The Blurry Lines of Paid vs. Earned Media

written by J. Brooks Christol

Public Relations is the strategic process of proactively and reactively teaching a target audience about a brand via the influencers in the audience’s lives, therefore instilling a carefully-crafted brand identity as truth.

Surprisingly, reaching the influencers is much easier than it used to be. Easier is a relative term. Because the number of influencers have exploded, it takes longer to manage and maintain those conversations…but the channels of reaching them with a strong voice has gotten easier.  Having said that, don’t get cocky. It still takes strategy and, most importantly, time, to do it the right way. Hire a firm. Don’t do it yourself.


It used to be that there were two terms that delineated PR and Advertising. Paid vs. Earned. Advertising was paid media, or, in other words, you bought space to present a well-crafted, well-designed message. PR was earned media. You don’t pay the media outlet for the space, but provide them an interesting story for a reporter to tell their readers or viewers.


A lot of companies misunderstood what was necessary to reach audiences through earned media. It was a lot easier to understand the finances of buying ad space. Clients knew the space cost, that somebody had to design it and that it was okay because the client approved the whole thing. In PR, the client lost a lot of control because once the release was approved and the media list confirmed, what ended up in the paper could be miles from the approved message.


Not only the lack of control, but honestly, giving a story idea to a reporter via a phone call…couldn’t a receptionist do that? Sure! Can’t that same receptionist buy Photoshop and shoot out an ad for the same newspaper? But, I digress.


There used to be a distinct line between the PR people and the Media Buyers in an agency that mimicked the distinct barrier between the media’s editorial staff and its salespeople. The media believed in journalistic integrity (and by and large they still do), which meant that buying an ad in a paper didn’t give you better chances of having your news story on the next Sunday’s front page.


But today, newspaper staffs are overworked and underpaid (See, I carry your banner, reporter friends), so they want to see good print-ready copy coming from PR staff that they can tweak and run with minimal effort.  But publishers are wondering why they keep giving away column inches to companies that get recognition without paying for it. As a business owner, I totally understand where they are coming from. Now comes the new game of integrated marketers…make the publisher happy, make the reporter happy, give the ad rep a little commission for the sale. Enter, (dramatic music), the advertorial.


The what? That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, the advertorial. Pay for the space, write what you want, we’ll make it look like it comes from us (the influencers), and you’ll win out! The thing is, they work! What works even better is placing advertorial content alongside a paid ad.  We used to call this Pay-for-Play. Today we call it business.


So what makes a good PR team? Tune in Thursday.