The two defintions of pay to play

May 10, 2011

Blogger outreach

How do you define pay for play? The answer may go a long way toward how you feel about it as a PR tactic. (Image credit:















Pay to play just sounds dirty. Especially for those of us who studied journalism or PR in school and were brought up on journalistic ethics and earned media.

But that was then. This is now. Seasons change. People change. I sacrifice the future just to have you here…sorry. What I meant to say was that PR and journalism aren’t exactly what they used to be. The list of “influencers” we need to reach to achieve results for our clients has changed. And so as PR professionals, we should be open to changing how we engage and interact with these influencers, shouldn’t we?

That’s where pay to play comes in. It used to be a phrase that was sure to get you thrown out of the PR party. But now it’s picking up some traction, especially when you’re talking about the relationship between PR and bloggers. So does that mean that now pay to play is ok?

Well, to answer that question, I think you have to start by asking another one — one my #pr20chat co-moderator Heather Whaling asked tonight: How do you define pay for play? Because there are two different definitions.

Traditional pay for play

This is the pay for play I think 90 percent or more people think of when you say the phrase. It means paying a blogger, influencer or news outlet to say or post information you give them. Basically a key message regurgitation. In this case, you the communicator are paying the blogger and telling him/her what to write.

Examples: Think Kim Kardashian tweets, an advertorial or a blogger who takes money to give up his/her online real estate to serve as a company billboard. It borders on advertising. And there is a stigma that goes along with this type of pay for play that it’s dishonest, sneaky and even unethical — largely because there have been historical examples of traditional pay for play that weren’t disclosed properly.

New pay for play

A couple of months ago, some of my colleagues at FHKC organized a blogger panel. The panel had four mom bloggers on it and one of the topics they covered was the future of the blogosphere.

  • All four said they are looking to monetize their blog.
  • All four said they were looking to monetize their blog via content, not just ads.
  • All four said they think the future of blogger and brand relationships is as long-term brand ambassadors, sometimes entering paid relationships.

None of these mom bloggers were talking about brands paying them to say a certain thing about their products. The new pay for play is about paying bloggers for their time and requiring full disclosure of payment. In fact, one blogger mentioned that no blogger with integrity would let a brand pay them to tell them what to say.

Examples: The best example of the new pay for play I can think of is entering a paid integration with bloggers over a longer period of time where the bloggers are “contracted” to provide a series of posts. The brand might provide guidelines on the types of posts (e.g. how many, what type) but not the content. One of our clients in Kansas City has worked with bloggers this way in the past, with full disclosure of course. And so have other brands like Kleenex, which has actually flown bloggers to a certain conference as part of a paid arrangement.

It’s important to understand that it’s not an all or nothing with the new pay for play. Like other marketing communications approaches or tactics, it’s one potential approach in the toolbox that may make sense if it can get the results for your clients.

So based on these definitions of pay for play, what do you think? Has your opinion changed? The majority of our participants in tonight’s #pr20chat were naysayers. Are you with them? Or do you think new pay for play is just another sign of how communications is changing?

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RexR 5 pts

This distinction is ridiculous.

Sure, a blogger might not be paid to specifically say something about a client, but that doesn't mean their next paycheck won't depend on that content, or other content on their blog.

Even if it's "This series of posts on cashew-eating statistics is brought to you by Coca-Cola," then that blogger is still going to have a financial incentive NOT to write negatively about Coke the next time he/she decides to write about soft drinks.

Come on. This is a pretty sad attempt at dressing up unethical behavior in ethical clothing.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

RexR Have heard several other folks react the same way, but read Shonali's comments below. Talk to jspepper . Paying "spokespeople" for your brand has been going on for a while and many bloggers are actually disclosing it better than others have in the past. The disclosure is the key.

RexR 5 pts

But this distinction really has nothing to do with the reader-- and the disclosure is there for them, not anybody else.

"I have a financial stake in this company" is all the reader really cares about. What talking points or "journalistic freedoms" the writer has been granted is a completely moot point.

If it's just a matter of softening up the disclosure, that's fine-- as long as it's there (and not tucked away at the end of your novella-length About page). Ultimately I don't think the reader will care, though. As they say, money talks and bullshit walks.

Shonali 1323 pts

This has been going on for decades, though. Think of the practice of large agencies hiring talent for SMTs (even co-op RMTs/SMTs), negotiating payments from their clients for "authorities" in various fields to serve as spokespeople, on advisory boards, to conduct studies (which are then released to major journals) etc. I've been privy to some of that in the past, and it astounded me how much money the talent/experts make doing this. Isn't that pay to play as well? Because if X celebrity is being paid, say, $100k by Y company to be its spokesperson, do you really think they are going to be negative about it?

I think disclosure has become much more important and *maybe* people are being more careful about how they're doing this, though I'll bet there are still a ton of agencies that are not completely transparent about the spokesperson's relationship with the client when they pitch them.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

Shonali All good points, Shonali. I think the paying bloggers issue stands out because people compare bloggers to journalists. And compensating a journalist in any way, shape or form is unethical. That's what we've all been taught. People expect celebrities and more formal spokespeople to be paid. Not so much with bloggers if they don't say so.

Disclosure is absolutely a big piece of the puzzle. And pay to play is not the only way to do blogger outreach. But to turn a cheek and ignore that paying bloggers for time is happening in certain instances -- and being used effectively as a tactic -- is to ignore the evolution of PR and communications as an industry, IMO.

Shonali 1323 pts

JGoldsborough Yes, people do expect celebs to be compensated, but I still think there is a relative lack of disclosure there, which the agency in question (or whoever is behind it) needs to take responsibility for.

I agree with you that paying bloggers in this way very effective. I think that's where disclosure, again, comes in, and the standing/reputation of the blogger makes a difference as well. If their readers believe them to be ethical, then they're probably not going to care that they're being paid to write posts, right, because they'll believe that the content of the posts are not being influenced.

I actually think many MSM journalists have it a little easier than bloggers. They too get flown to places, get free stuff for reviews, etc., but how many times have you actually seen the word "disclosure" anywhere in their reviews? Yes, there are media organizations that will not let their employees accept this stuff/in-kind compensation, but there are also those that do.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

Shonali Smart to focus on the disclosure. That is the key. How often do you see a business reporter write about a company and disclose he/she owns stock in it?

We should be working with bloggers on earned, paid posts because we see them as influential and trusted for our target market. Part of the way they earn that trust is through full disclosure. If they don't disclose, they won't be as trusted and they aren't as useful to us or other brands.

fionabell 5 pts

Do you have an example of a contracted post from a paid blogger? I am curious what kind of things they are writing about. Are the contracted bloggers required to mention the name of the brand or the product category at a minimum?

JGoldsborough 247 pts

fionabell Hi, Fiona. Here's one from Kleenex. Pay special attention to the disclosure blondemomblog includes at the end of her post.