• Jennifer Fortney

Paid Media, Guarantees and A Cautionary Tale

Paid media is a reality for PR pros and businesses that want to generate awareness and drive traffic, creating a complicated balance for ethical journalism and public relations.



We all understand the pressures that media outlets have been under the past decade to generate revenue, and the pressures of journalists to write content that is searchable, will drive clicks, views, engagement and thus drive advertising. It’s created a complicated balance of revenue and quality journalism.


Within the industry, it’s created a number of websites and blogs that are creating compelling, clickable content to drive traffic that allows them to justify charging for stories, mentions and inclusions. In turn, a number of PR agencies will “guarantee” media placements, but there is no such thing. The only thing guaranteed is when you pay for it, and they’re working the cost of into the retainer.


It exists in every industry. Local television stations take paid content. Blogs exist as careers or side hustles to generate income and industry and news websites pop up daily. Navigating it all is our job, but it can be quite the web for businesses to sift through.


The idea of “guaranteed media” is attractive when looking for an agency, especially because it’s difficult to guarantee anything with PR without a great story. However, while paid content can ensure that you get the story you want to tell, they are often marked as sponsored, and consumers can see through it.


For us, as a PR agency, we have to determine how, when and if to include valuable paid media into our strategies. The keyword here is “valuable”, as well as genuine, and we always invite the client to participate in the evaluation process. After all, valuable media is really that which hits the target audience, and that’s what matters. Even reputable outlets will have “partnerships” or sponsored content now popular in newsletters, but the difference is that they don’t have to rely on it.


For businesses that want to be featured on these high traffic websites, it may seem like a worthwhile expense, but, again, it must be genuine, valuable and meet PR objectives of awareness and reach.


In the mid 2000’s, Forbes transitioned through the changes in media to allow the experts and business owners who want to be associated with the publication to write for it with little pay, if any at all. The benefit is pure exposure which they can use to build credibility on other channels and Forbes gets free content that drives exposure and ad revenue.

Over time, the prestige of being a “contributor” has declined as writers were left unchecked, stories unedited and some began charging companies for features and inclusions, understanding the exposure the platform can provide.


The Neiman Journalism Lab recently published a story outlining these poor practices in light of a recent national story revealing the ambitions of one contributor. It’s worth a read and reveals how the concept of contributors can be easily manipulated and abused if not monitored.


At Cascade, when we pitch Forbes, we look for actual editors employed by the company over contributors. From a search perspective, the website still plays a role in providing perceived credibility and increasing visibility and awareness, and we believe that it has real benefits like its Forbes Council. While paid, it is a better, more respected program for individuals seeking to position themselves as experts and share their voice on topics that matter.


We understand our client’s desires to be featured in Forbes, but we’re committed to ethical journalism and vet every media outlet and journalist we pitch and engage.


Whether this the Neiman Journalism Lab story and its revelations will have an impact on the practice of sites like the once reputable Forbes and change the scope of and practice of paid media stories for guaranteed placements, is yet to be seen and a story we’ll continue to follow for our clients.

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