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The End of Earned Media?

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

The holy grail for brand managers who have budget to spend on public relations and media engagement is usually “earned media” – media coverage in the form of news rather than as advertorials and advertisements.

This usually happens when, a press release that is sent to the media is used for the print edition or online version, without any payment to the media. Even better would be if the media attends an event and use it as a source of content on the news programme.

Public relations agencies’ pitches to brand custodians who understand a little but not a lot about how the media works will invariably include questions about relationship with the editors. The belief is that a good relationship will get them guaranteed coverage.

The misconception that relationship alone is enough for an announcement to see print; to convince the editor to use it amidst all the other news on murders, corporate upheavals, government initiatives, natural disasters and profound thoughts of politicians, is just that – a misconception.

The new, improved, better product or shifting office from one building to another or even how the colour of the new packaging will improve the lives of consumers all compete hourly for a few square centimetres of prime media real estate on a daily basis.

The challenge for public relations practitioners is to take an announcement, technological revolution, change of packaging or revelation a brand wants to make and transform it into a desirable piece of newsworthiness that would be irresistible to an editor who is already inundated with hard news.

This is when PR practitioners are required to spin their art, leverage media relationships and rummage through their lexicon of weasel word incantations to render helpless the cynical defences of hardened editors to the meticulously crafted charms of the press release that are destined for their Inbox.

But just like the days of faxes, telexes and telegrams, the days of earned media are for all intents and purposes coming to an end. Clear signals were already being sent out by the media over the past decade.

The most recent and direct communication of this reality has been the emails from the media informing public relations companies that the publication of press releases could be ensured for a certain fee.

With the seismic shift in how consumers are now consuming media, is earned media still relevant? Do consumers today conscientiously care about the source of their news and information or are they willing to accept a shared WhatsApp message as reliable?

The advantage of paying for media coverage is being able to beat one’s own drum without having to consider the news value of it. This allows brand managers to communicate what they want to the readers via a medium that is used for news.

The peril then lies in what is being said as the opportunity to be free of news value can lead to unfettered hyperbole, which public relations practitioners usually try to reign in. Gushing about one’s new baby is rarely an exercise in restraint and only possibly noticed when friends stop responding about how cute it is.

While some paid content is clearly obvious, some are cleverly written and subtle. The distinction can be blurred to the not so discerning reader.

The truth of the matter is, what were once separate realms are now overlapping and creating a new dimension which both public relations and brands needs to acknowledge.

Strategies and campaigns have to be drawn up for a new battlefield to win the hearts and minds of consumers, as well as editors.

One of the new rules of engagement is there must be some form of paid participation, without which a FMCG brand has very little hope of being featured in the newspapers. Paid media allows for some strategic communication to be put across at specific moments along a specific timeline without having to be burdened by newsworthiness. This contributes to the overall success of a project for the brand.

The role of public relations will be to communicate the key messages in the optimal way. This includes where and how it should appear for better coordination and alignment between public relations, advertising and social media.

The need for how messages are put across by using public relations have not been overtaken by paid media, it is just a different way of how the campaign budget is utilised.

The argument for earned media is that it is something really worth sharing. Earned media in its truest form is very much like food prepared by our grandmothers – when it was prepared using ingredients that had been pounded, squeezed, toasted and prepped in the kitchen rather than using instant sauces, coconut milk from boxes and pre-packaged spices.

Earned media is like paying an entrance fee to join an exclusive space while paid media is narcissistic, like being able to exhibit anything you want regardless of how good or bad it is because you’ve booked the entire art gallery.

So, while it seems that the way into the media in the future appears to be paid media or pay to get into the media, earned media is still the blue-ribbon benchmark for brand authenticity.

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