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Media Relations: Should You Pay For News Coverage?

Dear New York Times:

I'd like to be quoted in one of your news stories. Enclosed is a check for $500. Please call me to arrange the interview sometime this week. Evenings are best. Thank you.

Imagine how such a letter would be greeted in the New York Times newsroom. The recipient would likely laugh out loud and might even post it on the bulletin board so other reporters could walk by and enjoy a good chuckle.

The letter wrongly assumed that the New York Times would accept "pay for play," or would run a news story as long as a payment accompanied the request. It's preposterous, of course, and U.S. news organizations just don't work that way.

Or do they?

I recently booked a client on a Washington area radio talk show. After booking the client, I spent some additional time exploring the show's website. Here's what it said:

"Guest Opportunities: $600 to appear as a guest, 6 minute (minimum) interview."

Although the host agreed not to charge my client, it made me wonder how pervasive this practice is, and whether media relations professionals should ever take advantage of this type of pay for play.

It's not as uncommon as you might think. When I headed the media department for an environmental nonprofit, I used to get calls from production companies who were purportedly interested in producing half-hour documentaries on our group. The pitch was that they would then sell the completed program to a national network like Discovery or PBS, which would happily air it.

But later in the conversation, they would inevitably reveal their less than journalistic motives - they wanted us, as the subject of the piece, to pay tens of thousands of dollars to "defray their costs." (Could you imagine Mike Wallace, after his recent interview with Russian President Putin on CBS, asking the Premier for a few grand to help 60 Minutes recover its production costs?)

When we asked the production companies what they could guarantee, they told us the show would appear on at least 80 PBS stations - but they couldn't tell us in which markets and at what airtimes. In other words, they wouldn't tell us if we would be buying a 3:00 A.M. timeslot in a small town or primetime in New York City. Something seemed off, and we decided to walk away from it.

A few months ago, I met someone who tried it. According to the president of a well-respected cultural nonprofit organization, the producers promised her that for $60,000, they could guarantee her that the show would air in at least 80 markets. After the show started airing, she asked the producers repeatedly for a list of the markets in which the piece was running. She never heard a word. She suspects the number was closer to 12 than 80.

So what should you do if you're ever confronted with a pay for play opportunity? In general, I'd advise you to walk in the other direction. There are many news outlets that will report your story the right way - for free. Plus, the public is savvy enough to detect the difference between a balanced piece of journalism and an infomercial, and is more likely to regard the former with more credibility.

Is there ever a time to say 'yes' to pay for play? Well, perhaps. If, for example, the pay for play offer allows you to own the rights to any raw video footage the production team shoots and you can use that material in other ways, it might make sense. Or, if the venue is a direct hit on your target audience and you have no hope of getting coverage with that outlet in any other way, it might be worth it.

But in general, be wary. Pay for play has a way of making its customers pray for pay - in the form of a refund check.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

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