Pay-for-play is everywhere

The lines between paid and organic are blurry and getting blurrier.

Earlier this year, my colleagues and I embarked on a marketing and communications effort for a well-established company that was integrating blockchain technology into its service offerings. The company wanted to raise funds through an Initial Coin Offering, or ICO for short. Beyond some of the marketing materials we were developing for investor relations activities, we embarked on outbound communications to raise awareness of the ICO and the company’s goals in the years to come. Some of those activities we knew would include paid placements for listings and other advertisements, others were in the "traditional" public relations and social media realms.

What we found was, much like a lot of the "influencer" space seen on YouTube, Instagram, blogs, and other social spaces, the lines between paid and "organic" are extremely blurry. In fact, a fair portion of the top sites that appear to be doing fair reporting and analysis are full-on pay-for-play. The common response was something along the lines of "we’ve got a lot of demand for our services, so we’ll get to your ‘free’ request when we have time. If you’d like to cut the line, it costs X."

On one hand, I’m not terribly surprised. As someone who embraced social spaces almost two decades ago, I’ve watched it evolve from two sides. I’ve been pitched products, services, access, and other things as a blogger, and I’ve been the one pitching. I watched most of that evolve into what might as well be 99% paid endorsement, so much so that the Federal Trade Commission had to release guidelines on such activities. That’s all well and good, and if people have made successful careers being paid to review products by brands, and people are interested in reading, watching, or listening to what those influencers say, more power to them.

But those guidelines are there for a reason.

We’ve all read the stories and watched the reports on the decline of journalism. We’ve all heard the stories. Heck, a few years ago, I had the editor of a "neighborhood" newspaper tell me that they wouldn’t consider covering a for-profit client’s charitable giving event because the client wasn’t running advertising in the paper.

The challenge isn’t even so much that certain organizations and individuals want to be paid to cover things. It’s that many, many influencers are absolutely pretending that it’s not the case so that their readers, listeners, or viewers take their word for it. In this instance, many startups are more than happy to make a 0.5 BTC investment to hope and pray they can raise $10 million in an ICO. Ultimately, the behavior of the "media—read: actual fake news—covering this space is only making ICOs appear shadier than they might bend while many are, there are plenty of legitimate companies attempting to stay on the up-and-up when it comes to the SEC and other regulatory bodies.

It’s for these reasons, and a few others, that several friends of mine at well-known agencies are avoiding taking on clients in this realm, and ICOs aren’t the only space this is happening. As the media landscape continues to shift—and shift, and shift, and shift—it’s critical that we evaluate opportunities, even those with a promising budget, with an eye on how those we’re looking to interact with are doing business.

Ethics matters on both sides of the coin.

Tom Biro resides in Seattle and develops marketing and communications strategies at Rusty George Creative in Tacoma, Washington. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached on Twitter @tombiro or via email at

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