“Guaranteed placement,” a form of advertising, is increasingly coming out of the PR budget, often spent with public relations services firms. In order to ensure media coverage for clients, astonishingly, five out of five PR broadcast services firms we surveyed on the web are paying for the placement of stories on television and radio outlets. But what does a guaranteed placement sound or look like and more importantly, does it provide the same value as a true earned media placement?
Some of the buzz words public relations services firms are using for this practice, include ‘guaranteed placements,’ or claiming to have a ‘mutual understanding,’ or a ‘formal agreement’ with media outlets. These terms all mean one thing: they buy time. Information from “guaranteed placements” doesn’t air in the program itself, but is separate from the content of the talk show or newscast, as it should be, since it’s an ad. We are frequently surprised when potential clients come to us saying other firms offer guarantees on usage. Even more disturbing is the practice of reporting the “guaranteed placement” alongside earned media, blurring the distinction between the two and giving the impression that both earned and guaranteed media placements are equal in value. As we all know, there are no guarantees for earned media since no money is being exchanged for play.
When service companies buy time on media outlets, the stories end up airing in what sounds like a commercial break in a newscast, not the newscast itself. This placement is a breakaway from the anchor, like any other commercial break the network might do, therefore devaluing the message as earned media. When a story is accepted based on its merit, the story will air within the newscast, making the message more credible, since it was evaluated by a reporter that saw the news value.
What is happening in our industry is that weak stories are being accepted by PR services firms. In turn, they are buying time to make up for the fact that weak stories cannot get placed. It’s hurting all in the practice of public relations when this happens.
In 2005, the FCC and the PR industry demanded that broadcast companies be transparent about who they represent. PR services companies also need to be transparent with their clients. We ask that firms offering services that “guarantee placements” not hide their practices as if it is PR, but be honest about their ad buys.
We want to assure all of our clients and colleagues, we operate under the ethics and values of the public relations profession as spelled out by the PRSA code of ethics, committing to preserving the integrity of the process of communication. All reporters and producers are individually pitched, and they determine whether to use a story in their newscasts or talk shows based on its newsworthiness.
“Guaranteed placements” are a slippery slope, and present a challenge to all of us in the industry as the lines continue to blur. There are many stories that have the potential to receive a lot of earned media coverage, but are simply rolled into commercial breaks.