First, what is the distinction between pay for performance and pay for play?
One of the primary concerns about Pay for Performance and Pay for Play and even with Relationship Based PR has to do with the risk of payment to the journalist or media organization without adequate disclosure. Money is a powerful incentive. If you pay a PR person $15,000 to 25,000 for a five minute interview and placement on a prime time national TV show and half of it goes to a producer who agreed to booked the show then that is a serious issue. It presents something as objective reporting instead of identifying it clearly as advertising. Does everyone disclose their back door payments? Not really.
At least in my experience, most publicists who offer pay for performance are also highly ethical about what they do. The reason is that while success speaks loud, failure speaks much louder indeed, and unethical and illegal behavior fairly screams across the planet. And as in politics, there are, of course, consequences for getting caught.
The higher costs associated with pay for performance are a testament to how difficult it is to be successful. The publicist must take the risk for their time and effort instead of being paid for their time and effort. So yes, publicists do tend to take care when accepting PFP clients. Clearly, it is exceedingly difficult to be successful with poor quality books and inexperienced authors or those who aren’t qualified in the eyes of the media.
The key thing here is to follow the money. If the money gets to the journalist, then the disclosure is required by the FTC. With Pay for Performance, you pay the publicist for success, but the risk is that the media is getting paid, too.
What’s the Problem with Pay for Play?
With pay for play, you pay the media for their time or to cover production or whatever. With relationship based PR, you pay the publicist for the inside connection or referral, or you pay to be at an event where journalists and producers are there, and there is a risk they are receiving payment above ethical guidelines of requirements. With retainer based and task based, you pay the publicist to pitch and there is no payment to the media. It’s the content that is the determining factor.
There is a growing number of media who will charge you a fee and then give you coverage. It’s an ongoing issue in society.
Pay for play poses a growing ethical issue in social media, blogs, paid reviews, media placements in print, and on radio and TV. FTC 16 CFR Part 255 states anyone receiving a product (book, TV, widget) for review is considered to be paid with the product and must be disclosed.
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)’s code now states that ethical practitioners must “encourage disclosure of any exchange of value that influences how those they represent are covered.” The value exchanged may take the form of cash, travel, gifts or future favors.
You can pitch blogs and receive responses from mommy and techie bloggers (from $5 and $10 to $300) to radio shows and even major network and syndicated TV shows saying they’ll be happy to write about you or do a show, if you only pay for the costs of production ($3,000 to $5,000).
Steve Bennett wrote a column in PR Week and said:
“At The New York Times you can’t even accept a free lunch from a contact. And the AP sets a limit of $10 on the size of any benefit received by a journalist.”
The relationship based poses similar ethically questionable situations. It sounds great to hear a PR firm or publicist say that they are on personal terms with a journalist or a host or producer at a big TV show. What’s the problem?
We rely on media to be impartial and to give everyone fair and honest consideration.
Many see this particular style of doing business as a slippery slope that is very susceptible to corruption that undermines the very core of objective reporting and fairness in journalism. There are public relations firms and service providers who offer to place you in front of a group of journalists for a fee. Is it any different than the payments of lobbyists and political action committees in exchange for a meeting with a lawmaker or a politician?
The gold ol’ “hey I’ll buy you lunch meetings”, with drinks, and even, the payment of transportation and even stays at hotels, and more in exchange for coverage. These can turn into lucrative clandestine long-term arrangements where favorable repeat coverage goes to people, companies, organizations, who can afford to pay for the privilege to speak with journalists. What if the PR firm slips a commission fee to the journalist or a “production cost reimbursement” to the media organization?
Do the journalists and their media organizations disclose all financial and other “gifts” faithfully? Do our politicians disclose all their donations, donors, and payments? OK I’m in dreamland.
The next time you see a TV news magazine show look closely for “FTC Disclosure” with the list of sponsors in the credits at the beginning (“The following is paid by our sponsors”.) and the end of the show (the quickly scrolling list of sponsors). Do you even see it?