The Pay For Play Conundrum

Aug 25, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

By Vanessa Horwell

For the past few weeks, I’ve been following a discussion thread on a LinkedIn group for public relations professionals. The topic? Pay for Placement, which is really an offshoot of the pay-for-performance model.

In much of the business world, pay for performance (PFP) is quite acceptable. Attorneys do it with high-stakes cases. CEOs and executives’ salaries are linked to their companies’ and departments’ overall performance. I’ve worked with ad agencies that have adopted (or least experimented) with PFP. Even the humble car salesperson operates this way.

Yet for most of the PR industry, PFP is considered a very bad concept.

That’s because the perception of PR is not finite, at times ill-defined and intangible in many instances — in contrast to, say, creating an ad campaign or defending a legal matter. In both these examples, there are tangible deliverables, an assumption of costs and an element of control.

Ad agencies will create ads and place them. They know exactly when and where their work will appear. Attorneys will build a strong case, prepare bulky legal briefs, go to court and win — or lose. But in the case of PR, what responsibilities and tasks must a PR agency assume that go into scoring ink? Is it just one description, one objective — to get placed “somewhere”?

Where does one PR campaign end and another begin when the client brief is simply to increase brand awareness and visibility? And what good is “buzz” when there isn’t a strategic approach to managing a company’s reputation and visibility? Because you have to assume that a company fixated on a PFP arrangement is not thinking about strategy as a priority.

But that really isn’t the point. PFP may have been relevant 10 years ago before social media, blogs and free news content existed. It may well have worked when clients had a very limited choice of national broadsheets, and only a handful of print publications as their holy grails.

That model may have worked when we used to send press releases via fax, but this is now. And PFP doesn’t work in PR and media now.

I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit to toying with the idea in the past. I have been approached by companies burned by previous agencies to work on this basis. Their argument is always “you’ll get paid if you get our name in print. That’s what you do, right?”

Wrong. We do a whole lot more.

So here are a few arguments for why PFP doesn’t work in PR and why you should scurry for the hills if a company asks for it.

1. We don’t own media and can’t guarantee you a placement in any publication because what we do is earned. We don’t live in reporters’ pockets — we “earn” the right for your company or brand to appear in a given outlet. That’s why you pay for advertising.

2. We can use our talents, storytelling and creativity to change perception and influence media (and readers), but we cannot force an article to appear no matter how relevant, timely or brilliant you think it is — ever.

3. We work as much behind the scenes in getting media to pay attention to us and your story, i.e., researching trends, competitors, following reporters for months and of course creating an angle — or several — that is newsworthy. This doesn’t happen overnight.

4. If we operate with a mindset that is focused on one fixed outcome only — the proverbial ink — doesn’t it completely miss the point of integrating communications to deliver better ROI and results, which is what businesses are demanding of us now? And how does this affect the rest of the PR/marketing ecosystem; events, articles, surveys, whitepapers, social media and overall representation? Because we usually handle of all those, too.

5. And most importantly, how do we differentiate the value of placements? Is an online article that’s been retweeted 4,352 times and lives in perpetuity more or less valuable than a mention in Inc. that is put out in the rubbish next month? Is the print version of The New Yorker more or less valuable than online? Or what about articles that get syndicated: does this mean you will pay for every article that gets republished once or 100 times? Is broadcast more or less valuable than print or online? Or what happens if the company is only mentioned and not “featured”? And what about social media — is this not a placement as well?

There are so many questions in this case, but only one answer: No to pay for placement in PR.In the words of Paul Del Colle, a fellow PRNews member: “If PR were a science, then PFP would make sense. If there were immutable principles and predictable outcomes, then PFP would be not only logical but the sole way of doing business.” But it’s not.

PFP is unethical; it lessens the overarching value of PR as a whole, and makes bad business sense for our industry on every level.

About Vanessa Horwell

Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the U.S., UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at

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