“Pay To Play” In The Digital Age: What It Means For PR, The Media, and Credibility

by Aaron Gordon, Vice President, Schwartz Media Strategies

Unfortunately, the issue of ‘pay to play’ relationships in the media is nothing new: I once read that as many as 20% of marketers confess that they’ve purchased advertising space or entered into ‘marketing partnerships’ with publications to secure preferential editorial coverage – and that number has probably grown in recent years as many news outlets get “creative” in offering new marketing opportunities.

I view the trend as an extension of product placement in the entertainment arena; it’s really no different than featuring a BMW in an action movie or a movie star drinking a Coke. But with those programs, the stories are fictional, and their purpose is to entertain. The news media, on the other hand, is expected to operate by a different set of editorial guidelines, to ensure that trust is at the core of their message delivery.

All that said, there are additional reasons to be concerned with the relationships between marketers and news delivery sources now that online news outlets and blogs are picking up steam and gaining credibility. In my opinion, the online realm creates a whole new unsettling platform for marketers who are willing to engage unethically, primarily because online news sources are not bound to the same ethical guidelines as traditional ones (we’ve even seen fake bloggers create buzz around stories that have found their way into legitimate news outlets).

In an attempt to bring regulations up to speed with the evolution of media, the Federal Trade Commission implemented disclosure guidelines for bloggers last October, requiring them to make mention when they’ve receive any kind of compensation for their coverage – whether it’s a straightforward cash payment for a positive post (which is not expressly prohibited), or a free product for review. Point being, we’re going to see a widening gray area between what is and isn’t “news” in the coming years.

All of this amounts to more credibility for genuinely-earned editorial content – which is where the focus of our public relations campaigns is and always has been.