Unify Paid, Earned, Owned Initiatives

Heather Kernahan
Heather Kernahan

There has been a lot written about paid, earned and owned media for the last few years. More recently, with the swim lanes merging, there has been confusion among communications professionals. Should we position ourselves to be the strategists for all three disciplines, or strategically partner with advertising and Web agencies and keep within our “earned” channel lane? As digital media expands our audiences, people now consume media differently. They no longer segment these channels the way we do as marketers. So, to run highly effective communications campaigns, our silos need to collapse and we need to embrace all three pillars of P/E/O. The definitions will continue to evolve and the lines will continue to blur, but here is a guideline on how to think about each:

▶ Paid: Any advertising that is bought in magazines, newspapers, websites, social media or TV (direct ads, paid social, native advertising).

▶ Earned: Communication about a brand that is not controlled but earned by influencing (news, articles, reviews, peer-to-peer communities).

▶ Owned: Branded communication that makes a direct connection between the brand and a customer, such as corporate website and microsites, company blog and company social channels.


I see two main challenges for in-house PR teams as they start to weigh in and even take on responsibility for the owned and paid channels. They differ depending on the size and structure of your organization.

If you’re in a large company, where there are separate media-buying teams and Web teams that run your website, communities, blogs and social channels, you may need an influencer strategy to break down the silos. In some instances I’ve seen brand managers oversee all three and pull them together into one cohesive strategy and plan.

Where communications can lead is working with a cross-functional team from all three groups to make sure that messaging is consistent and start to make recommendations about campaign style, integrated across all key media channels.

Keep cross-functional teams focused on the benefits to the customer with an integrated campaign and the results it will drive for the program you’re executing.

In smaller companies, there may be less separation of ownership, and your head of communications or marketing might expect PR to help integrate the channels.

In this size organization, track the ROI of all channels so that you’re reporting back metrics tied to click-through conversions, brand growth and demand generation.

The challenge for PR agencies is related to their existing services, plus their customers and their needs. In general, PR agencies have started to build their credibility in leading owned media. Clients now increasingly rely on their PR agencies to set messaging that drives their content across channels, from website copy to blogs to SEM (search engine marketing) ads.


Agencies that want to be credible in the three areas need to bring on teams that deeply understand each world and how content drives the customer lifecycle. Without these experts on staff, I believe agencies will be limited to playing a small role and won’t be able to expand their influence.

To build PR’s credibility in the paid-media space, agencies need to decide on a strategy to integrate those services and build a plan to get there.

There is value in hiring dedicated paid-media strategists onto the team. Yet agencies also need to educate their entire team on how to use each paid, earned and owned strategy and apply each channel appropriately based on clients’ goals.

A mix of specialists in paid, earned and owned—working together to manage accounts—is the future and brings clients lots of leverage and expertise.

Partnering with an advertising agency is another path to take and could fill the gap while you decide if adding paid media people onto your team will work with your business model.


For PR professionals, there are new metrics that need to be understood and embedded with new channels. In the last few years we’ve been diving deep into data, and its importance is only going to grow. It is essential to think about measurement and the role each plays in the P/E/O equation.

The new rules of measurement include:

1. Understand the expanded set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) based on business goals and communications goals.

2. Set measurable goals at the start of a campaign.

3. Test drive, track and adjust for performance. Make sure you get clean data that will allow you to develop campaign insights that are actionable.

Key measurements for each earned, owned and paid channel:

Earned = influence and reach. As PR professionals we all have this one nailed. As we achieve earned media we can measure the reach and influence.

Owned = engagement. The key to engagement measurement is how many people share, like, favorite, repost our content and what happens as a result. If 1,000 like your post, big deal—is this good or bad? It’s what happens next where you find the magic.

Paid = impressions and conversion. If your program is about reaching the biggest audience possible then you’ll want to measure impressions, the same as you would when you get an earned article.

It’s up to PR to educate ourselves about these channels and start to meld them together to keep our position as the trusted advisors to our management teams and clients.

How Social Media is Earned and Owned

While I’ve discussed the value of paid, earned and owned media and the value of integrating them for your PR programs, the return and importance of earned media still stands apart, especially as social media accelerates.

Managing social media should be the domain of PR. It focuses on the authentic voice of a company and requires a sophisticated understanding of communicating and engagement. Social media is an emerging earned channel and should be positioned on par with results that come from securing an executive interview or review of your product in a media outlet.

If brand awareness and reputation are your goals, PR can be a lead player in using earned channels to achieve results. You can make your brand accessible, show your culture to your audiences and make genuine connections with customers.

Enphase Energy, a solar company whose main customers are solar installers, regularly runs contests for their installer audience. The company asks installers to post their installation of the day and get entered into a Friday fun pack draw. The posts draw dozens of images from customers, thousands of shares across its social channels and boosts visits to its website.

Unify (a client of Eastwick), uses its social channels to lead a discussion on the topic of the new way to work and what that means for enterprise communications and collaboration.
By consistently seeking out people talking about this subject and engaging them in conversation, the company is seeing an increase in share of voice on the subject and being called by more media outlets that are covering the new-way-to-work topic and seeking out experts in the industry.

Just like researching, pitching and creating content that attracts media to cover stories, PR can do the same on social channels and see the results for the overall goals of both brands and organizations.



Heather Kernahan is general manager and executive VP of Eastwick. She can be reached at heather@eastwick.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 5, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.