They don’t make ‘earned media’ like they used to

Your law firm has a PR director. Your PR firm has a marketing director. And your marketing firm has an earned media director. Wait a sec … What? There’s no such thing as an earned media director – at least there didn’t used to be.

Earned media has traditionally referred to the work done by communications professionals, usually PR pros, to place unpaid news stories and opinion pieces in broadcast, print, digital and social media to reach and influence target audiences; however, now it seems the definition has evolved into a buzz word touted by digital marketers to bolster their service lines.

Digital marketers have – rather impressively – branded a spinoff definition of earned media in recent years to refer to the “likes,” “follows” and other social media interactions they gain organically through unpaid digital communications.

PR firms also deliver these services under the umbrella of their digital and social media offering, but most are not branding it as “earned media,” which consumers trust over paid advertising. Digital firms, on the other hand, have taken to their new definition of earned media like an old timer’s thumbs to a BlackBerry. It has become so prevalent, digital marketers now dedicate full-time staff to earned media efforts.

Who’s Right?

This “earned media divide” has led to confusion among businesses looking to promote their products and services or otherwise position themselves beyond advertising and other paid communications channels.

The situation isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Most digital firms do not offer non-digital earned media services (i.e., public relations/media relations), and PR firms and traditional marketers have been slow to recognize the digital firms’ definition. These divergent views make the marketing process more cumbersome and overspecialized and create more confusion for clients trying to understand what services they are actually paying for.

In today’s post-Great Recession economy, communications, marketing and digital firms – traditionally complementary or integrated – are now competing in many ways over the same business. They’re fighting for market share at a time when many businesses have shuttered or drastically reduced their budgets.

Public relations consultants have seen the beta version of this overlap before. For years, many law firms and marketers have pitched in-house PR services to clients seeking strategic communications counsel and support. While many of these in-house PR consultants have the experience and know-how to get the job done, some are highly specialized or short-staffed.

The biggest difference in this case is that digital firms are offering some – not all – of these services and calling it something different from what many are accustomed to. They’re not offering in-house PR staff, like past attempts to integrate PR services; they’re adapting the services to play to their strengths.

The best PR firms are trusted strategic advisors, and they leverage the collective resources of their teams to achieve client goals, including support of legal and marketing objectives. These firms take a step back, analyze the situation and develop a strategic action plan that integrates communications activities and complements other efforts.

There’s no right or wrong way of defining earned media. The big winners are those firms who are able to prioritize the client’s success – whether that means going with a firm that can integrate all traditional and digital earned media services or a firm that specializes in one or the other. Partner firms that work together may be best positioned to achieve client goals.

Where do we go from here?

PR firms should recognize the expanded definition, incorporate it in their service offerings and educate clients about what it means. Boutique firms that may not offer digital and social media services should look to partner with highly capable, results-driven digital firms to complement their suite of communications services.

As more startups and boutique agencies enter the communications space, clients, always focused on return on investment and the bottom line, are increasingly open to utilizing the services of multiple firms for a single program. PR firms could benefit from welcoming partners who can improve results and better serve their clients.

It all comes back to client service. The better PR, marketing and digital firms serve their clients, the more success they’ll have – and media they’ll generate – regardless of how they define what they do.


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