Paywalls, Media Coverage and User Access: What’s a PR Pro to Do?

brick wallBeing the savvy, well-connected PR pro that you are, you just helped bring about a great piece of editorial coverage in a major media outlet. The client is thrilled, you’ve won the praise and envy of your colleagues, all is well…except that online the article is behind a paywall so hardly anyone will ever see it. Doh!

There is a lot of discussion these days about paywalls, metered models, paytags for individual articles and the like. Publishers are desperately trying to come up with new business models and hopefully they’ll figure out a system that works. But from a media relations perspective this reminds me of the “if a tree falls in the forest” saying:

If an article about your company or client is behind a paywall and no one is around to read it, does it make an impact?

The credibility that comes from positive coverage in a respected media outlet remains, but a significant decrease in exposure certainly diminishes its overall impact.

The good news is that some of the models currently being considered include free access for users who come in from links in blogs and social media, so at least in some cases exposure will not be limited solely to paid subscribers. But it is too early to know how well these hybrid models will work so we may see publishers move to less porous paywalls over time. And some sites are already choosing to show only short excerpts of articles for free.

So if not many users are reading the coverage, just how valuable is it?

The rise of social media has already resulted in PR professionals relying less on the major media middle man and directly engaging their target audiences. So maybe it won’t really matter in the long run.

But companies like to frame newspaper articles and glossy magazine covers on their walls and PR professionals still need to deliver big wins. Has anyone ever framed a good comment thread from a company blog, or a collection of “likes” on a Facebook Page? So it’s hard to imagine mainstream media relations falling too far out of the PR toolkit.

Here’s another question:

Would you foot the bill to give users free access to coverage of your company or clients?

Imagine reaching out to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and offering to pay the bill for unlimited user access to content about your company. That would certainly be one way to try to maximize exposure.

But that would cause all kinds of problems, not the least of which the publications’ editorial integrity being called into question. Do sponsoring companies start getting more coverage? Does coverage tend to be more favorable because the content is essentially subsidized? It just wouldn’t work.

So as more major publishers move to subscription models, it will be interesting to see what impact this has on mainstream media relations.


  1. says

    Adam, very interesting post.

    My first reaction is that if the organization is oriented to mass appeal, the smaller audience will reduce perception of value. If the goal is reaching the sort of committed demographic that tends to be most impactful to their business, it will not. But, that’s not based on anything but my surmise.

    I suppose, too, that the same dynamic that afflicts print media (advertisers demanding coverage) would exists in a sponsored access situation, although buying reprint rights seems a similar activity…

    I guess it will come down to objectives — is it always about the largest audience or the best audience?


  2. says

    Good points Sean. I agree, it ultimately does come down to objectives. A smaller audience but better matched can be just what’s needed in some cases.

  3. says

    Very interesting post, Adam. I definitely agree with your tree falling in the forest comparison. A story in the NYT is valuable because of the high readership and credibility associated with their stories. As the paywalls limit off user interaction and the readership base, the PR value of those placements start to diminish. Not entirely, as you pointed out, but certainly to some extent. It will be interesting to see how media companies deal with these challenges moving forward.


  4. says

    Thanks John. It will be interesting to see just how much of an impact the move to paywalls will have and how both PR and the media companies themselves with adjust and evolve.

  5. says

    You bring up some very good points in the post. It is interesting how PR continues to change, and media companies will continue to have to adapt their strategies to work with paywalls and subscription models.

  6. says

    Paywalls may be an issue, but that online issue is just affecting a piece of the total PR plan anyway, as you roll traditional media coverage as well as social networking. When I media trained a technology client and they aced their CNBC interview, it was a great win, for the company, employees, vendors, and partners. Don’t let obstacles get in the way of the big picture!

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