Pay-for-Play PR – Is the Gamble Worth It?

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cash_paymentPay-for-play or pay-for-performance PR is a tempting proposition. It’s akin to lottery and casino come-ons, filled with the promise of winning the big jackpot. Only the jackpot here is landing a story placement in a major media outlet.

So how does pay-for-pay PR work? These agencies entice clients by foregoing a retainer fee or monthly fee. With traditional PR agencies, these fees can be quite hefty, ranging from a few thousand dollars a month to the tens of thousands for top-tier agencies.

Instead, pay-for-performance agencies only charge the client when there’s a media placement – a mention in a newspaper or magazine article, a radio or TV interview, a link from a website. However, the fees these agencies charge for single “clips” or media “hits” are often disproportionate to the amount of publicity they do (or don’t) generate.

Since these agencies are paid based on the number of placements they secure, they tend to throw a wide net, hoping to catch the most media attention. Think of it as throwing you-know-what on the wall and hoping some of it will stick.

Experienced PR professionals know that the best way to garner media attention is to target the pitch to the appropriate media. (At eReleases, for instance, in addition to the major media outlets clients have a choice of hundreds of targeted media reaching 90,000 journalists.)

Arm Pump

PR professionals also know that the secret to successful PR is not about cold calls and blind emails. It’s about establishing solid relationships with the media – and the public. Hence, the “relations” in public relations.

Another dangerous tactic sometimes employed by the pay-for-pay crowd is offering compensation to the media in exchange for placement. This public relations “model” is eschewed by both PR professionals and journalists. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Code of Ethics promotes transparency in communications. Its code 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.

The Society of Professional Journalists’  Code of Ethics encourages its members to act independently. It states that journalists must “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.” Most newspapers have their own ethical standards which, if violated, will result in termination of the reporter or editor.

Do you want to potentially alienate the very media you’re trying to court? Does the risk outweigh the benefit? You can bet on it.

This article, written by Darcy Silvers, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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This article raises some very valid points worth considering, and perhaps the answer is best left to each individual client. Expanded choices among traditional PR agencies, pay for performance providers, and project-based PR services may actually enlarge the market for PR.

Pay for performance PR may be a desirable approach for clients who have a definite interest in press coverage, but are not able or willing to commit to a fixed level (perceived by some to be high) of monthly fees. Some of these clients have been disappointed with the ROI received from traditional agencies, and favor knowing that their future PR investment will be associated with specific placements.

Pay for performance is not the right choice for a client who needs the constant media interaction required for crisis communications, or who is committed to a longer term branding campaign dependent on media and other constituent groups.

As the blog post mentions, it is clearly unethical to provide any form of inducement to a member of the media in exchange for placement. To imply that this temptation is limited only to a pay for performance environment, however, overlooks the fact that traditional agencies face great pressure to demonstrate results for clients and are thus not immune from this potential temptation.

The more effective a PR practitioner is in creating media opportunities, regardless of how they are paid, the more they will benefit from higher client satisfaction and long term account retention.

We work extensively in the legal market, where the major purchasers of the actual legal services (i.e., Fortune 500 General Counsel) are clamoring for “alternative billing” arrangements that offer relief from traditional and expensive “billable hour” pricing. Some adventurous corporate law firms have even taken a contingency approach to high stakes litigation, and most are looking seriously at billing alternatives. Of course, contingency fee arrangements are widely accepted as the norm among personal injury law firms, enabling them to serve a segment of the population that otherwise could not afford a lawyer.

The pay for performance concept is not uncommon in book marketing services for authors. It is also an emerging payment model in some forms of health insurance and medical services.

After working extensively with a retainer model, we are moving to more of a pay for performance approach for selected PR offerings in 2010. Our goal is to serve the right clients with the right services! May we all find success in our New Year endeavors.


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