Navigating the Terrain of Paid, Owned, and Earned Media


May 2014

Social media and blogs have colonized - if not supersaturated - the digital world. The practically wide open frontier of paid and amplified online media has given rise to the new content marketing manifest destiny. But when does paid media cross the border from content marketing to advertising? And when does amplification of earned media as part of a content marketing strategy veer away from public relations?

Looking at media

Most PR practitioners categorize their content by POE: paid, owned, and earned media (though some further segment by PESO, which includes shared media). Paid media includes "traditional" online advertising as well as sponsored content. Owned media is branded content and platforms like websites, blogs, and social media accounts; earned media is coverage gained through public and media relations efforts or that is not paid for. Shared media is any of your content - paid, owned, or earned - that gets shared across multiple platforms, especially through social media.

Evaluating content by POE categories allows for a clear delineation when determining the value of your efforts, not only overall, but also in demonstrating success in each category individually. POE is also helpful for planning content marketing strategies that rely on a balance of all media types.

But the digital age, changes in the nature of publishing, and integrating public relations into marketing make sorting media into categories more difficult. With more organizations implementing the marketing mix model, public relations professionals are wearing multiple hats, conducting media relations with journalists and negotiating media buys at the same outlet. While this is efficient, it can create a conflict if there's an expectation to leverage media relations against the media buy.


As PR pros are looking for ways to get more mileage out of coverage and engage more frequently with a wider base, they are looking to increase media exposure by amplifying content. This in and of itself is not problematic, however once you pay to amplify, say, earned media, it is no longer earned but paid media, and there arises a problem in how to account for it. So when you're determining the value, segment your amplified from unamplified media.

Tools like Taboola and Outbrain make it easy to amplify owned and earned media, and organizations are increasingly paying to advertise third-party media that they feel portrays their brand in a flattering light. The appeal of tools like Taboola, nRelate, and Outbrain is that they place content on websites with credibility like Slate or Time indicating "You might also like" or "From around the web."

The visceral appeal of promoting, say, a Huffington Post article that mentions your brand positively is that it seems more "credible" than promoting content on your organization's blog. It can seem to have more "value" coming from a third party, and seems an efficient way to essentially double leverage your coverage. That's exactly what McDonald's did last year, when The Huffington Post ran an article that praised the restaurant's Fish McBites and McDonald's bought an ad through Outbrain to drive traffic to the HuffPo article.

While there are no rules about amplifying earned media, there are some caveats, the first being that readers who click expect content, but many of the headlines lead to sites that require an email, are selling a product or ebook, or are misleading. Even if that's not true of the content you sponsor, it leads to readers perceiving suggested links as spam.

There's also a gray area because the content provided through Taboola, Outbrain and the like has no indication that the content is sponsored or paid for, which can cause readers to perceive the links as spam. It can also lead to fuzzy math. Say you pay for 1,000 clicks but generate only 700. How do you calculate the value on that amplification clearly? Aside from click-throughs and social media engagement, there are few other metrics with which to determine that value.

And indicating that content is sponsored is no small issue; the FTC has taken notice of the related topic of native advertising, which falls into a similar vein of amplifying or promoting owned media. The FTC has been working with publishing and advertising professionals to discuss best practices for distinguishing between editorial and sponsored content, and it looks like they're hoping to get industries to self-regulate.

A look at ethics and best practices

A public relations pro's primary responsibility is still to build and maintain relationships with journalists. Of course, the digital age and changes in the publishing landscape have added a number of new dimensions to that job description and to the ways organizations can integrate their owned content into editorial content. This is a much blurrier line than say, making your owned media look like it's earned media, like the rapper Shirt did with his fake New York Times article, so you'll need to have strategies in place to keep everything properly categorized.

Because amplifying third party media - and amplifying media online - is a relatively new strategy, the Edelman ethical framework, in investigating the best practices for ethical paid media and amplification, broke down the different types of paid media: paid syndication, paid integration, and paid co-creation.

Paid syndication involves paid content interspersed throughout editorial content but generally indicates that a post is sponsored. This method is the least expensive option. Paid integration is editorial content crafted around a sponsor's ideas and message. Paid co-creation is just that: advertisers fund the construction of content either by an editorial member or an editor who deals specifically with creating branded content.

Because PR relies on trusted relationships with the media to gain earned and shared media, a different set of ethical standards and best practices must apply to paid media content. The Edelman framework suggests that these ethical principles fall into three categories: disclosure, quality, and process. While not every organization can implement the same specific processes as Edelman, the general idea of these categories is universally applicable.

Disclosure requires that paid media be clearly marked as such to be visually discernible from editorial content, and as PR pros, we should be at the forefront of ensuring such disclosure. Disclosure is necessary not only so readers know what they're looking at but also to ensure that earned media retains its reputation as credible and neutral.

Quality relies not only on useful, sharable content, but also upholds sponsored content to similar journalistic standards as the outlet. At its worst, paid content is a bait-and-switch routine, but at its best, paid content is useful, insightful information that happens to be paid for. Maintaining a consistent standard of quality ensures that not only is your paid media up to editorial standards, but also protects your reputation.

Finally, our process should separate our negotiations for paid and earned coverage, ideally in delegating each task to a different person or department to ensure there are no conflicts of interest or quid pro quo transactions. This is also necessary because being an ethical PR practitioner means not compromising the ethics of the journalists you work with. As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics advises journalists to "distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two," it's best to approach everything not only with transparency in mind, but also with an unconflicted interest.

Compartmentalizing and accurately segmenting amplified paid, earned, and owned media, as well as striving to separate media buyer from media relations pro, are keys to navigating the frontiers of content marketing and amplified media. Doing so will create both a clearer, more accurate picture of the metrics of each kind of media, and also ensure you and your organization remain at the forefront of ethical and effective content marketing.

About BurrellesLuce

BurrellesLuce is the U.S. leader in media monitoring. Professionals in a wide range of industries rely on our comprehensive curated content from local and national print, online, broadcast, and social media sources. BurrellesLuce has a turnkey copyright compliance program that allows us to provide copyright-compliant, behind-the-paywall content not available to other services. BurrellesLuce combines grade-A content with easy-to-use software, allowing users to evaluate and analyze their media coverage and PR efforts. It's all integrated into our user-friendly interface, BurrellesLuce WorkFlow™.

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