I am reasonably certain that Terry Bradshaw doesn't read PRWeek.
That fact didn't stop Broadcast News Corp's producers, the company behind his Winner's Circle and Pick of the Week segments, from calling me to offer us a chance to be highlighted on the program.
According to the pitch that was sent to me, "PRWeek was identified by our research staff as a potential candidate for its forward-thinking and consistent principles that have led to its growth and success."
For the bargain-basement price of $29,000, our publication could have been touted by the Hall of Fame quarterback in slots on CNBC and MSNBC. I was impressed by the producer's flattery and kind attention as he listened to our life story. PRWeek sounded like a perfect fit, he told me, provided his executive producer gave it the green light.
To his credit, he came right out with details of the "sponsorship" fee, but only after making it seem that it was really PRWeek's remarkable story that makes us the ideal subject for the program. Who would object to handing the hat around in the name of a good cause like PR business publications, right?
Upon reviewing several different segments, one can see a disclaimer sporadically appearing, but not in all of them, and not all the time. The pieces are aired in commercial time, which is pretty easily identified. The production values and scripting are also rather cheesy, so it stands to reason that most viewers would spot it as a paid placement, even without it being writ large.
But there is no question that Bradshaw, as a sports commentator and well-loved personality, lends credibility to the segment. That's what they count on, of course, and what makes it attractive to the companies buying into it.
No reason to blame the production company or Bradshaw for taking advantage of this fertile, though dubious, market. But conduct a Google search on the segments and quickly discover how many companies are touting their inclusion as if it were an independent endorsement.
To be sure, the producing team does an admirable job at trying to convince participants that the vetting process is legitimate, and they probably have some screening to ensure that Bradshaw isn't lauding some shady outfit.
But companies naive or misguided enough to pay for the endorsement of a sports hero on national television should have sought advice from reputable PR counsel before writing the check. If nothing else, the ROI is probably negligible. One big hit in isolation will have little impact. Though, of course, that handy five-minute corporate video that is yours free with the purchase might be a useful link on the website.
The bigger picture here is that this is yet another example of how companies and media outlets can exploit the increasingly fuzzy lines between commercial and editorial content. Given all of the issues that have cropped up in the industry over the past six months, it is astounding that we would have to revisit the rules of pay-for-play yet again. Let's be clear: Anything that has a price tag on it is not independent, no matter how good the producers make you feel about yourselves.