By Rola Abu Hassan

Ken Hawkins Magazine Rackm

Photo Credit: Ken Hawkins

“How much coverage can you guarantee and when will it be published?”

This is a very common question and one of the biggest frustrations that public relations professionals face: the misconception that we control content across the media landscape and can guarantee coverage for our clients.

Though our work does regularly appear in media outlets (under someone else’s byline usually, but I digress), we are not at all responsible or accountable for their editorial and publishing decisions. Believe me, we often fantasise that we have the ability to control journalists’ and editors’ actions, but the truth remains that we are a vehicle for storytelling and information.

A lack of clarity on the fundamental differences between earned, paid and owned media is a disaster for a brand communications strategy. It is difficult to know which to leverage, why, and when, if it is not fully understood what each can do for your brand, and what the generated content even means.

So, here’s a breakdown to help simplify and understand it all.

Owned media, such as a website, twitter or YouTube account, and even this blog, allows a brand to control every aspect of the message that is delivered to public. Owned media is particularly important for your brand if it has a primarily consumer-focused offering, but it’s essential to keep the content genuine, interesting and interactive if you’re seeking to build relationships. Here is where brands can be super creative, and are only limited by their own internal guidelines and the operating rules of the platform.

Paid media, in which a brand will pay to utilise a particular channel – such as sponsorships, advertising, and searches – is certainly an important part of a marketing strategy and one that most PR teams will advocate for, surprisingly or not. It heightens brand awareness and exposure, it builds a relationship between the publisher and the company – and in turn their PR team – and allows the brand to reach their target market with a highly controlled message.

Earned media, is the Holy Grail, the gold dust, the Big Kahuna. A good PR professional is able to tailor a pitch to the right outlets, with the right messaging in an interesting way, for whatever it is that you are promoting. PR reps work hand-in-hand with media to provide this information and the resulting coverage drives awareness, and traffic, for the client. We do not control what they write or publish, but we do deliver the right information to them. And what gets you this earned media? Interesting content! You are launching a new product? Great, but how does it benefit the public and why should they care? Earned media is not about you, it’s about them.

Let’s say a consumer electronics retailer is about to start selling a new smartphone. The phone producer has already talked about the benefits of the hardware and software in the media, so what new information can the retailer offer?

How about trends in the market relating to smartphones? The average length of time people take to upgrade their phones and why? The evolution of touchscreens? The most popular uses of a smartphone, other than to make calls? Couple this news-driven approach with hard data and a strong spokesperson who can comment on it all, and you’re on a winning strategy. Going further, an independent, third-party validator can add even more value, because there’s nothing better than someone else talking positively about your brand.

Earned media is considerably more valuable than paid and owned media due to one significant factor: perception. The article, review, interview, or even Instagram post is not perceived as an advertisement but as a genuine impression, opinion or fact. It’s essentially word-of-mouth. It is trusted and believed in a way that paid media can and will never be, and this perception is typically not something you can pay for. Not even hired influencers who try to create a positive perception that seems independent can generate the same impact. Consumers are smart and know a promoter when they see one.

Hybrid models of these three types of media exist, of course, but knowing the distinct differences between them is key to developing a strong communication strategy. And, while technically each can stand on its own, a complementary plan that utilises all three in various ways across various campaigns  is how to best approach today’s media landscape.

Was this too long? Here’s an abridged version:

Nothing is guaranteed unless you own it or pay for it, but it’s not as valuable as when you earn it.

(That would make a nice Hallmark card.)

Rola Abu Hassan

Rola Abu Hassan grew up boisterous and inquisitive in Adelaide, Australia before moving to Melbourne to pursue higher education (and supermarkets open after 5pm on Sundays.) She has been in Dubai since 2010, providing expert communications counsel to local and multinational companies. Rola also likes chocolate and peanut butter together… just FYI.