Learn From Bloggers’ Mistakes: Do Not Pay-to-Play

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(By Tim O’Brien) Bloggers can be the worst when it comes to pay-to-play. For the price of a product sample, you can persuade some bloggers to write favorably about your product without them ever mentioning that you compensated them for a favorable review. In my experience in the PR business, more often than not, however, bloggers and others want cold hard cash in return for their endorsement disguised as part of their editorial content.

Much is made of “fake news” when describing cheesy Facebook posts and political news, but the truth is that for years, more than a few blogs have passed themselves off as neutral, consumer-oriented blogs when in fact no small amount of the content was bought and paid for by the companies and brands featured in those posts. We could talk about social media “influencers” at this point, but that’s an issue for another day.

For the record, I don’t participate in that game, and most reputable public relations pros and brands shy away from such pay-to-play schemes.

That said, I’ve been wondering how long it would be before pay-to-play would enter the podcasting space in a big way. If my experience in recent months is any indicator, it’s starting to happen, and it’s not good news for podcasting.

Just this week, I sent out a news release to a number of media outlets, including TV stations, newspapers, websites, and podcasts. Here’s a sample of one response I got from a podcaster:

“I would love to have your client on my podcast. My rate for a single interview is X dollars, and a monthly sponsor for four podcasts is Y dollars.”

Please know that this is different from a sponsorship arrangement where it is clearly communicated that the endorser is a paid sponsor. This particular situation is a podcaster charging for an interview and presenting it as though it’s organic content.

Some bloggers have found themselves in the crosshairs of the Federal Trade Commission which has filed cases against a few marketers on allegations of “fake paid reviews.” It’s not a stretch to wonder who will be the first podcaster targeted for the same thing.

Whether you are a blogger or a podcaster, one thing you can do to avoid regulatory trouble is simply not to take money in return for disguised endorsements. And if you do take sponsorships, hire a good lawyer to guide you, and in the end, make sure to indicate who are your paid sponsors, and which messages, segments, or spots in your podcasts are paid sponsorships.

All of that said, as a public relations professional and a podcaster, my concern is a little more fundamental. The practice of pay-to-play has cheapened blogging to the point that much of it has lost relevance and in many cases credibility. Podcasting will find itself in the same place if, collectively, it accepts the practice of some podcasters deceptively shilling for paid sponsors as part of content that does not explicitly indicate that content is sponsored.

If you care about your own business future, and the credibility of podcasting so that you can thrive in this wonderfully expanding medium, avoid some of these mistakes now. Don’t be a part of the pay-to-play game.

Tim O’Brien is the owner of O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh-based corporate consultancy, and the producer/host of the Shaping Opinion Podcast. He can be reached at: timobrien@timobrienpr.com

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