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The Real Fake News Part 1: Identifying Pay-to-Play Scams

Kayla Retzler,  Matthew Luongo

It's 2018, and the phrase “fake news” is commonplace. Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer recently revealed that nearly seven in 10 Americans are concerned about fake news and false information being used as a weapon. For the first time, media was named as the least-trusted institution globally. The definition around what is considered media is becoming a larger question too. In this survey, media was defined as being both content and platforms across social/influencers, journalists and brands.

Sixty-three percent of respondents say they do not know how to tell good journalism from rumor or falsehoods or if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organization. This is not surprising to us, because at Prosek we’re seeing an alarming trend of illegitimate publications targeting many communications and marketing departments around the world. We're calling it “the real fake news.”

This is a three-part series looking at the questionable tactics used by companies posing as news organizations—and some reputable media companies, too. In Part 1, we explore the pay-to-play scams used by publications and award programs, replete with empty audiences and created to siphon money from legitimate marketing budgets. Part 2, to be released next week, looks at the rise of contributor platforms on accredited media outlets and how this is confusing news consumers, being abused by many contributors themselves and further eroding trust in the media. The final installment looks at potential solutions to these problems.

Part 1: Identifying Pay-to-Play Scams

In simple terms, part of the “public relations” (PR) function is to secure earned media coverage. It's the opposite of advertising – no money switches hands. However, there are some legitimate “pay-to-play” models, which means that only those who pay can participate. This is becoming even more common in a world where branded journalism has become a new revenue model for publications such as Quartz, but the similarities end there. This is also a very common practice for conferences where fees are often required to speak, and for award programs, where a fee is needed to enter.

We take no issue with legitimate publications and programs that have pay-to-play opportunities, properly disclose any fees and do not deceive both the company paying the fee and the audience it reaches. However, a murky underworld of illegitimate publications and associated award programs have sprung up in recent years to take advantage of communications and marketing budgets with promises of too-good-to-be-true profile features, rankings and awards. We are not going to name specific players in this space, but in the future, if outreach occurs with a pattern similar to what we describe below, you will know that the opportunity is not legitimate.


It’s easy enough to start an online media company these days. Hire some just-out-of-college writers, a freelance graphic designer, customize a website template and you can make yourself a business news outlet fairly quickly. This has helped broaden the media space and create opportunity for more diverse journalism. However, there are now websites or “publications” that exist for the only purpose of selling puff pieces about company executives; essentially all content is “pay-to-play” on the website. With no standard for writers to aspire to, these articles aren’t particularly compelling. Even worse: they reach nobody. The only people reading these publications are the executives being profiled and his/her marketing communications team.

Here’s how to know what to look for: Usually an executive will forward you a request from a company you’ve never heard of, where the salesperson will be asking to write an article based on something in this executive’s LinkedIn profile that this person vaguely references. Pay close attention to this person’s signature – it usually has something like “Sales Media Manager” or “Content and Advertising Manager” – anything but Writer or Reporter.

Try putting the website they say they work for into an analytics platform like SimilarWeb. Most of the time, it will say there is not sufficient enough data to determine audience reach. This means that fewer than 5,000 people visit this website per month, which is usually not large enough to warrant an executive’s time. Also, take a close look at the website and the articles within. Does the writing come across as empty, vague and hasty? Googling the media company that owns the website trying to sell you the article can also be revealing. Often, you’ll find similar publications and a web of pay-to-play websites all sitting under a media company with fewer than 10 employees working for it. Do your research and you’ll find most of these “news” websites only exist to take marketing money with promises of a positively glowing article.


Many of these publications also have awards programs. These companies will reach out to an executive or the communications department with subject lines like "Great news! [Executive] or [Company] has made the ranking of [The 30 Most Daring CEOs] or [Top 10 Cloud Partners]" or any variation where they can target dozens of companies in the hope that you will purchase the winner package. This includes the award logo, a profile feature and reprinting rights. Weird how you didn’t apply to this award, right? That’s because it’s fake and another blatant scam to take marketing dollars.

This also extends beyond publications. There are hundreds of award programs out there and it can be challenging to truly determine what is legitimate versus what is not. Some awards programs have fancy websites with seemingly respected past winners. But remember, you can’t always trust that the winners actually nominated themselves.

When determining if an awards program is legitimate, first, look at past winners. If it’s hard to find on the website, that’s a red flag. Also, look at the judges and evaluation criteria. If it’s vague and not straightforward, that’s also a bad sign. Did the person reaching out to you include pricing for logo reprints and other purchases in the same email asking if you’d be interested in applying? How many award categories are there? We know one program that has over 45 categories with a Gold, Silver and Bronze for each. It spans across every topic imaginable. Award programs are there to reward the best; it shouldn’t be a participation trophy.

However, it’s worth acknowledging the pressure put on marketing and PR departments in securing awards. These third-party validations are valuable for companies. Plus, those logos look nice in everyone’s signature. We do educate clients when there is an award that may not reach many eyes, but we may still apply for it anyways. Sometimes it’s nice to have some recognition… even if you have to pay for it.

Within PR, it can be challenging to balance quality vs. quantity. We often have metrics we need to meet and the executives we report to may not always understand that lower quantity isn’t always a bad thing. But, it is important to understand and be able to differentiate from legitimate publications and awards, so that the integrity of the legitimate ones stay intact.

Have you been targeted by these publications and programs? We encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments below or on social @ProsekPR. 

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