Posted on: November 21, 2022
Both advertising and public relations (PR) help build awareness and generate sales. But they’re not the same thing.
Essentially, advertising is paid media, and PR is earned media. Advertisers purchase space online, in print or on the airwaves. They decide what the ad will say, how it will look, where it will appear and how many times it will appear. They control the message.
PR professionals, on the other hand, provide journalists with story ideas delivered through press releases or a media pitch, which is usually a brief email offering a news story to a specific reporter. If — and that is a big if — the journalist is interested in the story idea, they will develop content around it. But there are no guarantees that the coverage will say exactly what you want it to say or even that the coverage will be positive. That is another key difference between PR and advertising. In PR, you cannot control the message.
So why, you might ask, would you not just advertise? Many people are skeptical of advertising messages. They’re exposed to dozens, if not hundreds, of advertisements daily on the television, radio and internet and in the print news. They’re exposed to so many, in fact, that many of them have been desensitized, and it can be hard for any one message to sink in unless it’s really compelling. Also, because the message is coming directly from the advertiser, it’s often viewed as less credible.
News coverage is seen as more trustworthy precisely because the message cannot be controlled. The story is being told by a trusted third party: the media. Third-party validation, especially when it’s unpaid, can bring a sense of objectivity and impartiality. The difficulty of securing earned media makes it all the more valuable. Of course, some media outlets are more trusted than others. A 2018 study by Simmons Research revealed that The Wall Street Journal is the most trusted news source.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t advertise. In my experience, advertising and PR work best when they’re used together. When consumers are exposed to the same messages through multiple channels such as advertisements, news coverage and social media, they’re more likely to remember those messages and act upon them.
In the world of marketing, PR and advertising, there are three types of media. Earned media and paid media are two of these types. The third type is owned media. Owned media is another term for online content created by a business, whether it’s a website, email marketing initiative, e-newsletter, social media post, etc. Content is “owned” and disseminated by the business or organization that created it. There’s no need for an advertising platform or news outlet to pick it up.
However, these definitions are not as clear-cut as they used to be. Now, more than ever, the lines between earned, paid and owned media are fading, as PR, advertising and content creation become inextricably linked. For example, it’s now not uncommon for some news outlets to accept articles and opinion pieces that businesses submit and pay to place. Traditionally, the media would have accepted editorial content on its own merits only. Likewise, owned media can closely resemble earned media. Lincoln Electric, a manufacturer of welding systems, created an entire magazine, ARC, aimed at its target audiences: welders and metalworkers.
I believe the lines are fading because businesses and PR pros are finding more ways to communicate directly with consumers. By providing quality content their audiences want and need, they can build trust and customer loyalty. The general public is also turning increasingly to alternative sources for its news and information, primarily online. A 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that social media now outpaces print newspapers in the United States as a news source. Generating high-value content is how you engage people online.
Now, we all have the potential to be influencers. We used to depend on the media to get our messages across, and journalists used those messages to inform the general public in one way or another. But while media outreach and advertising remain very important, we now have more tools at our disposal — namely, content creation. Done strategically, content creation can supplement or even bypass the more traditional methods of promotion, allowing influencers to reach the public directly without a middleman.
A balance of earned, owned and paid media is ideal. Earned media still generates the most trust by the public. Owned content can be vital, almost like the heartbeat of your organization. Paid media allows you to place and control your messages strategically in outlets where you know your targeted audiences spend their time.
Of course, engaging the public — an increasingly skeptical one — can require a lot of forethought. In order to be effective, messages often must really resonate with those you’re trying to reach. This means providing content that fills a key want or need of your target audience.
Communicating is easy; communicating strategically is much harder — whether your niche market is very small and specific or you’re selling a product to the masses.
I recommend starting with a message map, which is a graphic showing your key message in about 21 words. Surrounding your key message are proof points that reinforce it. If you plan these messages as part of your PR and advertising strategy, then you can use them as the foundation for all of your press releases, speeches, media interviews and paid advertisements. Pass your message map out to all the people in your organization who interact with the public, and they can refer to it for all of their conversations. I always say it helps everyone to “sing from the same song sheet.”
You’ll know you’re communicating strategically if you measure changes in attitudes over the course of a campaign. Surveys, focus groups and even increases in sales or donations can show you that you’re swaying the opinions and habits of your target audiences.
This article originally appeared on the Forbes Agency Council CommunityVoice in April 2019.