The Advent of Pay-to-Play Publicity

Someone seems to think that PR has deep pockets.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

Pay-to-play publicity—it had to arrive sooner or later.

A Swedish company now offers a pay-to-play functionality that allows brands to unlock paywalled articles to increase visibility for positive mentions.

Quite a few Swedish news organisations have already joined:

Swedish news organisations offering brands to unlock specific paywalled content.
Swedish news organisations now offer to unlock a specific paywalled article with positive brand mentions.

The service targets PR professionals, and their pitch is that online PR doesn’t work anymore; it’s a shame that great brand mentions get locked away behind paywalls.

Glimta's aggressive pitch to PR professionals.
Glimta’s aggressive pitch to PR professionals.

Here’s how it works in a nutshell: below is a local news article with a positive brand mention behind a paywall:

A positive brand mention behind a paywall.
A positive brand is mentioned behind a paywall.

The brand, or any other brand, can unlock this piece of content for a fee.

pay-to-play | Journalism & News Business | Doctor Spin
The fee structure for opening editorial content behind paywalls.

For comparison, 10,000 SEK is roughly 1,100 USD.

At these rates, most Swedish companies working actively with PR would consider unlocking a positive brand mention for the allotted time. But they won’t be too happy about it—the thrill of publicity is, of course, that anyone can read about your brand.

Not just the people you send the article to.

Publicity work now becomes laden with another task; brands will have to take full ownership of distributing their “super link.”

How do you share this “super link?” Via social media, most likely. And that, as we know, comes with an additional fee today.

I can’t help but feel that pay-to-play publicity takes some of the fun out of getting traditional publicity. I’m sure that most PR professionals would agree.

We can say many things about public relations, but no one can say it’s a high-margin business. Each additional cost will have to come out of the pockets of communicators and PR professionals.

Still, we can’t be blaming the company behind this solution.

If the alternative has your brand mentions paywalled forever, this provides PR professionals with an extra option. But the “good news” stops there, I’m afraid.

What will happen if pay-to-play publicity becomes the norm?

Here’s what to expect from news publishers:

  • An uptick in publishing articles with strongly positive brand mentions since brands won’t pay to unlock just plain mentions.
  • An incentive to move more business news behind paywalls.
  • Proactive sales teams to contact businesses who are mentioned in editorial articles with offers to unlock them.
  • Journalists will quickly learn what articles gets unlocked and which that doesn’t.
  • Internal scorecards that already include clicks and shares will start to be weighed for revenue as well.

And here’s what to expect from PR professionals:

  • Exploring the potential of unlocking negative brand mentions of competing businesses.
  • Exploring the possibility to strategically unlock all articles portraying just one side of a broader story.
  • An opening to initiate site-wide negotiations for do-follow linkbacks.
  • Pushback for edits: A small misquote or misrepresentation of the business = no payment.
  • When pitching a news story to the reporter, PR professionals will offer to unlock the story at full price already at the gate.

Let’s hope that we all can do better than this.

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.


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