‘Earned media’ is not a synonym for public relations

British Heart Foundation outdoor ad, Leo Reynolds, http://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/2138006896

"Categorising media as Paid, Owned and Earned isn’t particularly useful. In fact, it simply appears to reinforce increasingly irrelevant functional silos."

That's how I opened a blog post back in November, The Influence View of Content, and three incidents over the last couple of weeks have redoubled my determination to cut this crap.

Names have been changed...

Incident 1

Anne: "So our marketing team looks after the website, the blog and Facebook. And PR is obviously earned media – the traditional media relations, blogger relations and the like. They cover Twitter too, at least most of the time."

Me: "So if we're looking at things like that, let me ask where the concept of shared media takes us... the owned stuff that has earned a share – a 'Like', a RT, a +1 for example."

Anne: "Well that's owned media that people decide they rate. The earned media needs a sort of intervention from the PR team. Er... well... yeah, sometimes they'll also craft content they'd like to be shared. Designed to be shared I guess. Er... Hmmm. So you have owned-shared and earned-shared. No, that doesn't sound right... And of course sometimes you earn media you didn't set out to earn. Hang on, I think I have a diagram somewhere..."

Incident 2

Me: "So the challenge in question is predominantly one of public relations."

Bob: "Now hold on just a minute... there is definitely a strong need for advertising here."

Incident 3

Claire: "So we have the normal delineation of media. Marketing looks after paid and PR looks after earned. Right?"

Me: "I'm following..."

Claire: [I've tried hard to get this as close to the actual verbatim] "And marketing takes the more static stuff on owned media, you know the stuff we just put out there. But when it's designed to get a response, engagement, like a blog post, then the PR team looks after it. Until it looks like it's a customer service thing. But the customer service people say we should put up some more content that answers the questions before they arise. So sometimes they take it, and sometimes they push a requirement to marketing to update the web content, and sometimes they push back to the Twitter and Facebook team. Unless it's from a blogger, and then our PR agency likes to take that on because that's really earned media isn't it."

Me: "Goodness. The 'normal delineation' eh?! <sarcasm>Sounds seamless</sarcasm>."


So like I wrote in that November post, I can’t be the only one wondering if there’s any real value in this paid - owned - earned taxonomy. In other words, when exactly does it help you design and execute strategy? How does it help design organizational structure and processes?

It sure as hell looks to me like it's hindering Anne, Bob and Claire.

Public Relations is the planned and sustained effort to influence opinion and behaviour, and to be influenced similarly, in order to build mutual understanding and goodwill (source). At no point is PR defined in terms of paid, owned or earned media. PR may entail media relations, 'traditional' and 'digital', but media relations isn't a synonym for PR, and neither is earned media.

With respect to the second incident above, if advertising could help us achieve our PR objectives, then advertising may well feature in the PR strategy and tactical execution.

Marketing is the process by which companies create value for customers and build strong customer relationships in order to capture value from customers in return (Principles of Marketing, 5th European ed., Kotler et al). Guess what. At no point is marketing defined in terms of paid, owned or earned media.


As I assert in The Business of Influence, the ease and effectiveness with which we manage and learn from influence flows is integral to the ways all stakeholders interact with organizations to broker mutually valuable, beneficial relationships.

I believe that when an organisation becomes influence-centric, when it organizes itself around the Six Influence Flows and not around some misguided media taxonomy, it improves its ability to live up to its mission and pursue its vision.

[Photo credit: Leo Reynolds]