Paying for PR: Why You Should Avoid It (Most Of The Time)

Once upon a time, an advert was an advert and it was obvious. On the other hand, if your story got covered in a newspaper or magazine you knew it was good enough to be published for free. Everyone reading it would also recognise that this was the case. This is what is called earned media.

If a journalist felt your story warranted a coveted spot in the publication they worked for, this meant something. Social proof that could not be bought.

On the other hand, advertising worked because it was an unstated understanding between viewer and advertiser that went something like this:

“We’re going to promote our product, we’re going to try and persuade you it’s good. This can be a charming, enchanting experience, a neutral one or plain awful. Even if we do enchant you, you still know you are being manipulated on some level. And that’s fine.”

Whatever your opinion about the morality of advertising, at least we all knew the game. Of course, the best advertising is subliminal, but that’s a story for another day…

The Blurring Of The Advertising/PR Line

This unspoken consensus has worked for a long time. But there has been an ongoing blurring of the line between PR and advertising over the last ten years. The media has been transformed into a slick digital content machine, and where the media goes, PR inevitably follows.

Keyword research, Search Engine Optimisation, meta descriptions, social media now all play major roles in PR strategy. Press releases can gain valuable backlinks for clients. PR stunts can go viral attracting millions of views. There has also been a huge increase in online competition and print sales have been falling for years. Media is under pressure to increase clicks and this has in turn led to a crisis of trust.

So whereas before you would be fully aware as to the difference between earned and paid content, native advertising is now often presented like an earned placement. Native advertising isn’t the only type of paid for content but tends to be a bit more subtle than advertorials. If you read the small print, you will find a disclaimer or a “sponsored by” message. But so many people fail to do this, it may as well not be included most of the time.

To Pay Or Not To Pay? That Is The Question

The big challenge for PR professionals is to understand which types of paid for content to recommend  to their clients and which to avoid. Most of the time it’s best to say no where earned coverage can be achieved.

But it is not always that easy. There are times when “pay for play” can work. This could be targeting a niche audience via a native ad in a niche publication. Or paying for an advertorial at a certain time of the year when the audience is very receptive to your product/service (e.g. Christmas).To pay or not to pay can be a minefield for those who are new to the game.

If you’re an entrepreneur wondering whether to pay for PR or not, in the interest of making your life easier, here’s a list of what you should avoid.


It’s an open secret that the success behind massive online publications such as Forbes, Huffington Post and Entrepreneur is strongly linked to the networks of contributors who write for free. It can be hard to tell the difference between an article written by a regular feature writer and contributor at first glance, even if it is mentioned at the bottom/top of the article.

The problem is that while it goes against publication guidelines for journalists to accept payment to write about a brand, it can be very tempting for writers who are giving up their time for free. The articles written by contributors usually aren’t edited so there is no one checking to see if there’s a potential conflict of interest. These contributors can also bring large networks with them, which can appeal to those looking for a large reach for a reasonable price.

Verdict: For some writers this can appear to be a good short-term move. But in the long-term it’s definitely not a good idea. If found out, this can damage reputations and jeopardise careers. And this will reflect on your brand too. So if you come across an agency offering you a definite placement in Forbes and there’s payment involved, you will know to just say no.


This is a less upmarket version of the above. You’ll be offered a profile spot to position yourself as a thought leader. The publication won’t be one you’ve heard of. Another red flag is if you research the publication and find that there are a lot of profile pieces and little news/feature content. The problem is that you won’t be told that there’s a payment involved until the last minute, potentially wasting a lot of time.

Verdict: The best thing is to always ask upfront if there’s a payment and if there is, say no immediately. It’s unlikely that a reputable publication will make such an offer – they don’t need to!


These types of pitches are usually sent just after you’ve made a big announcement in the news and/or on your website.

The way it usually works is that you will receive an email from an obscure publication that explains that you have been shortlisted for an award. Bizarrely, sometimes you may have actually won already!  There will be no explanation given as to how they judged you or of the selection criteria. There will usually also be a long entry form to fill in – and the catch? Once you have done this, you’ll have to pay to have the rights to publicise the award.

If you do get such an offer, first things first check if there have been any past winners. Look at their Linkedin. Do they have a page, employees, how many? Have a look at all of their social handles, how many followers they have, what types and how long they have been active. Do a quick check on Google news to see what stories have been coming out about them. Even if they seem for real, avoid. No credible organisation would need to approach in such a way.

Verdict: Just say NO. But bear in mind that there are plenty of prestigious awards ceremonies that do ask for payment. The difference is that this tends to happen once you have applied directly for the award and can be for reasons such as booking a table at the event rather than directly paying for the award itself. Another example is that they may offer you an extra advertising package if you do win and it won’t be obligatory to publicise that you’ve won.


Once again you will receive an email out of the blue (starting to see a pattern here?) inviting the CEO/company owner (e.g. you) to appear in an interview that will be broadcast and published on a big network (such as Fox News). One trick often used is that they will have purchased a block of airtime at a time when audience figures are low. And – you’ve guessed it – you’ll pay far more than if you had called the channel and paid directly yourself.

Verdict: Avoid. If you really want television coverage you could call the station directly yourself.

At times, pay for play can be effective. But in the vast majority of cases earned media is simply more valuable as it demonstrates that you and/or your brand is worth covering for free.

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