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"Pay for Play" Journalism — the High Cost of Selling Out

Pay for play journalism is advertising in drag

There was a time, not so long ago, when the term “journalistic integrity” really meant something. It meant that journalists had a single mission – to seek the truth and relay it to readers, viewers or listeners. They did not allow their personal viewpoints and biases to shape their coverage nor did they bow to pressures from the sales department to afford big advertisers special treatment. They simply called it like they saw it. The thinking behind this is that high-integrity journalism means more credibility for the news outlet. More credibility means a bigger audience. And a bigger audience ultimately translated into more revenue. At least that’s the theory. Of course, it isn’t the only theory. There are always compromises and gray areas. And one such compromise is “pay for play” coverage where a publication requires a company to pay if they want to be included (or even just be considered for inclusion) in a particular article or issue. While paying for placement does give a company a little more control over the outcome, it does so at the expense of credibility. In my view, a pay for play piece is little more than advertorial in drag. The problem is that the dress and makeup can sometimes be a little too convincing. Frankly, I’d prefer not to have to wait until I get all the way to third base before I realize I’ve been had.

Goldstein proved just how valuable this award is

There are rare times when pay for play makes sense from a PR perspective, but normally it is something I advise my clients strongly against. Very recently Robin Goldstein, food critic and author of “The Wine Trials” let the world know in no uncertain terms what he thinks about the annual pay for play issue of Wine Spectator. Suffice it to say, he’s not a fan. His restaurant, Osteria L’Intrepido di Milano, was selected as a winner of Wine Spectator’s coveted “Award of Excellence” which was only given to a “select” group of 3,253 restaurants this year. The only problem is that Goldstein’s restaurant doesn’t actually exist. It was all part of a brilliantly executed hoax. He created a fake wine list and a fake menu and submitted it along with $250 to Wine Spectator. To add an air of authenticity, he took the time to establish a phone number and voice mail and posted a few reviews on With one fell swoop, Goldstein effectively:
  • Made it clear his views on pay for play journalism
  • Provided a magnificent example of how a creative approach to PR can yield substantial results
  • Provided yet another example of how effective viral marketing can be
  • Gave one of the editors at Wine Spectator an opportunity to effectively use social media to help diffuse a mini-crisis (followed by a failure)
It is worthwhile to look at each one of these points in a little detail. Commentary on Pay for Play I spoke with Robin briefly about his prank and he told me that his only objective was to begin a dialog on how the food and food and wine industry markets itself and what a disservice this can be to the consumer. His theory is that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of money spent on advertising and marketing and the quality of the food and that things like price and marketing have more of an impact on how wine is rated than anything else. Looking at the Portland market, his theory holds up. One of the newest restaurants, Lucier, has put a lot of marketing effort in to creating a perception that it aspires to be our city’s answer to The French Laundry or Charlie Trotter. The web site is beautiful and must have cost a fortune. According to one review, while the place is beautiful to behold, the quality of the food is sorely lacking and unworthy of the exorbitant prices they charge. Another example is McCormick & Schmick’s who advertises all over the place and even passes out coupons on Alaska Airline flights. They have no qualms about charging fine dining prices. No matter that the food is hardly what could be considered haute cuisine. Le PigeonAnd then you have Le Pigeon, which in my opinion, is one of the best restaurants EVER. It is certainly the best in Portland. While they have a modest Website, it is nothing fancy. I seriously doubt they put a lot of time and energy in to marketing. They don’t have to. The food speaks for itself. They do get a lot of media attention, but that’s because they are doing something truly extraordinary. The coverage is earned, not bought. Robin’s theory on wine is similar and that is pretty much the point of The Wine Trials. The moral of that story is that, in blind tastings, the average Joe actually prefers the taste of cheap wine. When it comes to Wine Spectator, he has a valid point and gets to the heart of why pay for play is totally weak. Wine Spectator’s editorial staff often focuses on the food and wine of a particular city or region. When these reporters write about the restaurant scene in a particular place, they do so with authority. It is clear they have done their homework (if you can call getting paid to eat and drink at a bunch of awesome restaurants work). They find a great representation of the very best that city or region has to offer. They don’t waste space writing about the local Morton’s Steakhouse or Ruth’s Chris. This isn’t because those places are bad (they aren’t) it is because they understand that those places aren’t as interesting to the readers. They are showing journalistic integrity and, as a result, they have been able to earn some level of trust. I know that, if I’m going to travel to a new dining destination, I can rely on a Wine Spectator article to help me find a great place to chow down. Nice RackThen there are the Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards. These are the pay for play awards with which Robin takes issue. As far as anyone can tell, any restaurant that pays the $250 fee and submits a menu and wine list that meets a certain set of loosely specified requirements can “earn” a spot on the list. Looking at the Portland area winners, I see a few of the better restaurants in town mixed in among the usual suspects of higher-end chains. There are also quite a few downright crappy places where the wine lists and menu might cut the mustard, but are serving food I wouldn’t give to my dog. If someone from out of town wanted to use this list to try and find a great food and wine experience, they might get lucky and, then again, they might not. And they would definitely miss out on places like LePigeon, Beast, Payley’s Place and some of Portland’s other must-try places because they aren’t in there. Readers of Wine Spectator are the ones who suffer. They deserve a magazine that provides consistent quality information in every issue and shouldn’t have to rely on reading the fine print to find out which editorial is pure editorial and which is paid for. Creative Approach to PR Robin claims that his one and only objective in doing what he did was to start the dialog with the industry about the disservice it is doing to epicureans and oenophiles through the use of a rating system that is highly susceptible to marketing. Wine TrialsHe says that the fact that it is also a great mechanism for publicity about him and his book is just a happy coincidence. Whether or not he actually intended this to be a PR stunt is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that it was one. And it was an awesome one. For $250 and a few hours of his time he was not only effectively able to make his point, he was able to generate a significant buzz, which continues to produce coverage in some very high profile publications. To attempt to generate that same amount of coverage using more traditional cookie cutter PR tactics would have cost a lot more and most likely would have failed. It would be very interesting to find out the impact this whole thing has on his book sales. The funny thing is that Robin isn’t the first to take issue with Wine Spectator on this issue or the first to generate a response. Mark Fischer, author of Uncorked wrote about it in the Dayton Daily News in 2006. And while Fischer was able to get a detailed response from the Publisher of Spectator, he certainly didn’t do so with as much flair. Example of Effective Viral Marketning Enough said. The Effective Use of Social Media to Help Diffuse a Crisis Hats off to Wine Spectator for having the testicular fortitude to take proactive action to what might be perceived as a mini PR crisis. There is a great post from editor Thomas Matthews on the publication’s own Internet forum. By taking control of the situation and providing this online community with the magazine’s side of the story as soon as it was able to gather the facts, Matthews was able to garner a lot of support from forum members. The fact that the publication had taken the time and effort to establish the forum laid a great foundation for communication proved invaluable. On the other hand, it is also worth noting that Wine Spectator forum members were among the few who didn’t think Robin did a pretty awesome thing. Of course, Wine Spectator didn’t handle it perfectly and it seems they may have committed a bit of a party foul in their follow up. Robin told me he actually posted a reply on the Wine Spectator forum. After going through the thread numerous times, I can’t find it. It is not uncommon for moderators of a particular forum to remove posts they deem inappropriate. When this happens, there is usually some record that the tread was removed – it doesn’t just disappear. If, in fact, this thread was silently killed in the night, that really seems to fly in the face of the whole point of having an open and honest discussion, which is totally lame. Regardless, I’ll be drinking a toast to Robin Goldstein soon.