Thought Leadership For Sale: Surviving in a Pay-to-Play World

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Most PR practitioners quickly learn that the Chinese Wall protecting editorial integrity from the influence of paid advertising can be, like the Pirate’s Code, “more of a guideline than an actual rule.” For better or worse, at a great number of well-known and respected media sources, advertising can purchase anything from regular coverage of meaningless news items, to top billing in an industry roundup, or even an outright puff piece. 

Despite denials and indignation from journalists, money does talk at many print, electronic and online media sources; often in direct relation to the financial health and business prospects of its corporate owners. These quid pro quo arrangements are never in writing, and typically communicated over a lunch with a publisher or sales rep who, with a smile or a wink, assures the client or agency that, “I have no influence over editorial…but I’ll see what I can do.”

Trade and professional associations are not burdened with an obligation of intellectual honesty akin to that of the Fourth Estate. But it’s safe to assume association membership expects that guest speakers and “experts” featured on the agenda of their organization’s annual conference will be selected on the basis of experience, insight and presentation skill. A small number of these groups do restrict vendors from agenda participation, but at most industry conferences, any outside 3rd party can purchase a prominent place on the program agenda…and many of those presentations are poorly disguised sales pitches.

This sale of “thought leadership”– market visibility with inherent credibility – is neither a recent development nor a crime that deserves a congressional investigation. Pay-to-play is a fact of business life, and to deal with this reality, PR and marketing professionals can either:

  • Use the market advantage that deep-pocketed companies have over their (limited budget) client or employer as a convenient rationalization for their inability to generate (unpaid) thought leadership; or they can
  • Stop whining, get creative, and lacking economic resources, promote bona fide content and foster personal relationships as currency to generate thought leadership.

With the media, succeeding in a pay-to-play world means two things.  First, it means creating content that’s timely, tailored for the recipient and never delivered in a press release. Secondly, it means building good will with key journalists by consistently providing them with relevant information and ideas, regardless of whether it relates to your company or client, without any expectation of immediate return.

With public platforms, succeeding in a pay-to-play world mostly means advance planning. It can begin by attending the prior year’s event to get a sense of the organization’s membership, priorities and culture, and to meet the group’s leadership. Conference agenda development can start 9 or more months in advance of the event, so it’s important to be on line early with a topic likely to resonate with members. It also helps if your proposal features a dues-paying member of the sponsoring organization.

In both cases, succeeding in a pay-to-play world means managing internal expectations. From the outset, your CEO or client needs to understand that you’re running against the wind, and in exchange for that effort, you must be given permission to fail.

 Gordon G. Andrew is managing partner of Princeton, NJ-based Highlander Consulting, the home of Marketing Craftsmanship®.

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  • Michael Ward

    Excellent piece, Gordon. This is a huge issue, especially with smaller print outlets with their shrinking ad revenues and thus, diminishing news holes.  Rather than getting our clients’ permission to fail though, we should be asking that they re-double their commitment to developing thought leadership that is genuinely compelling and relevant.  The economic reality of the news business has raised the bar – only the good stuff is getting through on its own merits these days.  Generating this will require extra time and attention on everybody’s part.

    • Gordon G. Andrew

      Michael…I agree with your advice regarding the education of clients, but my experience suggests that many of them are incapable of, or unwilling to understand what “genuinely compelling and relevant” means. I know this is a big part of an outside counselor’s role, but as I’m sure you’ll agree, it can be a real grind.

    • Gordon G. Andrew

      Michael…I agree with your advice regarding the education of clients, but my experience suggests that many of them are incapable of, or unwilling to understand what “genuinely compelling and relevant” means. I know this is a big part of an outside counselor’s role, but as I’m sure you’ll agree, it can be a real grind.

  • http://twitter.com/John_Trader1 John Trader

    Spot on analysis Andrew, and you described to a tee my often frustrating experience with media outlets within one of the industries I pitch to.  As futile as it may seem at times, I agree that the creativity and relevance of the content that you create helps chip away at the wall that often surrounds these outlets which is sometimes only seemingly penetrable by spending ad or sponsorship dollars.  You can hardly blame the outlets, after all they are a business that needs to make money but sacrificing the integrity of their content at the hands of an unstated reciprocal relationship or a handshake over lunch should not be a compromise for news and events that are more relevant and is one of the many challenges we face as PR practitioners.

  • Kristine Marie

    I do have to agree, as well.  All too often it is money that overules actual, relevant content.  Breaking past the money barrier is one of the more difficult aspects of the public relations field.  However, this challenge is what makes the job even more interesting.  What will the next big thing be?  Who can do it bigger or better than it has been done before?  A little friendly, occupational competition never hurt anyone, after all.