Why the PESO model includes ‘paid’

PR pros have long eschewed the role of marketers, perhaps from a desire to maintain the editorial/advertising divide. However, modern agencies must do it all.

Editor’s note: This is our first article in a series about the PESO model. Each piece will examine a different part of the model, Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned media.

Just what should a PR agency be willing to pay for?

The strict division between editorial staff and advertising and marketing teams is, for many communicators, as essential as the separation of church and state, so why is “paid” media part of the equation?

PESO has become the standard for PR agencies, as many have become integrated marketing firms in the digital media revolution. However, some PR pros can’t come to terms with the weight put into paid media efforts.

Axia PR addressed this uneasiness in a PR post titled “What the PESO model got wrong.

The writer theorized:

PR practitioners aren’t in the business of buying or paying for content and media. This is what advertising and marketing does. We don’t make commercials or buy ads. True PR professionals don’t design advertisements or manage media buys.

However, many distribution options for PR pros are turning into channels for paid media.

A modern-day must

Brooks Wallace, West Coast Lead at Hollywood Agency and PRSA-SF Bay Area board member, says paid media is an irreplaceable part of a modern PR campaigns.

“Nowadays, paid must be part of everyone’s media budget,” she says. “Especially on social media, if you don’t pay, you don’t play.”

She argues that the key is to balance your ads with earned media placements. “Since earned media is still alive and well, a steady amount of paid spend can be balanced with unpaid earned media for brands with savvy PR teams,” she says.

Social media has become a pay-to-play environment with limited organic reach on platforms like Facebook. Influencer marketing is also a tool for a PR pro—but it requires a budget.

Balancing the ledger

So, how can PR pros use paid media without sacrificing their sacrosanct credibility?

Todd Templin, executive vice president for BoardroomPR, says earned media should be the focus. “As a PR firm, we strongly believe in the value of earned media,” he says. “There is still value in hiring a PR agency that has professionals that can do the groundwork needed to position a company or individual as a newsworthy source.”

“However, there may be opportunities to use a paid format to get a company’s entire story out,” he adds. “I think paying for content that is carried by a legitimate news organization could make some sense depending upon how it’s showcased and where it runs. Still, the message has to be relevant and on point to get attention.”

Laura Silver, CEO of Blue Door Agency, says digital efforts require a paid component.

“Digital [media] overall is definitely an area [where] our agency pushes for paid elements regularly,” she says. “If we are to stand out in all that noise, we must be leveraging dollars to hyper-target, expand our reach and yield better conversions.”

“Most would agree that a completely organic online campaign would certainly not generate the same yield/outcome that we can find with paid components,” she adds. “Moreover, when we apply dollars, we open up new metrics to measure those campaigns, thereby ensuring our client can see the ROI on our work.”

A crisis of trust

Research suggests that trust in institutions and media is at record lows, with younger consumers having a healthy dose of skepticism about most businesses.

Is the pay-to-play media pipeline undermining trust for consumers?

Templin says, “While we still believe earned media is most credible, some consumers cannot distinguish the difference between paid, or native, content and earned.” As long as that content is valuable and provides some reader benefit without being promotional, it can often be portrayed as legitimate news in the consumer’s mind. The lines between the two are definitely blurred.” 

Wallace says pay to play is nothing new for PR pros.

“There have always been some aspects of pay to play in PR, whether it was a sponsored post, byline or SMT,” she says. “While paid media reigns supreme thanks to tech giants who’ve mastered the ad game, there still remains plenty of room for unpaid, earned media in the public relations sphere.”

Wallace also points to influencer marketing (which some see as a path to building trust): “There’s still quite a lot of strategy and management involved with paid media, too—especially influencer marketing—so those campaigns deserve credibility as well.”

Silver says she understands why some PR pros might feel that paid media undermines PR’s credibility, but she argues that leaving paid media out of your strategy ignores the reality of the modern media landscape.

“If we could, everything would be earned media and we would never have to ask our clients to pay for awareness,” she says. “But this is not the case and we must educate our clients on the critical importance of all four elements of PESO—including paid as part of that mix. Paid media doesn’t undermine our credibility. It provides us with the ability to optimize, target, amplify and scale our campaigns—and that is always the goal.”

Fully embracing transparency

Karen Mateo, CCO for the Public Relations Society of America, says transparency is essential when incorporating paid media into your strategy.

“Honesty is always the best policy,” she says. “In today’s cluttered and social media-driven world, coupled with shrinking newsrooms and the disappearance of local media outlets, earned media is becoming more difficult to achieve, but it still means more to clients and brands to earn coverage than to have to buy it.”

“Traditional PR is certainly evolving, and we need to ensure we have a broad skill set across traditional and multimedia communications, but earned media is still what we do best,” Mateo adds.

Templin says it all comes down to your writing style.

PR pros can champion transparency “by providing honest and balanced content that is written in a non-promotional style,” he says. “Companies and individuals do have some valuable ideas and information to share with the public. They just need to use compelling storytelling techniques to do it.”

Respecting consumers’ discernment

Wallace asserts that consumers can be relied on to know a marketing message when they see one—as long as certain guidelines are followed. “I think today’s consumer is informed enough to know what’s paid and unpaid, for the most part,” she says.

“Digital marketing targeting has perfected the ‘follow’ game, so most consumers know to expect targeted ads depending on their search history—for example, clicking ‘I Accept Cookies’ on a new website,” Wallace continues. “The same goes for paid media: Consumers understand that paid social media ads are, in fact, a paid advertisement. As long as a logo is present, that’s pretty transparent.”

Silver says there is work to do in being more transparent about paid media efforts when dealing with clients. “Transparency in what we are advertising, and transparency between agencies, clients and advertisers.”

Silver starts with the ethics behind an advertisement or paid media placement—and the importance of sharing those ethics with clients. “It is our duty as professionals to guide our clients on what an advertisement should (or should not) do,” she says.

“Secondly, we need more transparency with clients on where the dollars actually go,” she adds. “Whether its agency fees/mark-ups or rebates, we all just need more clarity on where dollars are going with the paid elements of campaigns. When we solve these transparency issues, we can then squarely focus on how we will measure the paid elements and show ROI for those investments.”

The dollar cost

Once you decide to invest in paid media placement, how much should you be prepared to spend?

Paid distribution on social media has a cost. Working with big-name influencers can have astronomical costs. Native advertising and sponsored content have their own costs. Just how big a budget do you need?

Templin says it varies by target. “It all depends on who and how many people are consuming your message,” he says. “If you plan on leveraging off the credibility of a well-known news publisher, then I would expect to pay more.”

Wallace points to big companies that can spend outsized sums on social media campaigns, and she argues the budget should fit the desired outcome. “The spend entirely depends on the product or service, the available budget and the sales goal,” she says.

“Large brands pay thousands per month, if not tens of thousands, on social media ads, for example,” she explains. “Trump, the biggest political advertiser, supposedly spends $1 million per week on Facebook ads.”

However, she says there is still room for organizations with modest ambitions and budgets. “Smaller brands can get away with less spend as they grow their market share but must increase if they want to stay relevant and find favor in the algorithm game.”

She adds that you shouldn’t underestimate the cost of the content you will share on your social media channels. “Content then becomes the issue,” she says, “since there’s just never enough for all the available channels, and it also takes a piece of the budget since good content isn’t cheap.”

Blue Door’s Silver offers a wide range: $500 all the way to $500,000.

At those prices, paid media might not be your first choice for getting your message out there. “Paid media, if used, should only be one element of a PR campaign,” says PRSA’s Mateo, “and not necessarily the first one you employ.”

How are you using paid media to boost your PR messages, PR Daily readers?

(image via)


3 Responses to “Why the PESO model includes ‘paid’”

    Ken Jacobs says:

    Very interesting perspectives within. I hope it’s okay to share my POV that any PESO discussion should include a mention of, and give credit to, Gini Dietrich of Spin Sucks and Arment Dietrich. She created and named the approach, and I imagine holds copyright on it. I believe we can all agree that as communications leaders, it’s critical to respect intellectual property and to give credit where due. Gini shares about PESO freely and frequently. All she requests is a tip-of-the-hat, which I think is fair.

      Ted Kitterman says:

      Of course, Ken! Gini’s work is frequently featured on PR Daily and she is an important voice in the PR community.

    Ted Kitterman says:

    From Jon Goldberg with Reputation Architects:

    Great article, with some very diverse and interesting views.

    Those who debate the relative merits of earned and paid media and which should come first or receive a larger share of budget miss the whole point of the PESO model: integration. As Laura Silver suggests, its sheer power lies not in its four tactical components, but in how they work together to capture and spread ideas, build credibility, surround stakeholders and amplify influence and ROI. PESO is called a model, not a toolbox, for a reason. The system is more than the sum of its parts. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall as Gini Dietrich, who created the PESO model circa 2013, had that aha moment!)

    PR pros can no longer “eschew the role of marketers” for one very simple reason. With the lines between PR and marketing continuing to blur, marketers are rapidly embracing PR tactics, or at least their own self-serving interpretations of them. As I pointed out recently on Gini’s blog, Spin Sucks (https://bit.ly/2MiNn3J), SEO specialists now claim expertise in earned media, while self-described “reputation repair” consultants are touting their ability to develop content. Not surprisingly, they’re not doing either of them well. Even more important, such opportunistic unbundling of PESO puts its sustainability as an integrated model at risk.

    PESO — the whole enchilada, if you’ll pardon the pun — is our rightful province as PR professionals. We’ve always owned the tools. Now, it’s up to us to own, promote and protect the PESO model, too.

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