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The Unethical Business of Selling Press



Press is earned.


Advertising (a.k.a. sponsored content) is paid.


And that concludes my lesson….just kidding…because a few editors really pissed me off this week with some unethical garbage that could’ve gotten a client of ours into hot water, so now we have to talk about it.


If you’re a brand, a public figure, a CEO, one of Santa’s elves, whatever, and someone offers you or your company a “press” opportunity that you have to pay for (including “councils”) — run like hell. And if they aren’t marking any of their content as sponsored? Go ahead and run twice as fast.


It’s bonkers to me that I have to say this. Look, I’m no stranger to advertising. I’ve worked in influencer sales since it was still referred to by its prehistoric name: “blogger outreach.” And I love it. It’s effective - sometimes more effective than a traditional press run. Talk about a strategy that (when done well, of course) can skyrocket a brand from obscurity into the homes of millions of die-hard buyers/fans/product fanatics.


But it’s still advertising. It is bought and paid for, and therefore, must be marked as such.


Trying to pass off paid advertising as “press” (which is my whole beefy point of this post) is not only unethical, but it undermines both the publication and the “expert” being featured. Ultimately it’s a giant, dishonest, FU to the audience/reader/listener who has no idea that the content they are engaging with has been paid for and not organically earned.


And yes it matters.


However, people are sneaky and what my team and I have been noticing is a new “monster” on media street. A hybrid of earned-and-paid-for press saturating “news” publications and not being marked as sponsored content.


Let me spill the beans on a situation that came up last week that made my PR blood boil Macbeth-style.


Last week, we had to pull one of our Pink Shark clients from a feature story that was going to be published in a fairly well-known online publication among entrepreneurs.


If you know me, or have worked with Pink Shark, then you already know that if we book you for something - it’s solid AF. And it may as well be written in blood. We don’t back out of commitments, or break agreements with our media partners.


So when I got the phone call from our SVP of PR saying that there was a problem with one of our higher-profile accounts, and we might have to pull our client from an interview….that stopped me in my tracks.



On the surface, the interview seemed normal. Reporters checked out. Previous interviews were also high-profile. There was nothing about our interaction that raised any red flags (and we can sniff those out like it’s our job...’cause it is).


Luckily for us, the PR world is actually quite small.


A few months ago, Pink Shark made an awesome connection with a podcast host, who is now one of our favorite media collaborators. This host has graciously featured several of Pink Shark’s clients on her show, and because of this is very familiar with our client roster.


So when this particular connection of ours received a random pitch from this online publication, offering her the chance to be published in the same article as our client for a mere $250 — she had the good sense to know that something was off and reached out to our SVP of PR to confirm that her instincts were right and this was bullsh*t.


Immediately we pulled our client from the story. We have no idea how many other “pitches” were sent parading around with her name, selling spots in the same article to newer entrepreneurs who might think that they’re too new to land press any other way.


Our client also had no idea that her name was being “hocked” and would have been vehemently opposed had she known, not to mention the massive confusion this leads to that could possibly imply that our client was charging for people to appear in an article with her!


Unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve come across this underhanded practice - but this definitely was the most extreme (hocking someone else’s name without permission for sales). And for every high-profile interview this outlet has published, it makes me wonder how many people bought the “opportunity” to be featured alongside one of these entrepreneurs who most likely had no idea they were the top-selling product of a BS business model.


Here’s my point…I know, I know, I’m a broken record by now — but press is always earned. Advertising is always paid, and these hidden hybrid situations are always unethical.


A lot of new brands and entrepreneurs buy into the BS story that new players on the field have to “pay” their dues. But that’s the beauty of the heart and soul of public relations. The playing field is a lot more level than people are led to believe. You just have to be press-worthy.


You don’t have to be the oldest neighbor on the block, you just have to have a story that everyone on the block wants to hear.


Have you ever paid for press? Think it’s unethical or just the way the cookie crumbles? Leave me a comment, send me a DM, a smoke signal (those take longer though) and be sure to come back here to hang out with the Pink Shark PR team and check out our latest PR and influencer marketing obsessions.


And if you've loved this article, please help me de-mystify the power of organic public relations and please share with your network.


Jenny Beres is the Co-Founder and President of Pink Shark PR, an innovative Public Relations and Influencer Marketing Agency in LA. As one of the "pioneers" of influencer sales, Jenny's proprietary strategies have helped her clients go from bleeding money on influencer marketing to 10X-ing their current influencer-generated sales (sometimes in 90 days or less).



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