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PR and paying for coverage. Is media buy the inevitable future of PR?

Posted by: Al Fox on 2 May 2017

There’s always been an uneasy correlation between PR and advertising. In the past, this was usually restricted to the confusion between editorial and advertorial; and in the B2B trade media, company news coverage usually meant media buy, or at the least handing over a colour separation fee.

Today, with the increase of native advertising – where ads usually take the form of content, edges have become even more blurred. The media landscape itself has also changed radically and many outlets can only exist by having paid-for content.

Some PR agencies now realise that media buy is important to get the message out, and understand that increasingly, editorial (whether that’s news, features or articles) doesn’t always achieve what it used to, no matter how strong it may be. PR practitioners have been forced to get a little more creative, and perhaps much less precious to spread their brand stories.  With Edelman’s hire of a high-profile media strategy person lately, it’s clear that even the big boy PR agencies are getting super serious about media buy.

Chief Content Officer at Edelman, Steve Rubel, explained, “our goal is to put paid as a strategic resource we can tap into to further amplify our core work.”

In other words, they’re getting smarter about paying for coverage. But this is fair enough surely? Times have changed.

As we know, most companies believe that their new product or service is so amazing that their sector’s trade media editors will be fighting each other to spread the news far and wide.  Believe us, this is very rarely the case, and increasingly, we’re seeing and hearing about media outlets wanting currency to change hands somewhere along the line. The titles often claim, no doubt legitimately, that the tactic is crucial to stay afloat in times of decreasing revenues.

Moving on from the ‘colour seps’ times of B2B trade media, it’s now often more blatant. We recently saw a magazine publish a piece telling PR agencies that if they wanted to gain coverage for their clients, they would need to pay. Telling it like it is – in print. Interesting. If the title is important to the client, should they take the high ground and boycott such media, or suck it up?

Consumer media was always different, on the surface at least – and editorial was always kept separate to advertising.  However, this could be changing.  Over on the CIPR’s Influence blog, it’s now clearly an issue to many puritan PRs who are appalled at the mere suggestion of media buy to ensure their client stories are covered. Indeed, they are demanding that the CIPR guide them on what to do when journalists ask for payment. The titles in question are clearly their client’s target media, so this leaves the PRs in a decidedly tricky position. If they stand their ground and don’t pay, they risk receiving zero coverage. But if a rival agency does pay, the coverage could then go to their client’s chief competitors, and their own moral stand-off would be wasted and they’d be an unhappy client. Oh, who’d be a PR?!

So where does it leave us in 2017?

In B2B trade media, we believe organisations need to box clever. An open-minded approach and being prepared to support the media title in some way at some point, may be wise. In the consumer world, it’s much more of a debate and it’s fascinating to watch it play out. Many PR agencies are slow movers (we can remember how long it took them to get online savvy), but they need to have a strategy as the media landscape rapidly moves on.

Let’s also remember the colossal advertising and sponsorship budgets that many organisations are happy to spend annually, and compare that with most B2B PR budgets. There’s often a huge disparity between the two and we believe that this will need to change. Firstly, PRs can be way more creative and effective if they’re given more time on each project. But time costs money. Secondly, media buy, native advertising and supporting editorial will likely become more and more prevalent.

This is where PR-led agencies will have their advantage. As Steve Rubel also said, “it’s arguably easier for PR to develop paid capabilities than media agencies to develop journalistic capabilities”.

What’s abundantly clear is that the old rules and practices increasingly do not apply anymore and to stay successful, we all need to move with the times.

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