Dan O'Mahony
Dan O'Mahony

A debate continues to wage on in the public relations world regarding whether an earned or owned media strategy makes more sense. Should you focus on earned media, driven by proactive media relations? Or owned media where you build a following using self-published content on your media channels?

Large companies like Tesla have made recent headlines by “eliminating” their communications teams. Many startups and VCs from Coinbase to Andreessen Horowitz are similarly applying the “go direct” approach. The Clubhouse app is the new platform to reach audiences, but companies are using everything from YouTube to Twitter to their own hosted podcasts and other unique media properties.

Why are some companies choosing not to engage with the press? There’s more tension than ever between reporters and the companies they cover. It’s been building for a decade, and events like the Theranos fallout have only fueled the fire. Now, the press is holding tech companies accountable for not meeting oversized expectations and for the lack of diversity in the industry.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Mar. '21 Food & Beverage PR Magazine
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Every company is looking for the right media mix. It depends on their stage of growth, available resources and business objectives. Communications strategies hinge on broader, more strategic questions: Who is your audience? What do you want them to do? What change are you ushering in? What do you want to be known for?

Instead of deciding between earned vs. owned, consider these questions:

What’s your business goal and who are your audiences?

Earned media is called earned because someone else says good things about you. It builds credibility for a company or spokesperson and boosts awareness at a reach most companies don’t have. Owned media, on the other hand, creates an ongoing dialogue with your key audiences and the ability to build individual relationships. It assumes that you already have an audience that’s paying attention.

Let’s say you’re in the healthcare space and one key audience for you is senior citizens. Both earned and owned make sense to reach this audience. With earned media, this company can leverage the credibility of a reporter that senior citizens know and trust. With owned media, this company can create very specific, niche content that speaks to senior citizens, who then go on to share via their own social media channels.

If you’re selling an open source database technology to software developers, earned and owned both make sense too. With earned media, your technology could be included in a round-up alongside other popular solutions, which is beneficial for instant awareness. With owned media, you could create an ongoing Q&A on a key database topic and invite outside thought leaders to participate and share with their own channels, creating engagement and dialogue with your audience.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where you would only pursue one strategy. Both strategies often make sense and if the story is consistent, the strategies help build on each other. That said, some companies are in a position where reporters cover them regardless of whether they engage with them.

Should you pick only one media strategy?

Facebook, Tesla or Apple can go direct because they have large consumer followings, celebrity CEOs and are able to produce massive amounts of owned content across many channels.

But for most companies out there, if you ignore the press there are two possible outcomes: you won’t get news coverage or the media will write a story via leaks and scandals. Likewise, if you decide to only “go direct” you will need to invest. It will take headcount, new technologies, partnerships and time to build an audience.

Are you ready for the media to distrust you?

In-house communications teams know this best. If you choose to ignore a problem and not talk about it with the press, that doesn’t mean press stop asking about it or covering it. In fact, it makes dealing with those issues more challenging. It invites scrutiny and turns your employees into spokespeople. Building an audience that trusts you is tough without the press.

These two strategies overlap, and should work in tandem, but they’re not the same. It’s a virtuous cycle that communicates transparency and openness.


Dan O’Mahony is Executive Vice President and San Francisco General Manager at Inkhouse.