By Morgan McElroy

Even the most seasoned business professionals sometimes mistake paid media (advertising) with earned media (public relations). Advertising is definitely important, but does not, repeat, DOES NOT take the place of earned media. Why not?

Earned media is about your credibility, building relationships, and engaging in conversation with your audience. It creates trust, is verified by a third party, and carries the third party’s endorsement. In other words, you’re getting the seal of approval from someone else.

Do This, Not That

One of the most famous and often-cited examples is that of Tylenol in 1982. Seven people in Chicago died from cyanide-laced extra-strength Tylenol capsules. Johnson and Johnson (makers of Tylenol), reacted swiftly and transparently, pulling all 32 million bottles of Tylenol on the nation’s shelves, halting advertising, and partnering with the Chicago PD to help nab the killer (who, horrifyingly, was never caught).

When Tylenol was reintroduced to the public, it was with tamper-resistant packaging and a $2.50 coupon. Putting safety first paid off—Johnson and Johnson’s crisis management was rewarded with generally favorable press coverage, and they were able to bounce back quickly after the crisis. It seems like a no-brainer to act in your public’s best interest, right? But for some scenarios (*ahem* Toyota recall, BP oil spill, Peter Pan peanut butter recall) the public got the memo too little, too late.

On a more positive note, there’s the more recent example of the ALS ice bucket challenge. It was only a short time ago when you would log on to your Facebook account and see post after post of folks dousing themselves with icy water, promising to donate $10 to the ALS Association—and people with an aversion to getting wet could donate $100 and avoid the ice altogether. Many people did both – the challenge and a larger contribution.

The ALS Association caught lightning in a bottle with a simple, viral campaign that resulted in a watershed (ha) year for donations. It was fun, inclusive, easy to execute, inexpensive, and low-risk for folks to pass along the challenge to friends. Alternatively, it wasn’t hatched in a boardroom or overly controlled by the association. The ice bucket challenge tapped into younger markets, generated loads of amusing parent/child interactions for posterity, and fostered incredible good will for a great cause.

Looking at it now it all seems so simple, and no doubt plenty of PR professionals are slapping their foreheads with ‘why didn’t I think of that’ incredulity. But, keep in mind that the ALS Association already had a lot going for it—a solid brand, worthy cause, positive public perception. That goes a long way in your PR efforts! And while trying to copy success (especially someone else’s) often doesn’t work, several other things do: engaging and simple ideas, connecting with your audience, and staying true to your identity.

Okay great, but what about the ads I’m paying for?

Advertising is a key element of your strategy, to be sure. You guaranteed placement and creative direction, and can say whatever you’d like about your product or service, e.g. “It’s the greatest! Buy it now! You’ll look fantastic/lose weight/get rich/” (and yes we know that your business doesn’t sell like late-night infomercials), but with that comes the skepticism of your audience.

Here are a few of the major differences:

Advertising Public Relations
Paid Earned
Guaranteed Not guaranteed
Controlled placements Uncontrolled/no obligation
Longevity (ad campaigns can last as long as your budget does) Shorter cycle
Subjectively written Objectively written/no nonsense
Viewed with more distrust by consumers Viewed with more trust by consumers
Positive Positive and negative (see Tylenol v ALS)

With all the technically ‘free’ ways to spread your message, should you keep putting money into advertising? Absolutely! Successful businesses and organizations have a healthy mix of both advertising and PR. Ads are truly the only medium you can fully control—so it’s still the premium way to advance your brand and forge a connection with your target audience. You direct placement and draw attention to your content. It reinforces every single thing about your business and heightens awareness.

And, even though PR is invaluable in reputation management, there is often the perception that if you’re advertising, business must be ‘good.’ You can be found reliably, and it can even be a point of pride for employees that your company or organization has a presence in the marketplace.

Only you can determine the best mix for your business, but at least now you know the difference!

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