Fiction: Media relations is ‘free advertising’

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This is the next entry in our “Best of” series, in which we venture deep into the vault to replay blog opinion and insight that has withstood the test of time. Today’s post hails from July 2011. We welcome your feedback.

By Francis Moran

At the time my PR agency,inmedia Public Relations, was founded, I worked out of a large integrated agency in the city and some of the account executives there loved to push my buttons by declaring that media relations was free advertising. They especially liked to do this in client meetings because they knew it would prompt me to mount a fevered defence of the merits of PR and all the ways in which it differed from advertising.

I knew they were only kidding. I knew they really knew better. I knew it was all a bit of harmless fun.

But the perception that media relations is free advertising persists, and I was reminded recently that it persists even among so-called PR professionals and others who really ought to know better. I received a promotional email this week about a media-training workshop organised by a large group that specialises in consulting, training and speaking on marketing and communications. The first paragraph of the email read, “Do you know the media can give inmedia free advertizing [sic]?!” (The bold font, underlined words, redundant double punctuation at the end of the sentence and misspelling of “advertising” are all faithful reproductions of the actual email.)

I don’t want to name and shame any one. I know the consultant who wrote the email and will be giving the workshop, and am familiar with the organization putting on the workshop and have no desire to conduct a drive-by smear of either one of them. But the fact that a group positioning itself as expert counsel on subjects like PR can suggest that media relations somehow equates to free advertising demonstrates just how poor a grasp even seasoned practitioners can have of the strategic fundamentals of public relations.

Media relations is not free advertising.

First of all, it’s not free.

The editorial space in which media relations practitioners seek to get their clients’ stories may come at no cost but the process of pursuing that space can be very costly indeed. My clients pay a lot of good money for the media coverage we get for them and they most certainly do not see it as free. The strategic pursuit of media coverage is far more than a flippant pitch for a bit of free publicity; the time and skill it takes all cost a lot of money and many organisations invest far more in media relations than they do in advertising.

(Parenthetically, the same “free” tag is being attached to social media with the same potential that doing so creates unrealistic expectations of what a social media campaign ought to cost and sharply degrades the value of the results a good campaign achieves. Because access to social media networks and tools is largely without cost, there is a wide misconception that social media is a low-cost or even free communications and marketing tactic. Doing it properly is incredibly time-consuming, though, and time, whether ours or the client’s, is expensive.)

Second — and far more critically — media relations is not advertising.

While media relations can complement advertising and both, in a properly integrated program, ought to be built from the same messaging platform and address the same objectives, media relations is very unlike advertising and those who can’t see the difference ought to get into another line of work.

Media relations is more credible.

Market research has long demonstrated that editorial coverage is perceived by consumers as being more credible than advertising, and this may be where media relations has its greatest advantage. Notwithstanding the generally poor regard in which journalists are held, consumers believe they have made some effort to filter and evaluate the claims made in their stories and that journalistic standards of accuracy and balance make editorial coverage more reliable.

Media relations is harder to control.

The flip side of the credibility coin is that editorial coverage cannot be controlled in the same way as advertising space. Media relations practitioners have no say over how much space their story will get, where or when it will run, or what other messages — even opposing messages — might also run in the same story. You can mitigate this lack of control and vastly increase your chances of achieving your desired outcome, however, through the effective and strategic planning of your media relations efforts along with a sharp tactical understanding of how newsrooms operate.

Media relations can deliver greater message reach.

The impact of any campaign is measured in terms of reach — the number of people who will see your message — and frequency — the number of times the message will be seen. Media relations can vastly increase the reach of a campaign although it is usually difficult for it to do much for frequency.

Advertising costs increase in linear fashion — that is, it generally costs twice as much to reach twice as many people or to reach them twice as often. Media relations efforts, on the other hand, scale more efficiently. Once having completed all the work to develop the story pitch and materials necessary to reach our first journalist, the cost of reaching the second and subsequent journalists is a small increment. The reach of a media relations campaign can be extended more cost-effectively than that of an advertising campaign but it is unlikely that a media relations campaign will deliver multiple exposures like an advertising campaign can do if you pay for them.

Media relations can deliver greater message scope.

Most advertising is limited to a couple of sharp selling points. Media relations, on the other hand, can produce coverage that goes well beyond a headline or two. As such, it is particularly effective when you need to explain an issue or educate an audience. For a better understanding of how this advantage of media relations fits into a marketing campaign, see my post last week on my three buckets of customer segmentation. The downside of this advantage is that any story can, of course, also include negative messaging.

Media relations is rarely transactional.

Although it can happen, media coverage rarely puts bums in seats. Any good ad must have a clear and compelling call to action. No good journalist is going to allow such a thing to creep into her or his story, although a lot of coverage, especially outside the hard news and business sections, will contain information on where readers, listeners or viewers can go for more information. In a connected world, this can be done more easily — and seemingly without compromising journalistic integrity — through the use of hyperlinks in online coverage that lead readers to a company or advocacy website.

So what’s the harm?

The advertising colleagues I referenced at the outset of this post were just taking a bit of mickey, and no harm was done. But real harm is done when media relations is conflated with advertising.

In the first instance, as I have already explained, calling media relations “free” degrades its value and the effort required to do it properly. Second, it can lead to really bad strategic planning and deployment of marketing resources if media relations is expected to accomplish the transactional objectives of an advertising campaign.

Perhaps most dangerously, however, it leads to a mindset that there is no such thing as bad publicity; that any engagement with the media is to be desired and pursued.

I have in the past counselled two extraordinary local organisations that deal with children in times of extreme hazard. Both organisations have amazing and heart-warming tales to tell of how they quite literally save lives every day, and they rightly pursue media coverage of those stories in the same honest, principled and good-hearted way they conduct all of their affairs. But because they deal with the most at-risk of our society’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens, the outcome of their very best efforts is often a tragic one, and tragic outcomes involving children are headline-making events. If these organisations viewed media coverage as a benign publicity resource they could mine for “free advertising,” they would be hammered by the fallout that would ensue.

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