To pay or not to pay

In my work supporting NGOs in media advocacy, there’s one thing that comes up again and again in conversations, but it’s almost never addressed in the several toolkits and handbooks one can find on engaging the media.

Everyone working on the ground acknowledges it’s a problem, but nobody seems to have much advice about how to deal with it.  I’m talking about the fact that in many countries, it’s difficult to get into the news media without paying for coverage. I think it’s high time that we had some serious discussion about this, and how to deal with it.

This issue of having to pay for media coverage comes in a number of different forms. Some examples are:
* Having to provide a ‘travel allowance’ for journalists before they’ll attend your event, or pay them to ensure the story appears
* In some countries (like Malawi and Zambia for example), a ‘press release’ is a paid-for advertisement, rather than simply information sent to a news outlet to alert them to a story, so that they follow up themselves.
* Many organisations when seeking coverage for their issue on radio or TV, are directed to the marketing department as a matter of course – they’re expected to  buy airtime rather than have their issue covered as news.
* Buying regular advertising space – which in more and more cases these days, has the additional benefit of making the editorial desk more likely to cover your story in the news section too.cases, will also make the  regular advertising — and in some cases now in SA — if you advertise, you are far more likely to get editorial coverage too.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish between legitimate and open payment, and payment that’s unethical, or sits in an ethical grey area. Buying advertising or sponsoring programming is legitimate, as it’s open and clear — it’s obvious to everyone that a commercial transaction has taken place. But this needs to be clearly distinguished from paid-for exposure that poses as legitimate journalism.

It can sometimes be a very good idea for organisations to buy media time and space if they have good material and want to be in control of how it is disseminated — to be absolutely sure that it gets out, and reaches the intended audience. But when organisations to take out paid-for space or time, they need to be sure that their materials are appropriate. Too often, particularly in the case of print, organisations fill their paid-for space with material that is dense, full of jargon and technical terminology, and unlikely to be read by many people — and so waste their money.

In the case of grassroots and community media, NGOs and community-based organisations looking for coverage are often outraged to find they’re expected to pay. Many community-owned media organisations justify this by saying they need to earn funding in order to survive. I’m sympathetic to this argument, but still believe it’s important that all paid-for content is clearly identified as such, and that financial considerations should never have an influence on news coverage.

But what about paying for news coverage? I think it’s a bad idea for a number of reasons. Firstly, leaving aside ethical issues for the moment, there’s the problem of resources. Many small organisations just don’t have the budget for the kind of news coverage they need in order to push their advocacy goals. This link to my second objection — inequality. The need to pay for coverage means only the bigger, richer organisations get exposure (not to mention the for-profit corporations). Thirdly, it’s bad for journalism — when coverage is for sale to the highest bidder, many important and controversial issues will fail to get onto the agenda, either because there’s no money in it, or because the media organisation does not want to anger an advertiser. When ethics goes out the window, so too does credibility, sooner or later.  And when audiences start to feel they cannot trust what they see or hear, they’ll stop watching, listening or reading.

The issue of credibility is also a problem for organisations seeking exposure. Research has shown that audiences are more likely to believe messages when those messages are perceived to come from an objective source, rather than a source with a vested interest. This means that for advocacy campaigns, paid-for content (even if legitimate and open) is likely to be far less effective than genuine news coverage, in bringing about changed attitudes or behaviour.

Many organisations seeking to use the media for advocacy purposes are aware of all this but still feel they have no choice — that unless they pay up, they will not make the news. It’s a vicious circle — the more organisations do pay, the more others will also have to pay. So what are the answers?

Firstly the vicious circle has to be interrupted. I believe that all NGOs and CBOs — including the big, international ones, should make a principled decision not to pay for news coverage. This may have some negative short-term implications, but will pay off in the long term. But it means that everybody has to play ball. If some start paying, it’s game over.

Secondly, unpaid-for exposure is possible, and has always been possible. But it takes time and effort, and creativity. Members of NGOs need to learn how journalists think, and how they identify news. They need to put into practice the techniques that skilled PR practitioners use, for getting free exposure: stage interesting news-worthy events, build relationships with journalists, write effective news releases, and so forth.

It takes time and effort, and some resources, but is ultimately worth it. Those who are skilled in engaging with the media can generate free coverage whose value far exceeds what they’d be able to afford if they had to pay for it — in financial terms, but also in increased advocacy impact.

Writing Great press releases
If you are interested in producing more effective press releases, have a look at Journalism.co.uk, where  the site managers are trying to harness the crowdsourcing potential of the internet in order to get feedback from journalists on the kind of releases they like to get, and are likely to act upon.

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