Is earned media – otherwise known as press coverage — still the key to a successful public relations program? Or is it simply one component of the broader picture?
It may seem like a silly question; after all, “publicity” is what people think of when they think about PR. And even in the business, many reduce the broader public relations function to one outcome – positive press coverage, often called earned media. Yet we resist the “publicist” label, and with good reason. We’ve embraced the PESO content model. We’re counselors. We help build and manage reputations. Most of all, we’re a strategic resource for internal and external clients.
Given this, I sometimes feel the pendulum has swung too far in the strategy direction. Prospective clients often tell us that their agency is hard-working, smart, and collegial, but that they simply don’t prioritize top-tier media coverage. And it’s true that many PR firms have reshuffled their service offerings. As the power of digital and social media has soared, they see new opportunities. Many have paid-media envy, because it looks easy. They know media relations is labor-intensive and not as scaleable as SEM or paid social. It can’t really be automated without risking embarrassing mistakes. It’s time-consuming, and time is the basis for our compensation in most cases.
One reason for the concern about earned media is the flabbergasting ratio of PR people to working journalists. Last time I checked it was around 6 PRs for every journalist. So, even if you assume fully half of the professional PR population isn’t engaged in active media pitching, it’s a large number and an unhealthy ratio. Sometimes it feels like there are simply not enough media outlets to meet the goals of those PR team members trying to fill their client reports with good news. Then, too, bad practices have made things tougher for all of us. People who spam journalists with irrelevant offers have always been a liability for the industry. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Jokes aside, earned media has and will always have a place in public relations. Here’s why.
Just as the large PR firms cast around for more lucrative and scaleable services to sell, marketers have come to value earned media results for its brand-building and SEO impact. The benefits are clear; ever since Google cracked down on link schemes, marketers have prized stories and features from recognized publications with high-value domains as boosting their search positions and even driving noticeable spikes in web traffic over months or even years.
One type of earned media content that is often intrinsic to B2B and political campaigns is the op-ed. An interesting study seems to confirm that high-value content like op-ed pieces in reputable publications are indeed persuasive. In two randomized experiments involving both the general public and so-called “elites”, researchers found that op-ed content had a measurable and lasting effect on people’s views among both the general public and policy experts.
Another study on the credibility of information sources suggests that press coverage is more relevant than ever. Researchers looked at how people evaluated news stories, traditional ads, native ads, independent blogs, and branded blogs. They surveyed 1500 members of a consumer panel and ran focus groups with a subset of them. The consumers found earned media stories the most credible of all the information sources they considered. They also valued posts written by independent bloggers, rating them more credible than corporate blog content.
It always comes down to credibility. That’s what earned media offers – within limits – and that’s what we at most PR agencies still deliver. It’s still the centerpiece of what we do, and although many agencies are expanding their offerings, it’s valuable both as a key service and as a point of view that stresses the credibility of a brand message.
At the end of the day, the most valuable services we offer aren’t necessarily the most profitable if we can’t perform credibly. Look at the flipside of the PR agency that wants to offer a range of marketing services. I notice that branding, digital marketing, or even SEO agencies say they offer PR or earned media. But no knowledgeable communications professional would trust them with a major PR campaign. The promise just isn’t very credible. At midsize firms, we cannot be all things to all people.
Bottom line, we should focus less on the superiority of any one channel and more on better overall strategy to drive consistent and compelling messages across all platforms and channels – including earned media, which will be a key part of public relations for a long time to come.