Surviving in a Pay-to-Play World

Most PR practitioners quickly learn that the wall protecting editorial integrity from the influence of paid advertising can be, like the Pirate Code, “more of a guideline than an actual rule.” For better or worse, at a great number of well-known and respected media sources, advertisers are often given preference in coverage. Media ethics forbid this, but advertising packages often come with editorial opportunities, access to journalists or advertorials. Paid stories disguised as editorial.

Despite denials and indignation from journalists, money does talk at many print, electronic and online media sources; often in direct relation to the financial health and business prospects of its corporate owners. These quid pro quo arrangements are never in writing, and typically are communicated over a lunch with a publisher or sales rep who, with a smile or a wink, assures the client or agency that, “I have no influence over editorial…but I’ll see what I can do.” The more reliant the media outlet is on ad dollars, the thinner the line between advertising and editorial.

Trade and professional associations are not burdened with an obligation of intellectual honesty akin to that of the Fourth Estate. But it’s safe to assume association membership expects that guest speakers and “experts” featured on the agenda of their organization’s annual conference will be selected on the basis of experience, insight and presentation skill. A small number of these groups do restrict vendors from agenda participation, but at most industry conferences, any outside 3rd party can purchase a prominent place on the program agenda…and many of those presentations are poorly disguised sales pitches.

This sale of “thought leadership”– market visibility with inherent credibility – is neither a recent development nor a crime that deserves a congressional investigation. Pay-to-play is a fact of business life, and to deal with this reality, PR and marketing professionals can either:

  • Use the market advantage that deep-pocketed companies have over their (limited budget) client or employer as a convenient rationalization for their inability to generate (unpaid) thought leadership; or they can
  • Stop whining, get creative, and lacking economic resources, promote bona fide content and foster personal relationships as currency to generate thought leadership.

With the media, succeeding in a pay-to-play world means two things. First, it means creating content that’s timely, tailored for the recipient and never delivered in a press release. Secondly, it means building good will with key journalists by consistently providing them with relevant information and ideas, regardless of whether it relates to your company or client, without any expectation of immediate return.

With public platforms, succeeding in a pay-to-play world mostly means advance planning. It can begin by attending the prior year’s event to get a sense of the organization’s membership, priorities and culture, and to meet the group’s leadership. Conference agenda development can start 9 or more months in advance of the event, so it’s important to be on line early with a topic likely to resonate with members. It also helps if your proposal features a dues-paying member of the sponsoring organization.

In both cases, succeeding in a pay-to-play world means managing internal expectations. From the outset, your CEO or client needs to understand that you’re running against the wind, and in exchange for that effort, you must be given permission to fail.

What do you think? Is there a separation between editorial and advertising? Have you experienced an instance where a magazine was more interested in your news after you became an advertiser? Do you completely disagree and believe journalism ethics are alive and well today? Let me know.

About Gordon G. Andrew

Gordon G. Andrew is managing partner of Princeton, NJ based PR and marketing communications firm, Highlander Consulting Inc. ( He has more than 25 years of experience on the corporate and agency sides of the business. He blogs at Contact him at (609) 987-0200 or @gordonandrew.


  1. I know the ‘pay to play’ exists; seen several publications that rely on that for all their content and had to explain to clients that these outlets don’t have much true editorial, it’s all advertiser-promos in disguise.

    I agree w/ much of your advice Gordon but the problem is that so many low budget SMBs don’t or can’t take the time for the planning, for the research that leads to better success; they want to pay for the end results, but not all the time/work it takes to get there. So long as they’re buying into these pay/play opportunities – skipping all the real work – this will continue.

    My other comment, ‘never’ on a press release? I’ll agree on the ‘shotgun’ blasting of old media lists; pointless. I do my homework, customize my pitch to the writer/blogger, the media outlet and their audience, make it as on point as possible. There are times that a targeted press release, sent w/ the right pitch, can be effective. FWIW.

    • Davina…OK, I’ll fess up. “Never” is an overstatement. I will produce a press release if a client puts a gun to my head, or if it’s required for public disclosure. My feeling is that releases are the quickest way to kill editorial interest; having a reporter know that you’re pitching the same content to 200 of his or her competitors. Am I off base on this?

      • Totally agree, it’s why I’m about localizing, customizing, targeting releases very specifically. No ‘spray and pray’ as it is called. Normally I pitch more than send releases, it’s just that often when I get a bite on the line the first thing I hear is, “sounds interesting, can you send a release?”

  2. No, there’s very little, if any, separation between editorial and advertising. I’ve actually had editors of small town publications tell me to my face, or in an email, that running a press release is dependent upon advertising. While we don’t succumb to that pressure, we do share that information with our clients since they determine advertising expenditures.

  3. I don’t think there’s any one answer to this; I have seen publications which are fully paid for with content being all press releases or stories written by a PR professional. In my experience, these publications are not as well respected and I would advise any client against these, as people aren’t stupid – they know that what they’re reading isn’t ‘news’ it’s all advertorial. I have seen instances where editorial features are agreed as added value to advertisers and will occasionally take some priority. That said, what it really comes down to, and most publications worth their salt stand by, is that if it’s news, it’s relevant and is interesting to the market, regardless of whether the client is an advertiser or not, it will be used. The problem is there’s not enough news to still be new by the time a newspaper (for example) can print it nowadays, because there are too many ways of getting the story into the public domain via social media and free publishing blogs/sites.

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