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MEDIA CRITICISM:

Payment-per-Placement for Public Relations: A Dirty Underbelly of Journalism

by Alice Cherbonnier

There appears never to have been a thought, on the part of these dialing-for-dollars "placement" P.R. people, of how they might be adversely impacting the news gathering function of the media.
The Wall Street Journal has performed a public service of sorts by publishing a story on Dec. 16 called "Paying for PR -- But Only When It Works." Anyone who wonders how a product or business gets mentioned in the media will find this "marketing advice" of interest. Hint: it's not by accident. Chances are money or other inducements have been exchanged behind the scenes in return for the "placement."

This newspaper has been aware of this obnoxious practice for many years. In fact, it's a major reason for our decision to cease publishing our print version four years ago, after having published in print for 30 years.

You see, things have changed a great deal in the media industry. It used to be, even if you published news from outside your local boundaries, your newspaper's primary contacts came from local sources: readers, advertisers, local nonprofits and businesses seeking publicity. This was tolerable; we knew who the callers were and where they were calling from. We tried to assist local organizations serving the public, and we also covered stories about new businesses opening in the communities we served, because that was important not only to the businesses, but to the people in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Then the trouble started. Though we were a local community paper, by the mid-1990s, when digital databases became widely available—sharing our contact information with the world at large—we began being interrupted by incessant phone calls from public relations firms from all over the U.S. Can you imagine getting phone calls every 10 minutes or so from eager-beaver P.R. people asking inane questions like, "Did you receive our press release?" "Do you need additional information?" "Will you interview X, who's going to be in Baltimore to talk about Y on Z date?" "How do you spell the editor's name?" (You can imagine that that one was a personal favorite—not!)

There appears never to have been a thought, on the part of these dialing-for-dollars "placement" public relations people, of how they might be adversely impacting the news gathering function of the media. It costs money to have someone available to answer the phone. It costs money to underwrite staff time to deal with mounds of unwanted mail and emails. Smaller news organizations don't have budgets for such staff; even if they did, why should they?

The payback to the media for dealing with these intrusions: zero (one would hope). The payback for the "P.R. placements": up to thousands of dollars per mention in the media.

Anyone see anything wrong with this picture?

We did. That's why we don't publish our phone and fax numbers. That's why emails seeking "free press" get deleted in our office. That's not what "free press" means in our book.

The next time you see a "shopping" feature story, with glitzy color pictures of things you can buy, say, for an ideal holiday gift, ask yourself: "Who benefits?"

We'll leave it to you to figure this out. We've always found the general public is pretty smart, once it knows the facts.

To help put a stop to this abuse of the media, consider not buying anything that's mentioned by brand name in any media report.


Ms. Cherbonnier is the Managing Editor of this newspaper.


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This story was published on December 19, 2007.