tell a CEO that the interview they conducted with a fawning journalist, and the ensuring promise of being on the cover of the next issue, are just a smokescreen to cover up these publications’ complete lack of credibility, and a hefty price tag if you ever want the article to see the light of day.

But a self-respecting PR person you have to stop these “opportunities” in their tracks: even after more than 20 years in PR I can’t name a single valid reason to proceed. You may argue that “all publicity is good publicity” – but with vanity pay-to-play titles, I disagree. it’s like the question about whether anyone hears a tree falling in an uninhabited forest: nobody cares. No-one reads the publications except the featured companies, and the articles have little or no editorial value.

The trick is being able to stop these “pay to play” opportunities in their tracks soon enough. The “journalists” working on these titles know how to hook senior executives: they approach directly, usually taking pains to avoid PR agencies and in-house PR folks, because we’re the gatekeepers. Far easier to go straight to the CEO and spin such a convincing story to their PA that the dictat to arrange the interview comes down from the top. It’s tough to disappoint a CEO who eventually passes on this so-called opportunity with a cryptic note that enthuses: “And they want to put me on the cover!”

If it sounds like an “oh wow” media opportunity then it probably is too good to be true. If you’ve never heard of a business publication of that name, it’s probably dodgy, because you know your Tier 1s. In these circumstances, rely on your gut feeling and cry wolf – no matter how hard and rocky an internal path this might be.

In many cases these magazines cover a truly random mixture of topics – for example, a fawning story about a company supplying the airlines with tasty mid-air snacks juxtaposed with a deep tech interview with the inventor of some obscure medical technology. The catch is only revealed once the subject is well and truly on the hook: “editorial policy” dictates that all text articles must be accompanied by photographs – and for these, there is a charge, per column millimeter, with a minimum that’s going to run you a bill into the thousands. Decline the photo and there’s suddenly “no room” for your interview – and you’re left with a disappointed CEO.

There are some trade publications out there that operate in a similar manner, and ask for “color separation charges” to enable them to reproduce your nice glossy PR photos on their pages. In a couple of very selected niche verticals, it’s worth considering if the relevant title is on every senior executive’s desk, but still only with extreme caution. At least it is relatively easy to spot these vanity titles, here’s 10 tips:

  1. You’ve never heard of the publication. this alone generally means it’s not relevant, decline …
  2. There is no ABC figure to validate circulation
  3. There is no clear editorial focus
  4. You will find little or no display advertising
  5. The accompanying website is only available to subscribers, or just a glossy brochure for the printed magazine. Hello, it’s 2012.
  6. Their x-thousand subscribers are “senior decision-makers in industry” or something that sounds impressive until you realize it’s just BS
  7. Issues are published on an irregular cycle – eg when they have enough paid placement
  8. Their “journalists” are just too nice, and eager to cooperate. The request for an interview will state that they have chosen your company because of its leadership and innovation in its field – stuff that makes you puff out your chest with pride
  9. They don’t have any news angle – they’re just keen to interview your CEO. Whatever’s on his/her mind, that’s fine!! Thank you. Ker-ching.
  10. You get to “check” the fawning interview before it’s published

I was thinking about “name and shame” here but I’ll save that for our clients…

~ Simon Jones, Managing Director, OnPR GmbH

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bob Starr May 27, 2014 at 10:02 am

Not sure how recent your post is, but pay for play is common in the N.A. B2B marketplace. However, the ‘pay’ portion of the equation is not typically photos, but the ‘featured’ company’s willingness to provide a list of its top 10-15 suppliers who can will be solicited to pay for an advertisement to ‘support’ their client’s editorial content. It’s the ultimate guilt trip. I’ve been dealing with these companies for years and have been fortunate to appropriately explain their MO such that we have never support any of the handful of untargeted publications that have targeted our customers.

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