The New Frontier: Paid vs. Earned Media
October 17, 2018
By Doreen Clark
Public relations is changing. In an industry where print used to be king, online media has taken over and created an upheaval in the world of media relations. With this change, the print advertising dollars that outlets have lost must be replaced. And this has shown up in the form of gated content and the rise of paid contributor outlets. These changes are still new enough that many subscribers may have missed the evolution—but it is here and outlets like Forbes, that were once prime locations for earned media, have changed right before our eyes. In fact, it may be difficult to find staff-written pieces, because much content has become paid, challenging the traditional idea of paid versus earned media, sending public relations into a tailspin, and raising the question, “Has public relations turned into glorified advertising?” The answer: not as long as you align your content placement with your goals. Here are three things that you must consider before deciding where to place your content:
1. Does the Change Really Matter?
The simple answer to this is “yes.” The changes have an impact on both the reader and the contributor. The reader may find that they can no longer view your content without subscribing or paying a fee, and you, the contributor, may not be able to share your thought leadership without an associated cost. Both instances have an impact on public relations. How? If you submit your article to an outlet that is gated, your audience will not see your article without a subscription. Will this lower the number of potential eyeballs that see your article? Yes. Is this frustrating for viewers? Yes. You will have to ask yourself if this is enough of a deterrent for you to place your content elsewhere.
Similarly, outlets that you worked with a few years ago may now be in the process of changing their format to paid. In previous years, their revenue came from advertising, but there has been a shift, moving from staff-written articles to articles from contributors like you, but for a price. If you are considering these outlets for your PR efforts, it is important to know that your audience is catching on in understanding that the shared content is not earned. Does that matter? This depends on your goals. Enhancing your reputation and bolstering common knowledge of your thought leadership becomes more difficult in an arena where just about anyone can pay to play, and should be a consideration when deciding where to place your content. However, the visibility is still real and this option does give you an avenue to gain a new audience that can turn into new customers.
2. The Credibility Dilemma
If you choose to place your content at an outlet that charges you a membership fee, you must understand that this has now changed from earned media to a form of advertising. Though there are still rules about being non-promotional, the reality is that if you paid, the level of credibility may decline. If you pay for an advertisement or an article, you get it—as long as it meets the outlet’s guidelines and requirements. Earning the spot is much more difficult, but there is a level of trust that comes from this method that will disappear as content continues to get pushed into paid spots. Therefore, you must know your goals. If credibility is a factor, you may want to do the work to get your content placed through the earned method or do a combination of the two.
3. Ethical Disclosures
The perception is that public relations has gotten easier. You pay for a spot and you get it. Aside from the earned versus paid conversation, there is another major factor that must be understood: ethics. Some may see it as easier to get their subject matter in front of an audience—but don’t make the mistake of writing about your clients, your customers, or any paid relationship that you have within the article without disclosing your relationship. Agencies, in particular, may see this new paid avenue for content as an easy way to get mentions for their clients—pay for a membership and then drop clients’ names into the article, right? Wrong. Not only is this against the guidelines of the agreement, but it is against the PR code of ethics. Again, remember the difference between earned and paid. Even though you chose to pay, you should treat the media as earned and follow the same rules. If you mention any paid relationship within your contributed article, you must disclose that relationship. When deciding where to place your content, ask yourself if you are looking to promote a relationship that you have. If the answer is yes, you may want to consider advertising instead of public relations.
The landscape has changed and many outlets are now pay to read and pay to contribute. However, true media relations is still there if you are willing to put in the effort necessary to build relationships with writers, editors, bloggers, podcast hosts, and the like. When deciding where to put your content, you must understand what has changed and decide if that will have an impact on your goals. When deciding on paid versus earned for your content, you must consider the credibility factor and you must always be ethical with the manner in which you elevate your paid relationships.
There is a fork in the road and you have a choice to make. Ask tough questions and know your goals, as this may determine where you place your content in this new era of opportunity.
About the author
Doreen Clark was formerly Director of Public Relations for SmartBug Media. She has over a decade of public relations and communications experience helping both B2B and consumer clients gain media exposure. Read more articles by Doreen Clark.