When Everything is an Ad

Public relations professionals see the world a bit differently than most people. We don’t just see news stories, we see how they were pitched, to whom and sort of know how it was all put together to become those stories. As a result, very few of us doing this work believe anything we see, hear, read in the media. Because once you’ve seen how the sausage is made, you just can’t see it any other way.

Now PR used to be about earning your way into a news story by having an expert, access to a product, some data or just a news event that was worthy of news coverage.  But here in 2020, with more media outlets going out of business on a daily basis, “earning” your way into stories has given way to expensive paid “integrations” where TV, radio and online outlets will be more than happy to cover our clients…for a price.

And do we really care if a news story has a price tag on it?  Well, one of the best things about PR is trust and that comes from earning your way in and the formerly sacred covenant between outlet and reader that you’re getting facts, not opinions unless stated. More importantly from the media’s side, when everyone knows your coverage is for sale, what are we really looking at?  Just a new form of advertising really, but it’s not journalism anymore.  

So when everything we see is an ad, what will we trust?  It’s an interesting question and one that more PR firms will need to help our clients address. For example, recently I was contacted by a news service that syndicates content to media outlets like USA Today, Reuters, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, etc. They said I could get “a guaranteed 2,400 placements for my clients” for a small fee. And there’s no doubt they would deliver something. But is it real?

Personally, I like paying for placements because in that arena, we have control over the message, the delivery and pretty much everything.  Control makes me happy.  But…if the audience figures out that PR pros and teams are paying for it, then does it have as much value?  I think time will tell.

Today’s PR professional has to be steeped in paid opportunities, earned ones, and of course the powerful storytelling content we create for our clients and companies. It’s slowly changing. Figuring out the right mix of this stuff isn’t easy and will be among the biggest challenges for the profession moving forward.