Emily Poe and Chuck Hemann
Emily Poe and Chuck Hemann co-authored this article.

If you’re an integrated communications professional, raise your hand if you’ve heard the following question from your boss or client: “We have a big product announcement coming up. Can we get a press release ready?” I’m assuming a great many of you have heard that in your career. If we also asked you to raise your hand if you’ve been asked to author a tweet, blog post or Facebook update, I bet we’d capture almost everyone reading this article. The reality is, though, that the role of integrated communications has changed. It’s inclusive of earned, social and paid media. The rumors of one media channel becoming less important are greatly exaggerated.

Before we begin dissecting the roles of earned, social and paid media, it’s important to take a step back and understand what drives the success of integrated communications. Ultimately, the key to success is to understand audiences well enough to effectively reach them “where they are” in order to generate the desired action. This means leveraging the right analytics that help define who the right audience is and who/what influences them, what content is resonating, what language drives action and behavior change and what channels those audiences are going to for information and community.

Starting with an understanding of the audiences and where they are in their journey, we can develop an integrated media activation plan that leverages the inherent value of earned, social and paid media. Each of these types of media can deliver uniquely for a company or brand and should be used together. What’s the value of each to an integrated communications program? We think it’s in building credibility, communities and audiences.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)

For many communicators, securing earned media placements has long been the gold standard of generating awareness. It’s true that effective earned media provides credibility to an organization or brand. Earned media relies on a third party—the reporter—to determine if a news story is important enough to share with their audience, their readers, listeners or viewers. Earned media, though, also carries real and inherent risk because a reporter may decide a topic isn’t worthy of a story or may paint a company or brand in an unflattering light or quote a source who takes an opposing perspective.

Beyond that, it’s no secret that trust of media outlets in the United States has become polarized based on party lines, and earned media is reliant on—and, in the best case, builds—credibility. The Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel examined U.S. levels of trust in 30 major news sources between Oct. and Nov. 2019, with the survey showing that Democrats trust most major news sources whereas Republicans distrust most major outlets, and that the polarization and divide have grown in recent years.

While this isn’t surprising if you’ve been paying close attention to the trends, it does mean that to reach and affect a broad audience, communicators also need to deliver messages and content in places where audiences are already going for information: frequently, to social channels they consider their digital communities. Social media is critical to bringing brand content into communities where audiences are already sharing and discussing related information, or to create a new community where one doesn’t yet exist. Understanding where and how content is being shared authentically on channels is critical to driving conversations that are supportive of a company or brand. A critical element is understanding where and how influencers can be enrolled to share information or to weigh in on an issue. While organic social isn’t dead, it’s true that communicators need to know where paid content, social ads or a formal influencer marketing campaign can boost message delivery.

For most marketers—and now communicators—paid media is a critical tool because it allows them to acutely target their messages to their audience(s). The successful execution of paid media can deliver several things for a company or brand:

  • Allows for the successful amplification of earned and social media content targeted at desired audiences.
  • Leveraging paid media provides communicators the ability to “capture” audiences for marketing in the future.
  • Creates an extension of a news cycle beyond an initial press release.
  • Drives critical traffic to branded properties—the “owned media” in the PESO model—so the audience can learn more about the company or brand.
  • Allows for the delivery of a highly-personalized message that is most likely to generate the desired action.

Whether standing alone—not ideal—or serving as a critical ingredient to earned and social programs, paid media is no longer simply nice to have. It’s a must-have for communicators.

Ultimately, an effective audience-first approach leverages what each type of activation can deliver, building credibility and generating awareness through earned media, creating communities or delivering content to those that already exist on social channels, and capturing audiences and their attention with paid content.


Emily Poe is Chief Integration Officer at W2O. Chuck Hemann is Integrated Intelligence Practice Lead at W2O.