Is "Pay to Play" Press Really Worth It? Co-founder Sabina Weighs In

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Common knowledge in the publicity industry is the pay-to-play model, where people on TV who are showing his or her recommendations, may or may not have charged a fee to that brand they are featuring in order to show them that day, or in that print story. Same thing could happen at a blog, website or magazine. Entrepreneurs and business owners who are new to the world of publicity are usually surprised when responded to with a fee request, and are either happy to pay it, or decide that route is not a fit for them. Tin Shingle co-founders Sabina Hitchen and Katie Hellmuth-Martin are exploring this situation in a 2 part article series called "She Said, She Said." This article is Katie's contribution. Click here to read Katie's side of the story.


I've worked in public relations for over a decade and one of my favorite things about it is that it's one of the most powerful and effective forms of "free advertising" you're ever going to get your hands on as a business owner.  If you're doing it on your own, it's 100% free (save the time and energy it takes you to do your PR work) and the impact it has in terms of growing your visibility, telling your brand story and building trust between your company is priceless...Except that these days it actually has a price in more and more cases!

What am I talking about here? "Pay-to-Play" public relations, also known as Pay for Placement, "P2P and paid exposure. When do you run into it? If you're a small business, you'll probably cross paths with it more and more, "it" meaning an expert, blogger, social media personality, event producer or more who offers you a press or exposure opportunity in return for a financial payment. Though these instances used to be seldom, they're now becoming more and more common and because of that, I'm going to break down a few things I believe you should know about them, in hopes you'll be able to navigate these situations more easily in the future.

So What's the Deal with "Pay to Play" Opportunities? Why Do They Exist?

Let's talk about the ever-changing face of media starting to cost you, and where it came from in the first place. At the end of the day, at it's most basic it's all about business and more specifically, money. It's that simple. The person offering you a press opportunity in return for payment, will tell you that they're just trying to run a business, and be reimbursed for their hard work.  Whereas you will not be asked to pay for an editorial opportunity in a national magazine, most large blogs and websites, and any TV appearance that you book with a producer (key words here: book with a producer), more and more personal bloggers, social media influencers and "on-air experts" (the people who take your products on air with them) are asking for payment in return for sharing your product on their website or on-air.

I recently spoke to a woman who does product segments on television regularly who charges companies big and small on a sliding scale for taking them on. It's actually a large part of her income, and she has no shame in her game.  As she explained to me, "I have to bust my butt to create and land the TV segment, I have to put it all together and pull products in, prep, get myself TV ready, and rock the TV segment making sure I get in the correct talking points for every brand I bring on, you bet I'm going to charge them for my work. I'm not free labor. Also, my work is getting them in front of thousands and at times millions of eyeballs." Well there you have it, that's how she feels, and as someone who has worked with clients who are both product based and experts like this gal, I can see both sides of the story and empathize with them both. To me, the P2P situation kicks off other issues.  Let's discuss...

There's More Going On Beneath the Surface

As is the case with most parts of your business (besides taxes), nothing here is required.  You don't have to agree to pay any fee for press and those of you hoping for national magazine or well-known website placement, you're still safe from that option. I don't see Refinery29, People.com or the Huffington Post charging for press anytime soon. But if you're hoping for an on-air expert to take your product on air you are going to have to make some calls about the offering, and we'll talk about that more shortly.  What I'm first going to talk about is what I see as challenges this situation creates:

Millions of Americans watch television every morning and clamor to buy what the "experts" say is the best "this" or a must-have "that".  They trust that these pros have done their research and are coming up with creative and legitimately sourced products for them.  The problem arises, however, when that isn't totally the case. Because some of the products behind shown off on-air have paid to be there. Sure, an expert can say they only write about or talk about what they truly love, but when they only take on products that pay them you have to wonder how true, and how fair that is.

Right now television networks including NBC require their on-air talent to be forthcoming about whether or not they were paid for anything they are endorsing, as it's 100% not allowed. So if someone is charging you to take your products on The Today Show, they are doing it against the rules of NBC.  Again, I see their point about needing to be paid, but what they're doing is blurring the lines of paid promotion and authentic, "pure" publicity.  It just feels different, and I suspect that is why NBC tries to crack down on it.

Call me nostalgic, but my small business loving heart misses the days when a business could score a blog post write up or a TV opportunity simply for being amazing.  Yes, that still happens on a daily basis but it's peppered with incidences of people trying to profit from the dreams of entrepreneurs who are hoping for their big break.  Sometimes these paid opportunities are totally worth it, and sometimes they're just hard - and expensive - lessons that business owners are forced to learn through experience.

So Do I Pay-to-Play or Do I Pass?

As much as it's probably clear that I'm not a big fan of people in the editorial or TV world charging small business owners to score press, I don't see the trend going anywhere. In fact, now that there are more and more small business "fish in the sea" there are more and more people of all kinds, from gift bag promoters to TV personalities trying to make a profit from there - such is life in the business world.

If you're presented with such an opportunity here's what I'd suggest you do:

  • Do not simply pay for press because it's press. Not all media will impact your brand, and chances are if it's a small website or blog that you've never heard of, your customers haven't heard of it either and paying for a blurb is not going to move the needle, it will just cost you.
     
  • If a blog/website/social media influencer invites you to "P2P" I want you to: Check their social media feeds (numbers, activity, engagement), check their website traffic, check the style of their posts and the vibe of their website, and ask for their "media kit" or "advertising rates card". If you really want to do your research ask them if you can get a reference.
     
  • If an on-air expert asks you to pay for TV placement I want you to ask this: When will it air (day and time), Where will it air (location and specific show/segment), What the opportunity will consist of: will it be a full mention and description and visual, will you be mentioned by name or just in a collection of products, will they be tweeting about you as well?
     
  • Decide whether it's really worth it to you. A 5 AM time slot in Gary, Indiana may not produce the results - if any - that you need to make the payment worth it. A feature at 10 AM with Kathie Lee and Hoda, though not necessarily "above board" could be HUGE for you. The fee may be huge as well, however, which leads me to...
     
  • Don't say "yes" to the first price. Negotiate. Ask for more (a blog post in addition to TV appearance, some tweets, etc.)

Finally, Remember This:

Listen, I get how much we all want publicity, and I mean realllllly want it. I know that sometimes it's tempting to just fork over the money for a press opportunity because you want something - anything - to just click. But I urge you to really think of your decision before saying yes.

More than that, though, I want you to think about this: You can get yourself nearly every opportunity you want in a "pure" PR kind of way.  The only types of outlets that will require you to pay (at least for the time being) are personal blogs or posts from social media influencers.  But the press that comes in magazines, on truly editorial websites and blogs, and on local and national television shows that you're yearning for only costs a these things: strategic know-how, time, effort, persistence and belief in yourself. Not one penny more!

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Read Tin Shingle co-founder Sabina Hitchen's contribution to this topic in Katie's article here.