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Choosing the Right Media for Your Message

July 5, 2021 Jeff Bradford

Communications requires four things: a sender, a message, a medium and a recipient. That is, for communication to occur, someone has to create and transmit a message and someone has to receive it. That’s fairly obvious. However, people often forget that messages must be transmitted through a medium, and that this medium has an effect on the message.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the four primary types of media – paid, earned, owned and advertorials ­– and their effects on messages.

Paid media, more commonly known as advertising, involves a fairly simple transaction – you pay the media outlet and they run your message.

  • Advantages: You have (mostly) complete control over the message. The only thing you can’t do is outright lie – though puffery is allowed. (Puffery is making general claims that can’t be proven, such as “Our product is the best!”)

You can also control when and how your message is shown (such as during a television show that airs at 8 pm every Tuesday) and to whom it is shown (such as to married people with children and a household income of more than $100,000).

  • Disadvantages: Messages delivered via this method are among the least likely to be believed. Because recipients know you tightly control what is communicated through paid media, they also know that they are probably not getting the whole story. Now, the degree to which this disadvantage is in play depends on the education and sophistication of your audience, with less educated recipients more likely to believe what is communicated without reservation.

Another disadvantage of paid media in our hyper-partisan times is censorship. Primarily seen on social media, censorship occurs when the media outlet refuses to communicate the message you paid for because the owners or managers of the media outlet disagree with your message.

Earned media, which is more commonly known as publicity or public relations, requires you to convince a gatekeeper at the media outlet – such as an editor or news director – to communicate your message. Usually this means your message is communicated indirectly, through the words of a journalist.

  • Advantages: A message communicated via earned media is quite believable because it carries an implied third-party endorsement. That is, the recipient knows that your message had to pass through several filters to get to them. That is, first a reporter had to be convinced that your story was worth telling. Then, the reporter, not you, told the story. Then, it likely had to go through at least one round of editing and fact-checking.

Sometimes, earned media also offers the benefits of paid media in the form of a bylined column, in which case your words are transmitted unmolested through a news media outlet and marked as coming directly from you. Because a bylined column is presented as “editorial” product, it is seen as more believable than an advertisement – and it generally is, because someone at the media outlet had to agree to run your column. It is not as believable as an article written by a reporter, because it came directly from you and likely is colored by your perception of the issue.

  • Disadvantages: Earned media is hard to do because you have to convince a journalist to tell your story. It’s not just writing a check. It takes skill and experience. And, except for bylined columns (which are less believable, though still more believable than ads), you have little control over the message. Ultimately, the journalist who interviews you decides what to write. Now, it is a reasonable risk to take if you know what you are doing. In my 35 years in the public relations profession there have maybe been two or three times when our work to place a story with a journalist has resulted in negative coverage.

Owned media is the kind of media in which you or your organization creates all the content that is communicated. Examples include blogs and social media feeds.

  • Advantages: Because you own it, you have complete control over what is communicated, and it costs you nothing.


  • Disadvantages: Because the message is coming directly from you with no filter, messages through owned media are less believable than earned media. But, the real disadvantage is the size of your audience. Unless you are a national celebrity or are really, really good at creating compelling content, the reach of owned media is likely to be smaller than that of other types of media.

Advertorials are paid media that look like earned media. For example, this column is an advertorial. I pay a fee for it to be published. However, except for the small “fee-based” notation in my byline, it looks like normal Forbes editorial content.

  • Advantages: To some extent, it combines the advantages of paid and earned media. That is, you can mostly control the content (there is usually some editing), it sort of looks like editorial content (thus kind of has an implied third-party endorsement) and your payment guarantee it runs.

The effectiveness of an advertorial depends on the authority of the media outlet in which it is presented. Forbes is a strong brand name, so I think this column is worth what I paid for it. However, there are many, many “news outlets” which publish nothing but advertorials and are completely worthless because they have zero credibility.

  • Disadvantages: Advertorials can be the worst type of media because the whole premise – running ads that look like editorial product – is somewhat dishonest. For this reason, running an advertorial could do you more harm than good. This is why, in general, we advise our clients to steer clear of this type of media – unless, as is the case with Forbes – the sponsoring media is impeccable.

Each of the different types of media have their use if you know how to use them, which is why it is so important to focus as much on the medium as the message in deigning your marketing program.

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