PR and ‘free media’ are never synonymous terms.
The idea that, along with paid media (advertising) and owned media (web and original content) earned media, in particular content written by professional journalists, will somehow simply happen, because the space, screens and airwaves exist, would be laughable if it weren’t so common.
Yet marketers seem to think it’s so – that the media will inevitably carry content, preferably unaltered.
This is partly (mainly?) the result of the rise of social media, which has increased the number of influencers, however defined, to the hundreds of thousands. In that everyone on social media arguably has influence under this definition, you could argue that number runs into the billions – 3.6 billion and rising according to Statista. This number is very much larger than the number of journalists in the world – the Pew Research Center estimates around 88,000 in the US in 2019.
But of course, being able to publis content ourselves misses one essential point: we don’t have to convince anyone to do so.
What’s more, neither is media relations public relations – it’s just one aspect of PR.
In broad terms, PR is about convincing someone of your argument. Coverage, in the context of media relations, is the output of that exercise. Readers, viewers or listeners acting on that coverage is the outcome you seek. The difference between PR and advertising is that you have to convince the intermediary before your message even sees the light of day, let alone that the consumers of the content then do anything as a result. With advertising, you buy the space, and take it from there.
And convincing anyone is a process built fundamentally on a relationship built over time, with some trust involved at some point, and an understanding of the needs of the individual being convinced.
PR practitioners have to convince editors and journalists, or communities, or users, or voters, or any other group of individuals, that their arguments – for clients or employers – carry weight, are relevant, and of some benefit in some way.
For a journalist, this centres on the argument having inherent newsworthiness, and being worthy of explanation and coverage – not quite the same thing.
Broad contexts play their part. Man landing on the Moon is inherently newsworthy, especially the first time it happens. So is COVID-19. Around both sit broader stories, insights, information and data.
But people still need to be convinced.
Which is, I think where the value of PR sits, across all its sub-disciplines.
And why it will never simplistically equate to coverage that has not been paid for. Journalists are a group of people who need to be convinced of an argument. If you convince the journalist to carry the story, you have something arguably worth saying. If my colleague or friend shares my news on social media, the degree of analysis and conviction is probably weaker. Pay someone to do so (one definition of social media influence) and the argument falls over. You’re paying someone to say something nice about you or your product.
Marketers: never fall into the trap of assuming that blank pages or screens are yours to fill, and that what you have to say is inevtiably the most important thing that could possibly fill those gaps.
Instead, work with your PR partners to develop the argument that will convince.
Form a relationship with those you seek to convince.
Be prepared for the long-haul.