Pay-for-play PR. Is it a thing?

Every founder and CMO wants pay-for-play PR. The idea is alluring— a PR agency would get paid strictly on every win they deliver. But the value of pay-for-play PR is fool’s gold; and I’ll explain why you, as a founder, might not actually want it. First, it’s based on the idea that a “big win” is all you need to get the message out there. Second, the mechanics of pay-for-play can hurt your company.

The perceived value of pay-for-play PR is false

It’s important to get a big misunderstanding out of the way. Many people seeking PR think they want a few big wins in major press publications, which will inevitably catapult them to superstardom. At the core, this thinking centers on the mousetrap myth. But the “build a better mousetrap and the world with beat a path to your door” idea has been proven wrong.

In reality, a major PR win gives you a day, and perhaps a week at best. Just think about how many times you’ve told yourself, “oh, that looks cool. I’ll go buy it later,” and totally forgot about that cool Amazon product, tech accessory, shoe or activewear shirt company you wanted to check out.

A great PR hit gives you a spike in traffic, and a great PR strategy increases the frequency of spikes until your web traffic is full of constant spikes, normalizes, and goals get bigger. BUT, let’s say you know all that and you still want pay-for-play PR. Ok… fair enough.


Pay-for-play PR changes the incentive structure

If your PR company agrees to pay-for-play PR, their incentive structure isn’t focused on your goals. This makes sense when you think about the long game.

Many companies find big success when they understand their target customer’s values, including what media they consume. What’s their favorite podcast, paper, magazine, or website? Sure, they may read The New York Times, but they also may listen to some obscure podcasts or read smaller magazines. One customer of mine reads Plastics News, which boasts a circulation of 40,000 people. If you are a resin manufacturer, which do you think is the better target? Sure, the NYT is sexy, but much harder and far less likely.

Pay-for-play earned media has no strategy

In a pay-for-play PR scenario, the PR company won’t actually center their work on your goal of reaching customers, but on getting big wins. They become less of a strategic partner and more of a hands-off entity. This might not sound bad to you if you are seeking some credibility and don’t care about timeline, BUT you’re missing a critical component of a great PR strategy. Great communications people are constantly spending their time developing stories within your company, finding new angles to drive traffic.

If you take a pay-for-play PR approach, you don’t get strategic help and there’s absolutely no pressure on your PR company to show any kind of ROI.

Pay-for-play PR has a bad ROI

Truthfully, pay-for-play PR will return bad ROI for your company. A PR outfit can focus on your account when convenient, get a big win, get paid, and go dark again. In this scenario, they won’t care about your actual goals or ROI at the end of the day. Perhaps that doesn’t sound bad to you, but it should.

To take on the risk of a pay-for-play PR scenario, the PR company will likely decide on pricing in advance that isn’t budget-friendly. This would look like a cost structure for a long list of identified publications based on circulation size. Consider for one second what the cost would be for an article in the Wall Street Journal. I asked a founder this question and his immediate response showed me the disconnect. “I’m not sure, I guess we’d be willing to pay $3000 for that?” He was missing a zero… or two.

Advertising rates for The Wall Street Journal can reach up to $300,000. Advertising certainly has its place, but ads are seen as biased. Reported articles, however, are vetted, authoritative, and come with a credibility bump. If you consider a placed article has more value, any PR company worth their salt would be completely justified in charging you MORE than the listed ad rate.




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