The PR Version of Vanity Publishing: Beware the Executive & Company Profile

By August 28, 2018Blog, Public Relations

Dear reader, this piece is the accompaniment to our post about the best tools to measure UVM and website traffic – which you can find here if you haven’t checked it out yet. Otherwise, let’s dive in:

I just ran a Google news search for stories mentioning “fake news” within the last month. It returned 871,000 results in 0.45 seconds. Keep in mind that number only includes results from actual news outlets. Across the entire internet, over the last month alone, the results totaled more than 9 million.

If it’s one thing we understand about the internet’s impact on the media, it’s that it ushered in a new era of unscrupulous publishers looking for ways to prey on the unwitting public. As a public relations agency, we are often exposed to one of the less visible threats: vanity media coverage.

Vanity media coverage is a not-so-distant relative of the more traditional vanity publishing, which has taken several forms since the term was coined in 1959. Sometimes it’s a crook preying on a desperate author who is duped into paying for the “first run” of their work to be published (this is the traditional form). More recently, obscure scientific journals have been popping up to take money from researchers who are under pressure to “publish or perish.” Most of them aren’t peer reviewed, and will publish any paper submitted for a fee.

The practice as it exists in the PR landscape is not so different from these swindles. Perhaps you or your CEO recently received an email that looks something like this:

Hi [CEO],

Great to be connected here. I am [publisher’s name] from [an outlet that sounds like a legitimate business trade], an enterprise technology magazine published from [an invariably North American city].

We are coming up with a special edition on [what your business does]. As part of this issue, we will present “Top 10 [companies that do what you do] 2018”.

In the last few months, our editorial research team has analyzed over 300 companies and shortlisted those that are at the forefront of tackling customer challenges. We are glad to let you know that [your company] has been shortlisted based on merit to be part of the issue.

The email may go on to laud your organization and espouse the honor and benefits of your participation. Often, but not always, there will be the telltale grammatical and spelling errors that made the Nigerian 419 scams famous. Occasionally, the publisher will be upfront about a cost; other times, they will imply the opportunity is free.

If you’re ever unsure about the legitimacy of an opportunity like this, visit their website and do the following checks:

  • Does the website appear legitimate? Is there evidence of other reputable companies publishing with them?
  • Who are the authors of their stories? Can you look up the authors on social media? Does there appear to be contributions from a very large or very small number of writers?
  • Do the social media buttons on their website work? How big is their social following? Age of social media accounts isn’t an important factor. The account may have been a sleeper created years ago to make the organization appear more legitimate.
  • Look up the URL on a domain registry service. Does the registry list the owner’s name or country? Does the owner own any other domains, and if so, do they all have similar names?
  • Use the web analytic tools we recommend to learn more about their traffic:
    • Is their UVM inexplicably high, even though their website looks like it’s run on a shoestring? They could be using services to artificially inflate their readership.
    • What are their main traffic sources? Do most visitors come from your country, or are they from overseas? This is suspicious if they claim to be U.S.-based.
    • What are their top referring sites? Use market intelligence and measurement tools like Quantcast and SimilarWeb and see if any of the referring sites turn out to be inbound marketing and analytic agencies.
    • Do other sites link to them? How much traffic comes to their site from social media? What kind of search terms are people using when they visit the site from a web search?

Generally speaking, if you are unsure about an unknown media partner, you should politely decline participation. If you decide to move forward, however, be careful not to invest more time than you’re willing to sacrifice.

In many cases, what you thought would be a free executive interview and profile will turn into a paid opportunity. The outlet will demand that you send them contact information for your partners, then turn around and try to sell them ad space. If you refuse, they may attempt to charge you for the placement or refuse to publish. In extreme cases, they may threaten to post negative coverage unless paid.

Public relations professionals are used to receiving high volumes of potentially fraudulent media inquiries. If you’re ever unsure about the legitimacy of a media opportunity, it’s always beneficial to have a media relations partner you can trust to ensure you optimize your media relations investment and protect your organization’s time and reputation.

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