For as long as journalism’s existed, businesses have offered cash payments, gifts, and services in exchange for favorable coverage. (It’s one of the reasons we’ve been working on an ethics guide at The Hustle.)
Now, a recent exposé by our friends over at The Outline argues that this trend has turned into a lucrative, bustling enterprise in the digital age.
PR agents are offering big bucks to staff reporters and contributors at Forbes, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, and Inc. in exchange for dropping a single link or mention to a client in an article.
It’s called “payola” journalism
Say a PR agent is tasked with getting his client mentioned in a prominent publication. He can do this the ethical way, by shooting out hundreds of pitches, or building rapport with journalists. Or, he can simply pay to play.
The person above, who we found in our Facebook feed, is selling coverage of a company in his “major publication.” To be clear, this is not an ad or sponsored content opportunity: It’s an offer to write a seemingly “genuine” news article about a company in exchange for money.
The underground economics of payola
According to The Outline, PR agents offer anywhere from $500 (HuffPost) to $1.2k (Forbes) to journalists for a covert mention.
There are even whole PR agencies, like ArticleHub, that rely entirely on crooked journalists: they’ll charge a client a high sum for guaranteed placement (i.e. $4.5k for a TechCrunch mention), then pay a shady writer a few hundred bucks to drop it in.
Often, the clients these PR agents represent aren’t even aware their “organic” mentions were paid for.
Why’s this a big deal?
We’ve seen this pay-to-play system take form in nearly every facet of media: in the radio world, record companies illegally pay stations for air time without proper disclosure — and influencers have come under increasing heat for not clearly marking their brand sponsorships.
This system is not only damaging to readers (who rightfully expect unbiased news), but also to the companies who work hard to actually earn publicity.
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