PR Insider: Hey Pay-to-Play – Get Off My Lawn!

Evan Zall
Evan Zall

I’ll say it: I’m scared of pay-to-play editorial opportunities in 2014. I know that sounds like rookie anxiety, but no eye-rolling, please (at least for a paragraph or two). I completely understand that advertorial is nothing new and that it’s a dear and eternally present part of the world of published content.

But something’s fishy in 2014.

Check out the Wall Street Journal’s CIO and CFO journals. About a third of the content is from Deloitte, and the firm has an entire section (co-branded with WSJ) devoted to its insights.

As of this writing, The New York Times is also set to launch its “native advertising” platform, which will feature “information provided by marketers that is designed to look more like the articles it appears alongside.”

And Forbes has blown out its BrandVoice advertising offering, through which sponsors can contribute targeted content co-branded with the publication.

Forbes’ staffer Lewis Dvorkin put our minds at ease in February with this attempted Jedi-mind trick (transparently titled The Birth of Brand Journalism and Why It's Good for the News Business): “BrandVoice and similar content marketing initiatives can be discomforting for traditional journalists. They needn’t be. Products like BrandVoice draw a bright shiny line between journalist and marketer for all to see.”

Oh, phew. I was totally discomforted for a second there. Now I see that paid placement is actually good for journa – waaait a second.

When my team hops over to the Wall Street Journal to pitch new insight from an expert on Cloud technology, should it be discomforting that Deloitte has paid to place 4 articles on tangential subjects on the CIO page? When we try to reach a human being at Forbes with suggested content from a high powered, top tier industry thought leader, should we be discomforted when we’re redirected to BrandVoice or ignored completely?

Sorry Lewis, I’m not buying. As a former journalist, PR pro, and owner of an agency that fields both PR and advertising, I remain discomforted with the current and near-term state.

I do, however, believe that true earned media will win its way back into the hearts of publishers.  Here’s why:

  1. PR is the second oldest profession for a reason. When the first business sprang up, the best way to grow Wheels R Us (wheel making is obviously the oldest profession) was to prove in an unbiased forum that the company’s wheels were worth the investment. That has never changed and it never will.
  2.  Advertising is, in the end, more about lead generation than PR. The co-branding on WSJ and through Forbes will only remain subtle until the advertisers push to make the logo bigger, include service offerings below articles, and demand access to subscriber databases (already underway, in many cases). As these changes creep in, refer to bullet #3. The gig is up.
  3. Readers notice when publishers accept money to place content. Given time, they will seek out an unbiased source for critical information; it’s the nature of news and insight.  In a business now ruled by traffic and analytics, when readers stop looking to WSJ/Deloitte for direction and start jumping to a new source, the walls will crumble quickly.

So make no mistake, I’m not going all Chicken Little here. Smart public relations has gone 20 rounds with pay-to-play through the decades, and this isn’t the final blow over the long term; the credibility of unpaid insight and commentary will always win in the end.

But I predict the 2014 bout will go to paid placement by TKO. Eventually, we’ll see the inevitable reader backlash and there will be a natural restoring of order. Until then, PR needs to turn up its creative cap, invest in some Kevlar vests, and evolve to overcome the hostile environment of dominant pay-to-play.

Evan Zall is president of Ebben Zall Group. Follow Evan: @evanzall

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  • Carrie Morgan

    Love this article, Evan!! People know the difference between sponsored content and editorial, and they simply do not carry the same credibility. One is marketing, the other public relations. Here’s hoping publications will clearly indicate what is branded, sponsored content and what is not, instead of disguising it, and ROI will show consumer support of one over the other. Time will tell.

    On a similar note – native advertising and branded content are often used with little differentiation.

    In my opinion, native advertising is the placement of advertising that is relevant to the content it is placed with – appropriate use of ad placement in context to what interests the reader. So an ad on a social media software solution might run next to a WSJ story on social media, for example, instead of an ad on Macy’s sale shoes. Branded content (aka brand journalism), on the other hand, is using paid advertising space to publish its own content – advertorial written by the advertiser that looks similar to true editorial. One is an advertising tactic, the other a content marketing play.

    Would you agree, or do you also use them interchangeably?

  • Evan zall

    Absolutely agree Carrie – unfortunately, the term is being redefined to suit the Times…pun intended. The New York Times is referring to the paid content program as native advertising; where the national business media goes, paid advertisers will follow. I fear the delineation between traditional native advertising and thought leadership will have a lot of mud on it this year, and both terms will need to fight to reestablish their roots over the long term.

    • Carrie Morgan

      Interesting… Perhaps if multiple sources were to mention that they are using it incorrectly? This scenario parallels how marketing has changed the meaning of the term “branding” and “brand” through incorrect use. A huge pet peeve of mine.

      • Evan Zall

        I’m always up for a little thought leadership evangelizing…I’ll do my part…!

      • Carrie Morgan

        <3 it!