PR Ethics Concerns: Pay for Play Journalism

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Everybody wants to get on the good side of the media, but what lengths will some people go to be on the right side of the fence? One insidious trend has been causing major waves in the journalism world for quite a while now. It’s called “pay for play,” and it has many people crying foul.

What is it?


Pay for Play Journalism works exactly how it sounds: it involves a direct business relationship with journalists, clients and PR firms. It works on a commission basis where PR firms get paid for the publicity they drum up.

Say a company hires a PR firm to generate publicity about their new carpet cleaner. Instead of the firm generating a campaign based around an overall plan or goal, the pay for play type of PR would see the campaign based around visible results, like a newspaper article or television mention.

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This has also led to corporations holding private “salons” where they meet with off the record journalists for private talks. Last year, The Atlantic came under major fire when it was revealed it had taken the publication down a salon-friendly road when dealing with major corporations.

What’s the Problem?

Many see this new trend as a corruption of the very nature of journalism. Indeed, it does have a very clandestine, speakeasy feel to it, and corporations paying for the privilege to speak with journalists who are unable to report any goings-on behind closed doors is suspicious.

Regarding the PR firms’ decisions to work off a commission-based business model, is this just a clever new way of doing things? Can it work just as well as the old model of paying retainers? It sounds good on paper, but if you’ve ever been to a car lot or (RIP) a Circuit City, you know how obnoxious commission-based employees can get. I fear that this model may slip in dirtier waters once competition arises.

As for the journalists and their relationships with the corporations, having closed door discussions with people they are supposed to be reporting on seems incredibly shady. We rely on the news media to be impartial, and getting paid to have deep discussions doesn’t exactly inspire trust. How are we supposed to believe the next time a major scandal erupts with a major player, if the company has paid our intrepid reporters major cash for private chats?

This article is written by Mickie Kennedy, founder of eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. Download your free copy of the Beginner’s Guide to Writing Powerful Press Releases here:

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