Don’t Do It! The Top 4 Pay-for-Play Scams that Tech PR Must Avoid

If you’re a follower of either the ARPR blog or the #FutureofPR website, then you’re probably familiar with several recent articles that address the current state of, and outlook for, the tech PR industry. It’s an interesting time for technology PR professionals to say the least. As newsrooms continue to evolve into digital content engines, once disparate marketing concepts such as long-tail keyword placement, headline optimization, and meta-descriptions, now play a pivotal role in traditional PR initiatives, such as media relations, byline writing, awards and speaking. After all, what good is garnering an award, placing content or earning ink if it’s not loved by Google’s creepy-crawlers and subsequently ranked for everyone to see?

Speaking of tech media relations specifically, it wasn’t long ago that authoritative publications such as eWeek and Network World had 40 or 50 journalists. Now, both of these outlets maintain maybe a dozen full-time reporters, as the economics strongly favor leveraging freelancers and contributing writers. This presents many challenges for tech PR pros, as independent journalists aren’t tied to specific beats, and on many occasions, aren’t very receptive to the pitch.

These same media outlets, along with more mainstream publications like Fortune, Business Insider, and TechCrunch, have also chosen to decrease their “unbiased” editorial coverage in pursuit of more lucrative opportunities, such as native advertising. With native advertising, which can cost a client anywhere from $5,000 – $100,000, content is often presented as if it were an earned placement, deceiving readers who believe they have just consumed content that was independently third-party validated. Yes, there are disclaimers on some websites, but who reads the fine print, anyway?

But native advertising is just one of the many pay-for-play options that media companies now aggressively market to publicity-seeking organizations. From purchased speaking slots and create-your-own-category awards to articles with embedded videos promising thousands of leads and softball podcast interviews where claims go unchallenged, the opportunities to pay for what were once earned opportunities are aplenty. For a PR purist like myself, this evolution of PR is sad to see.

The challenge today for tech PR pros is to constantly be in the know about what pay-for-play to recommend and what to avoid, especially since the convergence of earned, owned and paid media is not a conversation that many clients want to have. PR is supposed to earn media, not pay for it, right?

To make your lives easier, here is a countdown of the top four pay-for-play tech PR scams that you should always urge your clients stay away from:

4. The Success FilesDid you know that for just $19,000, Rob Lowe will tell the world about your technology? This is according to a January email from one of the show’s “producers,” which for reasons I will never understand recently landed in my inbox. The Success Files claims to offer companies the option to film an educational segment or corporate documentary, which you get final approval on (yippee!), subsequently ensuring a year-long run on public television reaching 60-80 million households on news channels.

I assure you, “we interrupt this breaking news so Rob Lowe can share his thoughts on the latest IoT blockchain gadget in HealthIT,” is something that Anderson Cooper has never uttered.

But that’s not the only red flag. Everyone associated with the production team is anonymous, yet we are to believe that they are “efficient” and maintain “strategic partnerships,” which they validate by namedropping Fox News and Headline News. Furthermore, the social reach is abysmal. With a whopping 32 subscribers and a total of 30 videos on its YouTube channel, combined with a sparingly active Facebook page, your clients will thank you mightily for never presenting them with this opportunity – ever.

3. The “Promise” Vendors – Savvy capitalists have formed what I define as “promise” vendors, which capitalize on the media relations challenges presently faced by many PR pros. Such organizations make outrageous guarantees to companies about landing media coverage in a certain Tier 1 publication or pledging to provide engagement with a high-caliber influencer. And they are only paid upon fulfilling their commitment. Taken at face-value, this sounds like a good deal; however, much like any proclamation that fast food is good for you, this is just too good to be true.

Unfortunately, many of these “businesses” are ethically compromised. They exploit underpaid and overworked journalists by paying cash under-the-table for favorable media coverage, which is against the rules of every media outlet that I know of. This article, Bribes for Blogs, showcases journalists at prominent media organizations who have gotten caught up in this scheme. If the questionable ethics doesn’t bother you, it will surely bother your client when their article is taken down for impropriety. Keep plugging away to get those top-tier hits and it’ll be all that more rewarding.

2. The Forbes Councils – In what is sure to be the most controversial choice on this list, the 18 different Forbes Councils come in at number two for taking advantage of a whole lot of folks who truly believe they can now call themselves Forbes writers. Forbes is lauded for being the original online publication to embrace a contributor model, and for years it published some very savvy contributed content. But like many media outlets, Forbes is continuously trying to find new monetization strategies; and this misguided attempt has a lot of folks upset.

According to Everything PR, “after speaking to multiple agency professionals across a variety of marketing disciplines, we are getting the feeling that the Forbes Agency Council is a scheme and scam.” Why that sentiment? Well, for a minuscule $1600 plus a one-time startup fee, council members can publish 4-5 articles per year with very little editorial scrutiny and a badge that I suppose distinguishes them from the editorial team. Note: social promotion not included! But that same Everything PR article explains that it takes up to 8 weeks to publish a post, while Council members are continuously bombarded with “endless calls and emails trying to sell you writing services of some unknown writer.” Try reporting that to the Board?

The Forbes Council website lists other benefits, of course, such as marketing and concierge services (what does that even mean?), which they mistakenly think justifies the price to those unsuspecting of this charade. At the end of the day, for such a historically prestigious media outlet like Forbes, the Councils represent nothing more than a solid attempt at a money grab from those who may or may not have the cash to spare. As Jim Cramer would say, sell, sell, sell!

1. CIO Review Awards – The fact that there is an entire Reddit Forum dedicated to whether or not these awards are a scam should be all the explanation necessary. But here’s more proof just in case. According to its website, CIO Review 100, which has had its web traffic decrease by 60% in recent months according to SimilarWeb, honors the Top 100 Technology Companies in the U.S.

Sounds prestigious, so what’s the problem? Well, every year, the awards’ organizers mass email what seems like every tech company in the country, proclaiming that said company has been selected or nominated for an award, and if they’ll cough up $3,000 it’s theirs to keep! How are these companies selected, you ask? Who knows! There are no judges or objective criteria listed on the website, but there is a prominent call-out box with contact information for the ad rep should you be interested in advertising! Yes, there are a lot of awards that are a front for a massive money grab, like 1IT Enterprise and Silicon Review, but everything from the way CIO Review markets and overtly solicits its award to the actual ROI winners receive makes it the worst investment in tech PR.

Despite unprecedented challenges, there remain a lot of great opportunities for tech PR pros to capitalize on for their clients. And while some might involve an extra cost in the future, there are still many initiatives that we as practitioners can work to earn for our clients. Whatever you do – stay far away from the scams outlined above; or risk the unforgiving wrath of an angry client, Board member or two.

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