There is a term within (and somewhat recognizably without) the public relations industry called “earned media.”
Media is earned when a professional manages to pitch a product, brand, quote, idea or concept to a journalist of an established outlet, who then integrates that product, brand, quote, idea or concept into an informational article.
On the whole, “earned media” is somewhere between 10 and 100 times more valuable to a given company than a paid-advertisement. You read that right. (Keep in mind 87% of all statistics are made up on the spot).
:) Seriously though, earned media is gold. Paid media is crap.
You see, readers are trained to avoid paid-advertisements. And when they do read them, readers are trained to practice restraint and skepticism.
Readers are not trained to suspect that the stories themselves are embedded with advertisements; that a “press release” is just that; a ghost-written news-vertisement that PR firms write on behalf of health and tech companies looking to hawk their wares to sometimes lazy journalists with tight deadlines at TIME, USA Today, and all the rest of the major outlets.
[Aside: I could write a whole other post about how public relations firms cover everyone's asses but their own, and how, in an age of increasing transparency, that particular industry is at risk of losing credibility (and therefore relevance) if it doesn't start doing a better job of explaining itself.]
Anyway, one of the unintended consequences of paying a PR middle-man to write the story that the established journalist gets credit for, is that the compensation stream never fully reaches the publication that runs the earned media. That is to say: because companies don’t see a worthwhile ROI on paid media, they’ll pay just enough in job-postings to keep classifieds going, and just enough in print-advertisement to keep the publication afloat (and help maintain their brand’s reputation as an added benefit).
But, the big bucks are going to the PR guy hawking the product, not to the publication that runs the story. This is especially the case in trade publications (weekly/monthly magazines like Car and Driver or PC World Magazine). Companies really only get the bang for their buck when these publication includes a feature article on their products.
Thus, in some sort of asymmetrically symbiotic relationship (if that makes sense), companies leach off of established publications as outlets of dissemination for their products and services, without actually fairly paying them for featuring their content. Of course, specialty or trade publications are dependent on scooping and reporting on items new to the market (like the iPhone), so what leverage do they really have? Not much.
Why does this matter?
It always amuses me when old media reports on new media. It’s like a Baskin Robbins employee telling a customer: “did you know Ben and Jerry’s is giving away free ice-cream all week? They are! And it’s glorious!”
Well, the New York Times continues to do just that by reporting its man-crush on The Huffington Post. (Yes…in my head, these publications are male-gender specific. The NYT is an effeminate Yankee, and the Huffington Post is Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Arianna on HGH. I can’t explain why, so don’t ask.)
This matters because the Huffington Post, as a collection of small “i” independent bloggers, is not limited by the same content-restrictions as is the Times. Most notably, they can mix news and opinion. And whereas the Times keeps a “top 10 most e-mailed list” to aggregate stories based on popularity, the Post continually shuffles popular stories to the top of its home-page. This makes that page EXTREMELY more valuable in terms of advertising space, because the eyeballs are concentrated on one space, and not shifting, sorting and scanning through articles.
Great, right? Articles ranked on popularity cut out the necessity of a PR-middle man to “pitch” ideas, because the cream will rise to the top, right?
Well, not exactly.
Have you looked at Digg.com? The articles that “rise” are still only indicative of the users that actually either read certain publications or are technologically saavy enough to use news-aggregators. The biggest “diggers” are un/under-employed techies who live second lives and exploit polygons.
So as the tail of news consumption grows longer, what new conduits will companies use to reach a diversified audience? Will they continue to explicitly rely on PR professionals? Will they start pitching to diggers themselves?*
This is actually already happening… I read an article about how companies have approached the most influential diggers, including 13-year old snot nose punks who sit on their computer all day. Makes… me… ang-ry.