As the influence of digital and social media has soared, PR agencies who focus primarily on earned media (once known as publicity) are often warned that they’re falling behind.
There are regular calls for PR services to include paid media and other offerings. Many firms like to brag about how little they depend on earned coverage generated for clients. They’ve moved on to other things.
This is understandable, in part because PR is much more than media relations. But it’s also about the bottom line; the fastest way to grow is to offer more services, ideally those that can be automated and offered at high margins. PR agencies naturally want a piece of the digital media budget pie. Large firms in particular have big overhead to feed and face constant pressure to add offerings.
Earned Media: Labor-Intensive, Hard To Scale
Earned media work is notoriously hard to scale. When Tom Foremski referred to public relations as “an artisanal, hand-crafted service operating within a brave new digital media world that rewards scale,” he was probably talking about the back-and-forth that results in earned coverage. It’s difficult and time-consuming in practice — an inexact and often inefficient process that takes talent, imagination, and timing, and that rests on relationships.
But reports of earned media’s death are premature. A new study on the credibility of various information sources shows that it may be more relevant than ever. Three researchers looked at how people evaluate earned news stories, traditional ads, native ads, independent blogs, and branded blogs. The study’s authors surveyed 1500 members of a consumer panel and conducted focus groups with 46 of them.
The upshot? Consumers found earned media stories the most credible of all the information sources they reviewed.
Earned Media Beats Paid And Native Ads
It always comes down to credibility. That’s what earned media offers – within limits – and that’s what many PR agencies still deliver. It’s also notable that although the highest percentage of study participants found earned media stories the most credible among all the news and ads provided, they valued posts written by independent bloggers, rating them more credible than corporate blog content.
The news isn’t all bad for paid media, though. Though study participants considered ads less credible than earned media, they found them useful and showed a sophisticated understanding of how different information sources work together. The study’s authors points out, “people recognize that companies will face legal consequences if they don’t tell the truth.”
Negative Comments Add Credibility
Interestingly, negative information or reviews aren’t a dealbreaker for most people; in fact, they tend to enhance authenticity and therefore can make an earned media story or social post more credible.
What fared the worst in the study were the native ads shown to participants. Nearly half considered them the least credible information source, using words like “sneaky,” “tricky,” and “disingenuous.”
So, should PR agencies double down on their earned media offerings? Not necessarily.
The point is that when preparing to buy a product or service, people tend to get information from many sources. PR campaigns should continue to deliver messages and tell stories across paid, earned, shared, and owned channels. Yet the study does reinforce the central role of earned media as a PR deliverable, and it’s backed up by the results of PRWeek’s most recent Agency Business Report. Earned media remains a 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.
PR Firms Can’t Be All Things To Clients
There’s also the credibility of the agency offering itself. The mega-firms who’ve invested in paid media services can plausibly do so, but many simply can’t be all things to all clients. Look at the flipside; today it’s common for branding, digital marketing, or even SEO agencies to say they offer PR or earned media services. But no knowledgeable communications professional would trust them with a major PR campaign. The promise just isn’t credible.
Bottom line, we should focus less on the superiority of any one source of information and more on better integration of messages that are consistent and compelling across all platforms and channels – including earned media, which will be a key part of public relations for a long time to come.