6 A.M.

Paid Media — A Change of Heart



I have been one of the hard-liners opposing any blurring of the lines between advertising and PR. I am now prepared to change my position. I still believe that we have a primary task of proposing stories to journalists and bloggers. But there is a vital emerging business to be done in content creation for brands.

In the past six months, the previously sharp distinction between paid and earned media has become blurred. Sponsored content, native advertising and long-term aggregation deals are all being discussed. The reality is that media companies need new revenue streams to compensate for the collapse of premium CPM advertising rates, from $8 to under $3.

The problem for PR firms is that these deals are primarily being done by media buying firms directly with the client. The person within the client organization running these initiatives tends to be the CMO, not the chief communications officer. The result is that the work stream tends to be derivative of advertising in its classic form, not in its potential new iteration. For example, before the opening bell for the markets, Business Insider does a list of ten things to know for the trading day, with the eleventh being a sponsored note from a financial company. This is not much different than the Old Spice Play of the Day on ESPN. Or a media company negotiates a long-term sponsorship for a section of its website; this sounds like a stadium naming opportunity to me.

Those of us in PR have to change the game. Let’s recognize that the digital platform for mainstream and hybrid media is an unmatched opportunity to offer hundreds of visual images, a different mentality about contributing comments, a high propensity to share quality material and a short-form mode for absorption of information. Why not take on the chance to make content the basis of advertising? Ads are inherently more effective when you have something to say. And we are better than any other marketing services sector at knowing what is newsworthy at any moment in time.

We are already putting this thinking into action. We helped establish a partnership between Samsung and the Associated Press that was announced today. The AP will grant Samsung two tweeting slots a day on the AP’s own Twitter account for the five days of the Consumer Electronics Show. This is the first time AP has sold space on its feed; the tweets will be labeled SPONSORED and will not be done by AP staff.


We have also spoken with The Economist and Business Insider about various forms of sponsored content. The range of options include syndication of material produced by media companies on company websites, platforms for a brand to write its own content (Brand Blog on Business Insider) or short-form video with heavy use of graphics.

We have an important re-framing of our business to be accomplished in the next five years. We have to stay true to our core positioning, that we are about persuasion and not shouting. We have deep specialist knowledge which enables our interaction with consumers and social activists experiencing the brands. We have strong news sense, and can therefore extend the news cycle. But we need to dare to go beyond our self-imposed boundaries on big idea creative with “own-able” insight. Given our earned media experience and editorial knowledge honed through years of creating and co-producing stories, PR is best suited to partner with paid media. We should be willing to co-produce content with media companies, because they have a better sense of what works in their specific communities (remember Razorbombing!)

Former President Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” I can assure you that Edelman will be at the bleeding edge of aiming for the right thing, unafraid of the wrong thing.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

  • Some media outlets, especially in India were quick to identify this trend and offer brands paid content which has been wrongly identified as paid news. This is an interesting development. What makes it transparent is the disclaimer that it is paid for by a brand. As long as the message is getting across this is the way to go.

  • Very excited about this evolved perspective. There’s so much blurring between lines now that it’s not worth fighting over where the lines should be, but rather focusing on how the story gets told where the audience spends their time and being able to reach them where and when it’s needed. This doesn’t mean that a sponsored “X” however should replace compelling content. That will be needed more than ever.

  • Richard, whilst I share the overall sentiment, how does this differ from what we used to call an ‘advertorial’, aside from just the channel?

    PS. How are you fixed to be interviewed for my forthcoming book, The Social CEO?

    • opendna

      I find the example given interesting because it seems to put more emphasis on orthodox disclaimers than the practices native to the platform. Niall Cook mentions the advertorial, which typically includes a ‘sponsored by’ disclaimer in the print paradigm. A more native practice for Twitter would be retweeting @Samsungtweets or @SamsungCanada. I think, in the context of Twitter, the distinction between AP’s news and Samsungs promotions would be obvious. The decision to do it this way was obviously made for good reasons, and I’m curious what those reasons were/are.

      Looking at the links tweeted by the AP, I see that CPC data is being collected per tweet. That’s not surprising but click-through on Twitter is so time-sensitive that you could get almost as much accuracy by delaying the RT by a few hours. Maybe the sole consideration was tracking, but I suspect there’s more to it than that.

      It’s probably asking for a copy of the secret sauce, but I’m hoping that we’ll get to read more about the theory and data used to decide between different form of sponsored content.

  • Graduating class of 2012 here. Well this is great to hear. Turns out that a nose for news isn’t a skill limited to pitching media. It’s the ability to capture and pay off interest. New channels like native advertising bring scale to that rare competency. Opens up new career paths too. Bravo.

    PS: Better to arrive late to the party with supplies than early with empty hands.

    PPS: Gotta hire more writers though.

  • Thought provoking as usual. In the next stage “ads” that don’t have any significant content will become irrelevant. I’m waiting to see your pitch for Davos this year 🙂

  • Thanks for the insights, Richard – I was just working on an article about this very topic and I appreciate your perspective.

  • Karthik, all of these tweets by design are a) focused on promoting content vs product and b) straight up information vs promotion. All three parties involved agree this is the way to go. (I am the Edelman liaison between the AP and the client.) I don’t think anyone would go as far as you suggest. It doesn’t do anyone any bit of good. But I agree standards are needed in this fast moving space.

    • Steve: That was my point anyway. When paid blogging (mommy bloggers and the type) went big, people started demanding for standards much later down the lines after things have gone really awry. As the world’s largest PR firm changing stance on paid media, I’d love it if you folks start with the standards that you’ll stand by… may help clients/prospects put this change of heart in perspective and continue to trust the agency and its efforts even more.

      • I agree that clear, transparent rules are needed. The recent editorial interference between CBS and CNET indicate to me an industry with a growing credibility problem. I joined Twitter and Facebook to have conversations with friends. I will happily ignore advertorials I haven’t asked for. No trust. No point. I have no problem with publicist spin – some of it is quite amusing. But as a company I’d be more interested in distribution through a commercial network than a news agency. The Samsung smartphone is a great phone. But I don’ t want to see it as a news item in one of my trusted streams.

  • I’ve always been of the opinion that the quality of the content matters more than how it’s unleashed upon the world. Often paid content is just too self-serving to justify reading. Back when I worked at a small ad agency I’d hear clients say things like “we want to create a newsletter that is just as good as any publication covering our industry,” and then become uneasy at the thought of writing articles that were anything but self-serving. Sorry folks, can’t have both.

    PR people own a spectacular position in the marketplace and many have the knowledge and skill to create useful, interesting pieces. How they reach the audience, whether that’s a paid or earned placement, remains irrelevant.

  • Dr. Brenda Wrigley, SU

    Richard’s post adds credibility to the notion of teaching students about business and marketing, as well as public relations. Storytelling and digital/visual skills are also important. It will be interesting to see how educators rise to the challenge of training students to be successful and contribute to the shifting needs of our profession.

  • Richard:

    I applaud your enlightened thinking. My only caution is a continued emphasis on transparency and authenticity in all that we do to engage, enlighten, entertain and educate our constituencies.


    Gerry Corbett. APR, Fellow PRSA

  • I agree with Richard and have a question for everyone: Do we think that with the current technology and an appropriate process to amplify advocacy through the sharing of valuable content, digital word of mouth can be a “mass medium” like press or TV?

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