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Media Relations: Should You Pay For News Coverage, Part II

Last month, we told you about "pay for play," a practice in which news organizations charge sources to appear on their programs. In other words, if you ante up enough cash, these "news" programs will air a puff piece about your company or organization.

But in most cases, these pay for play outfits don't deliver what they promise. Not only don't they stand behind their "guarantees" of audience numbers, but the public regards their alleged reporting with skepticism. The public is smart enough to recognize the difference between a news segment and advertising.

Shortly after sending out our article on pay for play last month, PR Week Magazine reported a story on its front page about yet another scheme.

Terry Bradshaw, the former Pittsburgh Steelers hero, is hosting a television program called "The Winners Circle." The program honors companies for their "forward thinking and consistent principles." The segments air during commercial time on MSNBC, CNN, CNN Headline News and CNBC.

The problem is this - the companies actually pay the producers of these spots $29,000 for their dubious honor. The producers never say that the alleged winners paid for the honor. Occasionally, they cryptically note that the commercial time was purchased. But in some cases, the spot has aired with no notice to viewers whatsoever that this was just a glorified commercial.

With the practice under increased scrutiny, my advice remains the same as it was last month - in general, walk away from these offers.

There is one disclaimer here. While running the media shop at Conservation International, I received a call from the producers of "The Winners Circle." Like many pay for play outfits, they were aggressive. They wanted the sale - and I got the sense that they couldn't care less whether or not the subject of the piece was actually a "winner."

I went to the producer's website to see if it listed criteria for what they considered a winner. It listed laughably softball criteria, such as, "What can viewers learn from your satisfied customers?" I suspect their real definition of a "winner" is anyone with $29,000 to burn.


Last month, we asked our newsletter subscribers to tell us about their experiences with pay for play outfits. Here's what you had to say:

Doralisa writes, "We have been approached several times by exactly the same type of pay for play outfit you described in your newsletter. I've had experience with those companies at previous jobs, so I knew from the get-go what was coming after the first flowery sales pitch. Besides the obvious reasons for rejecting them (no guarantee of what markets and time slots it would air, and you'd end up with an infomercial of dubious credibility), the finished cost-per-minute was more than twice what it would cost for me to make the same video in-house, and at the end of the day, we still would not have the rights to the raw footage. If it sounds too good to be true ?."

Laura writes, "I think we got the same pitch as you did. As a non-profit with literally zero resources devoted exclusively to broadcast journalism, the idea "sounded" wonderful. But more probing made me nervous; they didn't really know our organization name, nor what our purpose was, nor what their story was - they expected us to provide the hook and the main storyline! It was these problems that made me realize what the true motivations were. I mean, no true journalist doesn't know their own story."

Perhaps there are a few good pay for play operators out there. But watching these groups from both up close and afar has made me wary. My experience has taught me that companies and organizations can almost always invest their $29,000 more effectively. My advice is this - when you get the pitch, take a walk.

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.

For more information and to sign up for free monthly media relations and media training e-tips, visit


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