This morning I received an email solicitation from a company in Los Angeles selling both direct and white label public relations services “on a performance-based cost model.” My inbox is constantly flooded with emails like these, but since I was already planning on writing about this topic, I took a look at the company’s website. Their tagline: “PR Retainers Suck. We Provide Pay-Per-Placement.”
Their website goes on to say, “We’re SO CONFIDENT in our relationships and PR ability that we’re willing to bear the risk and burden of doing the upfront work though. And, we believe that the most beneficial way to show you that value is to offer pay-per-placement press.” Sounds like a good deal, right? Think again…
The popular technology and startup news site TechCrunch has long fought against the practice of pay-per-placement publicity. In 2012, it officially banned the publication of pay-for-placement content, stating “…we think that making press coverage this transactional crosses an ethical/editorial line and diminishes the integrity of our brand and our writers.” In short, TechCrunch editors refuse to consider pitches from publicity firms and consultants engaged in “a-la-carte” pricing, which involves the client paying the so-called public relations firm only if content is published in specific news websites.
According to TechCrunch, the role of public relations firms and consultants should remain limited to helping create and position the core messaging a brand wishes to communicate with the public. Most often, public relations agencies and consultants use retainer or hourly business models. In a sense, this can be a bit like hiring an attorney. The retainer covers much of the cost, and if additional work needs to be done, it’s billed at an hourly rate.
For many businesses, retainer and hourly models work well. They can determine how much their budget allows and, based on what they’re willing to invest, contract for the work they want the agency to complete. Though public relations campaigns take time to develop and grow organically, these businesses can absorb the costs until the work generates positive return on investment.
From the perspective of cash-strapped small businesses and startups, guaranteed placements from publicity firms through a pay-per-placement model can be extremely tempting. However, the reality is that these models are inherently unethical, underhanded and potentially unlawful.
In a 2018 exposé titled “These Are The People Paying Journalists To Promote Brands In Articles,” Jon Christian of The Outline describes a dubious trend “where publicists…have carved out a niche arranging undisclosed payments to financially strapped reporters and bloggers in exchange for friendly media coverage of clients.” He goes on to describe an email he obtained from a pay-per-placement consultant with an attached a price list: “a mention in Forbes cost $1,200, Inc. cost $1,100, Entrepreneur cost $900 and the Huffington Post cost just $500.”
The Federal Trade Commission requires content sponsors to disclose whether they have paid for a third-party review or endorsement. When so-called public relations firms make under-the-table deals with rogue contributors who accept bribe payments, there lies the potential to violate fair-trade practices.
Well-known online news outlets have reached a near-consensus that the industry must crack down on these improper quid pro quos and the publicity firms who propagate the practice, with most news outlets deliberately banning it. Christian notes that Inc., Entrepreneur, Forbes and Fast Company all said such practices are against their editorial guidelines.
Serious public relations professionals do not commoditize their media relationships by putting a price tag on them. Serious public relations professionals do not have financial relationships with the editors, producers and reporters they work with. As a result, they do not guarantee any one story or piece of content will be broadcasted or published in a desired outlet. Finally, serious public relations professionals become an extension of your team, not acting as a publicity broker, but as a strategic partner positioning your brand for success.
For these reasons, small businesses and startups should be extremely skeptical of any agency advertising guaranteed placements or pay-per-placement. Instead, find a public relations partner with an outstanding reputation, an ethical business model and a track record for honest results.