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By: Paul Raab, APR

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Nov 25, 2015 | Linhart Blog, Our Culture

Why PR Must Get Past the Earned/Paid Debate

In a recent PR Week article, PR Council Chair Christopher Graves, who also serves as global chair of Ogilvy PR, offered thoughtful comments on a survey by the council which found marketing executives believe so-called brand newsrooms are over-hyped.

What captured my attention was this quote from Graves: “In my view, the core competence of PR is the science and the art of earned influence – this notion that you can build relationships that foster trust, that earn permission to influence other people. That is a very different approach to taking a paid route to change behavior and win people over.”

PR’s core competence, Graves said, cannot be found in the overlapping and competing areas between advertising and PR. In other words (and this is my interpretation), if it’s earned, it’s the realm of PR. If it’s paid, it’s the realm of advertising.

I respectfully beg to differ.

I appreciate the admonition to focus on core competencies. It’s important that firms built on a foundation of earned influence not try to be all things to all people, especially boutique firms like Linhart PR.

But I’m not sure many or most clients, especially smaller ones, see the swim lanes among marketing and communications services providers quite so clearly. Clients typically come to us with an opportunity to be seized or a problem to be solved, caring less about how we do it than about the end result and the ROI.

Digital platforms for content distribution and audience engagement obviously are increasingly important parts of awareness- and reputation-building campaigns, and we often use promoted posts, pages and trends and other forms of paid content on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, among others. These help drive website clicks, build engagement and make social platforms more valuable by expanding the audience of followers. We engage in paid programs with online influencers in a variety of disciplines, especially in connection with marketing consumer brands.

We’ve also created and placed advertising for clients from time to time in order to bring an issue to the attention of a selected public or to influence public opinion. Our expertise is in communications strategy and content. We’re increasingly agnostic about the medium, in an increasingly multi-media world.

Sometimes, when it’s bold enough, advertising itself becomes a source of earned media coverage and conversation, as with Uber’s ad takeover earlier this year of the New York Times website, as part of its brilliant integrated public affairs campaign to fight restrictions on its business in New York City.

Sometimes, a big idea comes to life in a variety of ways – paid, earned, owned, shared. A great and timely example is REI’s “#OptOutside” campaign, which I first saw as paid advertising, probably online – followed by a tidal wave of news coverage, editorial page support and social conversation. I doubt REI cares whether the idea originated with its PR team or its advertising team.

We need to think outside the boundaries of earned and paid, while reserving the right to recommend any and all tools and platforms on a growing spectrum of marketing and influence options. Our focus must be less on the tactic and whether we have permission to use it, and more on the outcome desired by the client and how best to achieve it.

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