The multi-billion-dollar PR industry—and the media relations programs so often at its core—was built on a simple premise: earning media coverage is a powerful way to build both awareness and credibility for a brand. Getting corporate and product messages in front of relevant audiences relied largely on building relationships with editors, producers and journalists and then providing the news, expert sources and other assets necessary to align a brand narrative to their reporting—and to their deadlines.
Where Traditional Media Relations Is Sacred, Some Pros Need Religion
Earned media was and is just that: hard-earned. It’s challenging work finding the right media targets, pulling together the right story elements and playing what could feel like a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse, with the cheese of seeing that pitch convert to coverage always dangling enticingly overhead. For many on the front lines of pitching, the process was held as sacred, if stressful.
With that pride of ownership in the craft of media relations, perhaps it comes as no surprise that many in the PR industry—myself included—turned their noses up at any media opportunities that carried a fee. Any promising engagement would screech to a halt at the slightest assumption of an associated cost. Even as branded content, paid social and content marketing proliferated, media relations purists stood their ground: pay for play was “cheating.”
But the explosive growth in digital communications and different marketing channels at play today means audiences have changed the game for traditional media relations. Moreover, PRNEWS reported as recently as April 2022 that there are now more than six PR pros for every one journalist.
The media and publishing landscape has evolved, and so, too, must traditional media relations. If we no longer fax pitches or print off hard-bound coverage books, why are so many in the industry still treating sponsored content as taboo?
Sponsored Content Had a PR Problem
Ironically, in many ways, sponsored content and other pay-for-play opportunities simply had a reputation issue. They were perceived as too promotional, untrusted or, as a 2019 headline in “What’s New in Publishing” posited, “destroying journalism.” But the reality is that such engagements are far from new: many tech companies pay to engage industry analysts and then license and share their content; publications issue reputable awards that carry entry fees sometimes over $1,000 to simply be considered; and influencer relations have become a billion-dollar category in its own right thanks to the monies exchanged between brands and those ready to promote them.
Sponsored content is now becoming pervasive in traditional media relations thanks to the one-two punch of media properties opening additional opportunities as their own business models evolve and best practices solidifying so that rightful concerns around transparency and ROI are addressed.
Today, sponsored content—be it in the form of a native article or ad, a paid editorial series with a publisher or even large-scale branded content in the form of a documentary or digital platform—can solve a host of challenges that remain core to traditional earned media. Brands can own the narrative fully, adapt quickly to the changing news cycles or their own narrative evolution and access top-tier publication placements. Moreover, such campaigns can extend the life of a positive story that is often fleeting in today’s 24/7 news cycle and have metrics that help solve earned media’s elusive measurement problem – with insight into impressions, clicks, time on content, audience overlays and often much more.
The best PR pros and programs will embrace the reality that the best media relations programs will include earned and sponsored elements, balancing their respective benefits, limitations and value in a way that best serves the campaign and program goals. And, before my media relations peers come at me, rest assured: the cat-and-mouse game that keeps so many of us excited to get to work each day won’t go away, but it’s also nice to have the cheese served up on a beautiful platter that attracts the right crowd.
Pay-for-play is here to stay. Let’s embrace it.