Can you see the difference?

Written by Lesli Boldt on Monday, September 15, 2014 at 06:35PM
Filed in: Business Vancouver Public Relations Marketing
Comments: 1

A couple of weeks ago, I was asking around to find out what company was doing the public and media relations for a large BC outfit. The answer I got was the name of their advertising agency - one I know for a fact does not do PR. How could this organization not understand the fundamental difference between advertising and communications, I asked myself?

I guess I shouldn’t get that bent out of shape about this – after all, people have been getting advertising and PR mixed up for years. Today, in an era of “promoted tweets” and “boosted Facebook posts”, “viral” videos and “native advertising” (a.k.a. sponsored content), it’s harder than ever to tell the difference.

So – you ask – what is the difference between advertising, and communications and PR? Here’s a quick primer for you, one that I often work through with my clients.

Earned media vs. paid media

The easiest way to tell the difference is the same as it has always been: by distinguishing paid media (or content) from earned media (or content).

Earned media is just like it sounds – content that is “earned” by pitching or offering the best possible story to a traditional journalist or mainstream media (MSM) organization. This is clearly the purview of public or media relations. No money changes hands, and while some may argue that journalists and news organizations have biases, in general the PR practitioner’s main job is to make the story as compelling as possible, with great audio and visuals to support the story (if we can), so that media outlets will want to tell the story to their audiences.

Earned media is generally much more credible than paid media. Why? Because it has not been purchased, and has been vetted – well, most of the time – by trained journalists and editors who check sources and verify facts, and are often balanced by alternative points of view or additional perspectives.

The down side of earned media? It’s not a sure thing. If you’ve got a weak story to tell or there’s other big news going on that day, all your work can be for nothing. So there’s inherent risk involved in going the PR route.

Paid media refers to advertising in its purest sense. It is a commercial transaction for the sharing of content. That includes not just the billboards, TV, radio, print and online ads that most of us are familiar with, but also native advertising (also called “sponsored content”), which I’ll talk about more in a moment. While there are also legal rules to ensure truth in advertising, this medium is much more flexible (and for many organizations, more desirable), because you are obligated to only tell one side of the story: yours. And, unlike PR, it’s a sure thing. I mean, your advertising might not influence consumer or public behaviour, but “getting yourself on air” or “in the media” is guaranteed…because you've paid for it.

The separation of ‘church and state’

There was a time that a big ad buy in a newspaper or on a network might get a company or organization positive editorial coverage, and to some extent, that pressure still exists. For example, it’s not unusual for a big advertiser to ‘magically’ get their project profiled in the paper or on a morning show.

However, for the most part, there is a very clear, respected division in most news organizations between news and advertising departments – what many of us call a “separation of church and state”. In the newsroom, reporters are engaged to follow and report on the news, not on the interests of their biggest advertisers. Traditionally, editors, news directors and other senior newsroom management act as the firewall that keeps the influence of the publisher or media owners – and the revenue side of the business – from influencing what is reported on.

Blurred lines

Some would argue that this traditional “firewall” is coming down (or has already come down), as news and media companies struggle to find a revenue model that can sustain traditional news reporting. This has led to the emergence of something called “native advertising” or sponsored content.

Native advertising is content put together to market a product, service or idea (examples include infomercials, blogs that review products and services for a fee, and advertising features in newspapers and magazines) that is often purposefully designed or produced to look like ‘earned media’ or traditional journalism. Sometimes, sponsored content is even written or produced by the same journalists who contribute on the news side – complete with a byline. Native advertising trades on the credibility of unpaid or earned media - and its journalists - to make their “ad” content more persuasive to the consumer.

Another example of blurred lines, in the realm of social media: the BC government recently ran its own kind of “native advertising” by using its BC Education Plan social media channels on Facebook and Twitter – originally set up as a forum for teachers and experts to discuss education issues – as channels for arguing its “side” in the BC teachers’ labour dispute. In other words, they took what had originally been used as a social forum, and turned it into a one-way advertising channel. The result? Journalists and university experts cried foul.

Buyer beware

To be fair, most people who work in the world of sponsored content are transparent about the commercial nature of the transaction. Nevertheless, the lines are starting to blur and it sometimes becomes difficult to know whether you’re listening to an objective opinion about a car or a barbecue or a baby's toy - or whether someone paid them to say that.

What are your thoughts on the differences between advertising and PR, and the increasingly blurred lines between the two?

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  1. Lesli,

    You have well defined the difference between earned/paid & sponsored media,at the right place and time they all play a role in getting the message out.

    What's essential is that audiences/readers are routinely reminded of the difference. As more and more news and comment is feed through social media channels etc.,keeping the reader sensitised to the difference will become increasingly important.

    Well done. Thank you.

    Ulrike Kucera
    Media Relations Officer
    Canadian Wind Energy Association,
    Ottawa, Ontario

    Written on Monday, September 22, 2014 at 11:01hrs by Ulrike Kucera