Laura Sutherland : The difference between paid and earned media


Aura PR’s Laura Sutherland looks to explain the difference between paid and earned media and why the distinction is important when working with the media and on social media.

Particularly if you work in a public relations position or you run/manage a business which employs or retains public relations practitioners, it’s essential to work ethically as it impacts on the reputation of your brand.

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What is paid media?

Simply put, it’s media that you pay for! Paid for Facebook posts or promoted tweets are common examples of paid media on social media. Traditional paid media streams such as display advertising and search marketing are a more directly relevant route to generate users to the site, which is useful to create traffic and in turn create website conversions.

Paid media in public relations can directly target audiences in a timely and relevant manner.

What’s the issue?

The question of ethical earned media can be blurred and I’ve worked with a fellow CIPR member, Gavin Harris, to produce guidelines to help people understand the difference of paid and earned media and how content should ‘appear’ in print and online.

PESO: Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned

Before we get into ethics it’s important to understand how paid media fits in with wider activity. The invention of the PESO model allows us to engage a variety of audiences so the message is not lost.

• Paid: has the ability to create brand awareness

• Earned: has the ability to create social lift and good search engine optimisation

• Shared: allows the audience to share the content and allow a greater reach

• Owned: has the ability to create earned and allows full control of the story

What’s the difference between advertising and advertorial?

An advertorial is an advert which appears in the form of editorial content. The word “advertorial” combines the words “advert” and “editorial”. As confirmed by Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) “Advertisement features often mirror the format, style and typography of editorial articles contained in the same publication. It is particularly important, therefore, that readers can see at once that what they are looking at is not editorial but an advertisement feature. The material should be prominently labelled as an ‘Advertisement’.

Some acceptable examples are: ‘Advertisement Promotion’ or ‘Advertisement Feature’. The term ‘advertorial’ should be avoided because it does not make sufficiently clear to the uninformed reader whether the feature is an advertisement or an editorial.”

What is earned media?

Earned content is earned on merit because of its relevance and value to audiences. It’s also distinguishable by the fact it’s never paid for. Earned content should be generated through following an ethical and transparent process that seeks to inform audiences on how content is generated. For example, if you have paid for editorial which includes an image and links, then this will be considered an advertorial and should be ‘labelled’ as such, by the publisher.

For many practitioners this predominantly means editorial coverage in mass media publications, in print and online. It is content which is mainly generated by proactively supplying credible information and marketing materials like press releases and photos that any given publisher or media owner deems valuable for their respective audience.

Earned content in the modern media publishing landscape must not be mistaken for paid content that is dressed to look like it. For example, paid-for or sponsored columns, such as Q&A advice columns, are sometimes offered by publishers on the basis that they won’t be clearly marked as paid-for content although they should always be clearly labelled as such.

The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (CAP Code) provides clear guidance in this area and the UK Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) has sought assurances from advertising agencies that they won’t breach consumer protection legislation.

The bottom line is consumers must always be aware when content is being funded by a third party. Other types of earned content include those generated through influencer relations such as blogs, vlogs and mentions in posts on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn. The same rules apply here – regardless of whether if it’s a “mention” in a tweet or a whole blog post dedicated to a brand or its products and services, it’s only earned if it’s produced on merit and not paid for.


Understanding what paid and earned media are is a first step for anyone. The scenarios provided, give an indication of how editorial (earned media) should be handled in an ethical way. We must remain transparent in our work and when working with media, we should ensure they are being transparent and are clearly labelling any sort of paid activity.

Case studies/scenarios:

#1 Editorial is part of the deal – The editorial is paid for and should be identified as such.

#2 Editorial follows the deal – You may be contacted for comment following the purchase of advertising. This is a grey area. You should ensure the relationship with the editorial staff is mutually professional.

#3 Editorial is offered as a sweetener by the publication in exchange for helping recruit advertisers and appears without disclaimer – This is a potentially unethical situation. The professional may not be dealing fairly with the public/clients and others.

This skills guide was written in August 2016 for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations best practice guides. If you’re in any doubt, always ensure you’re working with an ethical PR consultant and a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. They are bound by its Code of Conduct and are required to maintain integrity and act ethically.

Post by Laura Sutherland, Chief at Aura PR.

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