With PR on the Rise, Here's a Refresher Course in the Basics

Earned Media Isn't Paid Media and Five Other Principles to Keep in Mind

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Marketers are spending more on PR and getting excited about it, too. Talk of "earned media" has gone from conference rooms at PR shops to center stage at the Ad Age Digital Conference, where it was given a big shout-out by Unilever CMO Simon Clift and venture capitalist Fred Wilson.

Veronis Suhler said that U.S. spending on PR rose 7.1% in 2008. WPP noted PR was the fastest-growing discipline, and the holding company was up 17.3% in the discipline in 2008.

That's great, because PR is underused and underfunded. But based on much of what we see and hear, there are a lot of marketers out there who don't seem to understand the principles or ethics of the discipline. So here's a refresher on the rudiments of PR. Even if you don't need them, I know you know someone who does.

Earned media isn't paid media. Any place that'll take cash for editorial credit isn't worth your time and isn't credible. (The fashion mags are a possible exception to this rule, unfortunately.) What's more, your pay-for-play approach may end up hitting the headlines for trying to deceive the public.

Earned media requires being interesting and open. You have to have a story to tell -- a real, meaningful story that a journalist, blogger or tech-empowered consumer will think is worth listening to and sharing.

Listen to the people you paid to help you. Don't hire a PR person or agency and then ignore them when they tell you that the story you're presenting is either too boring, a lie or, even worse, a lie that'll get found out. I've heard 100 PR people say "yes, I know it's bullshit, but it's what they wanted to say." Not only is going against their advice a waste of your money, but it's also going to undermine your PR people's credibility and therefore your ability to earn media when you do have something to say.

You can't control the message. Despite the popular tabloid moniker, your PR person isn't a doctor and shouldn't be spinning. PR helps you communicate something demonstrably true. If you need to know how the message will look when it is shared with the public, stick to ads. When it doesn't come out quite like you'd imagined, don't scream at the PR person or the journalist or blogger in question. You'll just make influential enemies. If your message comes out exactly as you'd hoped, make a note that the journalist in question has no integrity and will soon have no readers, or thank your stars that you got lucky. (Note, however, lucky ain't scalable.)

PR isn't cheaper than advertising, or more expensive, just different. PR agencies have done little to dispel this common misconception, for obvious reasons. But it's like saying that throwing a party is cheaper than renting a fleet of trucks.

PR doesn't replace advertising. Sometimes you need one, sometimes the other. Ideally, you probably want both operating in harmony, orchestrated by the same conductor. Also note: Without advertising, there'd be no "editorial publicity" or, indeed, editorial. Unless, that is, you're assuming that Mark Zuckerberg is going to find another way to fund Facebook, while the state-funded BBC and nonprofit NPR carve up the rest of the media world between them.

On that note, let's also remember that the idea of the media isn't to cheer for you, your brand, your company, your industry or even the country. The media's job isn't to be positive or negative, it's to bring skepticism and questioning to the issues of the day. If it had done a little more of that, and a little less cheerleading, over the last two decades, not only might it feel a little more relevant today, but we might just have rooted out some of the financial and regulatory idiocy that got us in this mess in the first place.

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