What are Paid Media Placements? (And Why You Need to Avoid Them)

Oct 25, 2021

PR is all about earned media—that is, media placements that we earn through tailored, relevant, and strategic pitches. But over the last few years, there has been a huge rise in “pay-to-play” opportunities. 

Clients see “PR agencies” guaranteeing placements in specific media outlets…which can lead to big problems for those of us doing PR the right way. Paid media placements are a HUGE red flag from any “agency,” but without being educated about what PR really means, clients won’t know to run the other way! 

Knowing exactly what’s going on with paid media placements is the first step to educating your clients and successfully showcasing the value of YOUR PR practices (without feeling like you need to guarantee results—because it’s really just not possible). 

What Are “Pay-to-Pay” Media Placements?

Before we talk about how to educate our clients about real media placements, let’s do a quick refresher on what’s actually happening in the industry with paid media placements.

 There are actually two umbrellas under the idea of paid media placements: paid opportunities from outlets, and “guaranteed” placements from PR agencies. Let’s explore each of these a little further.

Paid Opportunities From Outlets

This first type of paid media placement involves something sneaky that’s honestly been happening for years. With this type of paid feature, people frame themselves in a misleading light. 

For example, someone might say something like “I’m a producer for this lifestyle segment and we’re interested in talking to your client”—then you get on the phone, your client is excited, and that person tells you it’s $7,500 to produce it and it will air in “however many” markets. 

These are really sneaky, but overall, this type is a little less detrimental to our industry as a whole—it’s just kind of like an (unfairly labeled) advertorial opportunity.

“Guaranteed” Placements from PR Agencies

But what our community is finding really frustrating and upsetting is when other PR firms are guaranteeing placements. 

PR firms themselves are saying things like “Our PR agency is solely based on results, not retainers. We have an opportunity for a full feature in Business Insider, in about two weeks. You only pay if we place the piece (and you’ll be able to approve it beforehand). I’ll land you in Forbes, Entrepreneur, etc. for $500.”

These agencies certainly aren’t helping the problem our industry faces about results not being guaranteed. We want to show our clients ROI, but when PR firms are shady about it and “guarantee” results, it hurts all of us who do things the right way. 

One example is Business Insider—this outlet is pay-for-play. So, sure. They probably do have an opportunity for a full feature—one that the poor, unsuspecting client will pay for (with, I imagine, an upcharge from the PR firm) when they “place” the story. 

The big giveaway is being able to approve the piece ahead of time. I don’t know about you, but I have never, in my entire career, had a journalist do a feature piece on a client and let us approve it beforehand. Ever.  

These agency-driven pay-to-play media placements are a newer thing happening in PR, and they’re hurting our industry. 

Keep in mind, sponsored stories also have much much lower traffic and social amplification.

Related: Should You Guarantee PR Results for Your Clients?

Why Is This So Bad?

There’s a code of ethics in PR that earned media is earned media. As PR pros, we work on a retainer to try to get earned media. 

Communications cannot (and should not) be driven by the short-term success of placing a single piece, regardless of it being organic or paid. GOOD communicators care about strategy, messaging, and storytelling. And good clients care about those things, too. 

When someone guarantees a feature, they are paying for wholesale real estate on these websites. They’re basically buying ad space because they have an inside track with a contributor or journalist. This is wrong and the outlets also don’t like this — as soon as they realize that a contributor is selling space, they get rid of the contributor, delete the article, and blacklist the client so they will never get featured again.

An agency like this has no idea what the client’s goals are, what their message is, what their strategy includes, who their audience is, and perhaps that a specific outlet isn’t the best place for them to tell their story. 

Some Agencies Are Also Guaranteeing A Number Of Media Placements

Something else that some PR firms (wrongly) do is guarantee their clients a specific amount of placements. These aren’t in specific outlets, so they’re probably just syndicating press releases across low-quality outlets. 

The actual value of this type of work is basically zero, but it’s a vanity number that sounds good to the client. And this makes it harder for those of us really working to generate quality press features to convince clients of the ROI of PR. 

It’s always been a thing that some PR firms offer services a la carte ($X per placement), but this isn’t as common anymore. We highly recommend NOT pricing your services this way—your value as a PR pro is so much more than that!  

And after all, your goal should be to create consistent, predictable, recurring revenue for yourself...and since SO MUCH of getting placements is out of your control, this is NOT a winning strategy. 

Related: How to Set Up & Price Your PR Retainer Services

Some PR Firms Are Paying Large Outlets To Become Expert Contributors

Another way that the idea of paid media placements comes up is that you can actually pay large outlets (like Newsweek - and actually, most major business outlets are doing this) to become an expert contributor. 

They charge a fee and allow you to write content on their website...because it gives you a platform and credibility. The outlets supposedly vet everyone who applies, and then you can say that you’ve been featured. 

You could offer this as a service on behalf of your client. You’d apply to become a contributor and then write and post the articles for them. But again, this is a pay-to-play deal and isn’t as valuable as a true earned media placement!

So, How Do We Cope With The Plague of Paid Media Placements? 

Now that you know exactly what’s happening with paid media placements in PR, let’s talk solutions. How do we combat this type of sneaky behavior? What if a client sees that other PR firms are offering guaranteed placements and they want to know why you don’t?

Here’s what you should do. 

Focus On Client Education

Client education really is paramount here (and in so many other areas of our business). 

Remind the clients of what you’re hired to do. Your job as a PR pro is to be a storyteller and craft compelling pitches for true earned media—that’s the value you bring to the table. 

Results aren’t guaranteed, and that is the industry standard. But your clients won’t know this! From the very first discovery call with a client to when you’re onboarding them, prioritize client education and the value of true earned media. 

Be Selective In Who You Work With

Most large clients understand that results aren’t guaranteed (and that those pay-to-play opportunities aren’t so legit). 

If you’re struggling to work with clients who have unrealistic expectations, it could be a sign that you need to set your sights higher and work with more high-end clients who will appreciate you!

You’ll also want to thoroughly vet clients before you take them on to make sure they are a good fit for YOU as much as you are for them (and that they understand the value of PR + how it works). 

Find Your Confidence

Be confident in your ability to secure amazing results for your clients even if you’re not guaranteeing those results. 

Inside The Pitch Lab, I cover the A-Z of scoring press features for your clients so that you know exactly what you need to do to actually get those amazing earned media placements. That way, you can feel confident in pitching and working with clients, no matter what shady stuff is happening elsewhere in the industry. 

Shady paid media placements are a huge no from me. 

But now, you’ll be prepared to educate your clients about why these media placements are so sketchy, why earned media is so much more valuable, and the results you’ll be able to deliver as a skilled PR professional!