The PR industry desperately needs PR

by Shannon Paul on August 3, 2008

The plumber’s sink always leaks, right? Maybe that’s why the reputation of PR people and the industry at large always seems to be suffering.

People either don’t understand what PR does, or they think PR is evil. Obviously, neither is ideal.

An unfortunate side effect of this perception, combined with newsroom financial woes, is that pay for play media placement is reportedly on the rise.

An article in Advertising Age by Michael Bush provides some rather alarming statistics regarding engagement in pay for play coverage among chief marketing officers and marketing directors in the sixth annual MS&L Marketing Management Survey:

  • 19 percent said their organizations had purchased advertising in exchange for news coverage.
  • 8 percent said their organizations had paid or provided a gift of value to or producer in exchange for news coverage.
  • 10 percent said that their organizations have had implicit or verbal agreements with a reporter or editor that you can expect to see positive coverage in exchange for advertising.
  • 53 percent said the marketing industry as a whole is not following ethical guidelines in the new media realm.

While the numbers of CMOs engaging in unethical activity is hardly the majority, the numbers are all up from previous years. This trend has the potential to undo credibility of the publication and further erode public trust, especially in an age when anyone with a blog has the ability to start drawing parallels between a publication’s coverage and its advertisers. Pardon me if this seems like several really bad PR situations in the making.

The reality is that PR engagement is an incredible bargain when compared with the cost of creating and placing an ad. If these organizations had sought PR, they could have garnered the same positive coverage ethically by working with the reporter to deliver helpful and relevant information.

How should the PR industry help educate others about the role of PR? It seems to me that groups like the PRSA have focused solely on fostering relationships between PR pros and journalists, but not so much on relationships involving people in other marketing roles.

In an age when everyone’s job title and responsibilities in marketing and PR seem to be converging, isn’t it time to start sharing some of the nuances of our individual functions so that we can work together to keep ethics in check? Wouldn’t it also be helpful to educate those individuals in a position to actually engage PR, like say, a chief marketing officer?

If they don’t understand our role, why would they ever seek our counsel?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

August 4, 2008 shawn smith 1

Great Post Shannon. cool to see you blogging too! I’ve had my share of work convincing people that marketing and PR is still a good profession, but I’d say a large number of people just don’t trust it from the beginning. People are skeptical of just the words themselves. I think much of the perception is that PR and marketing is manipulation of peoples’ thoughts. Only through transparent and honest communication can marketing get its good name back. I think it can happen, but the communicators have to tell it like it is to their audiences at all times.


August 4, 2008 Beth Harte 2

Hi Shannon, insightful post, thanks. You are right, there is a lot of focus on education between PR folks and journalists, but marketers who may end up taking over the PR responsibility never seem to educate themselves once in these new roles (and I think it is their responsibility to do so). I think a lot of it is because they look at PR with an advertising mindset—anything can be bought. Part of the ethical responsibility lies then with the editor/reporter/journalist to just say no. If you say no enough times, eventually marketers will catch on that editorial can’t be bought. Good PR is just like good marketing, you *have* to provide good, valuable content and products/services. It’s just that simple.


August 4, 2008 Jeremiah Staes 3

Good post.

I know of quite a few publications that play this way – and some of them are major outlets. I’ve been pitched quite a few times – you pay X for an ad or appearance, and we’ll cover you for a week. It’s that clear by the ad reps nowadays.

This is most prevalent in business news and tech coverage.

It’s pretty common, as well, that large companies’ PR groups create whole “news” packages about their product with a reporter, and leave it without graphics – and then provide it to local stations who gladly run it throwing their own bumpers on either side and graphics over the top.

With budget cutting, many producers just want to fill content and if someone wants to give it to them, they take it. It’s one less reporter they have to hire.


August 4, 2008 Tim Marklein 4

Interesting post, Shannon. I got nervous when I saw the headline, of course, but think the premise of what you’re saying is spot-on advice. After 17+ years of in-house and agency experience, I find that too few PR people invest the time and effort in building relationships and understanding across the *rest* of the marketing mix. Understandably, we’re all busy “getting it done” on the front lines — and not enough time advocating for our function, and educating executives on how it really works.

Looking at the survey data, I’d bet there’s a big gap between the “reality” of what’s happening vs. the perception from CMOs. I’ve seen plenty of media sales reps who imply that advertisers will get some sort of coverage or access that they would not have otherwise — when the reality is that their PR team is already working with the front-line editors who have no idea what is being “promised” or implied. Since the ad/marcom team is then working very closely with the CMO on customer engagement, and the PR people aren’t talking about the same things, the CMO credits the success to someone in advertising or marcom rather than PR.


August 4, 2008 shannonpaul 5

I really appreciate everyone’s thoughtful responses. I am glad this is striking a nerve. I hate the thought of pay for play becoming the norm.

Shawn – Thanks so much for stopping by! I agree, that honesty is always best. The truth has a pesky way of coming out in the eventually anyway.

Beth – I think you’re right that responsibility lies with editors making the best choice to maintain the integrity of their publication and that people assuming the role of PR should drop the advertising mindset and work to earn coverage with the media instead.

Jeremiah – I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with running video footage pulled together by the company with the station’s bumper and graphics as long as the coverage wasn’t aired as news as a direct result of purchasing ad spots.

Tim – I’m sorry I made you nervous. : ) However, I really appreciate your candor. Thanks for helping to provide some perspective on the matter. I think what you describe probably happens a lot and it’s a great thing to keep in mind — as much as marketing and PR are interrelated as job functions, both sides could really benefit from a little education about what the other actually does.


August 4, 2008 mavennyc821 6


August 8, 2008 gregorylent 7

marketing and pr are scams, period. greed in silk.

unless, and this is nearly impossible…

you actually stop thinking about getting, and start thinking about actually giving something to customers, targets, markets, demographic groups.

because energy follows intention, hyper-connectivity increases transparency, and people can see your motives from miles away.

and everybody hates selfish people. without exception.

enjoy, gregory lent


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