Nope: Marketing Should Not Give Up on Earned Media in 2014

Marketers will screw things up some times, and the PR guys never will, but, at the end of the day, do you want to succeed in social, or not? If you want to succeed, please let the marketing guys do their jobs.

Augie Ray is a good friend and the indefatigable author of Experience: The Blog, one of the very best of its kind. He is unafraid of being provocative; seldom will you detect a hint of personal bias, but you will always note his clean argumentation and seemingly unlimited capacity for research and fact-finding. And he writes from real experience, not self-manufactured social media Expert/Guru/Jedi “status.” Just recently he published one of his best and, in my humble opinion, most important posts: Three Reasons the Marketing Department Will Give Up On Earned Media in 2014.

Most important: Why? Because it raises the most important question about social media and, specifically, social media ROI: Organization. Who’s in charge? Who’s responsible for implementing a social media strategy that drives real  business results? His conclusion, however, could hardly be more wrong.

Augie generously concedes that “within many companies, there is no more consistently innovative organization than the marketing department”; that they largely deserve full (and sometimes sole) credit for their companies’ first forays on the Web and their presence on social networks.” But, he concludes, the time for Marketing to control earned media is, or should be, over: Such control should be passed to the business units and to PR.

I think we can be equally generous to Augie’s argument as he is toward the marketing folks. Indeed, I can’t quarrel with his “three reasons” at all:

1) It is increasingly difficult for earned media to furnish the reach marketing needs.  That is to say, the social networks, in their desire to be all things to all people, and in their desperate search to monetize every single feature of their platforms, have made it ever more difficult for companies to truly “earn” anything worth earning! Nope, we’re now inexorably pushed into paid media. Can’t get more than a few percentage points of your posts to your “loyal” Facebook fans? Well, then, pay up—buy ads!

2) The harder marketers try to win earned media, the greater the risks. Difficult to gainsay this, too, as Augie’s exhaustive rendering of case after case of social media gaffes and fails and embarrassments makes clear. Think Spaghettios and Pearl Harbor, think Kenneth Cole, think… Oy!

3) There is little evidence that social media marketing success drives business success.  Hard to argue here, as well. Are you looking for actual sales, actual $$$, from Facebook, Twitter, whatever? Bet you can’t claim it; and I bet you’re using a host of proxy metrics to deflect the question.

As stated, it’s pretty much impossible to dispute Augie’s three reasons. (Although he himself specifies there are exceptions to his “rules.”) But the further reasoning, specifically the conclusion that marketing departments should just give up on earned media and pass the responsibility to PR is, well, bizarre.

Lest I be accused of bringing my personal bias into this discussion, let me note that I have built several PR friendships over the years and also maintain at least a modicum of respect for PR work. (And I’m very aware of PR 2.0, even if I haven’t seen a lot of the practice of it.) So, with all due respect, let me say that I can’t imagine a worse  choice of a corporate partner to “run” social. (Well, I suppose you could pick corporate finance or, good Lord, IT.)

PR is pretty much the opposite of everything that social is: It’s damage management, it’s news prevention, it’s one-to-many in a world that is now one-to-one, person-to-person. Can you trust the PR guys not to, uh, screw up, on social? You bet—they will not commit the gaffes and fails as did those overreaching and over-enthusiastic marketers so faithfully chronicled in Augie’s post. But: They will embarrass  you, because they will bore your loyal fans and followers to tears with the whitest of white bread posts and tweets. They will kill your earned media strategy.

Let’s think back a bit to the Marketers justly lauded by Augie for their history  of innovation, for their love  of innovation and their fervent desire to realize innovation in corporate America. (And admit how different and even opposite this is from the PR mind frame!)  Yeah, the marketers will screw things up some times, and the PR guys never will, but, at the end of the day, do you want to succeed  in social, or not? If you want to succeed, please let the marketing guys do their jobs. Ignore Augie on this one.

And, oh, BTW, if you want real  social media ROI, join earned media meaningfully — organizationally — with your owned and paid media. But that’s another column.




Kenneth Hittel // Ken Hittel is currently Digital Strategy Advisor on the board of advisors to FairWinds Partners, a Domain Name Strategy and Services provider. Prior to joining the FairWinds board, Ken worked in a variety of positions at New York Life Insurance Company for more than 20 years, the last 12 of which involved running the Corporate Internet Dept., responsible for the Company’s Digital Strategy, its Web sites, online lead generation programs, and its portfolio of mobile and Social Media presences. Ken has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Political Science and a M.A. in philosophy and Economics from the Graduate Faculty of the New School University. Follow him on Twitter: @khittel or email him at

Comments (7)

  1. Let me add my “modicum of respect” for PR. As a reporter, I see these professionals not as damage control experts (which is certainly part of their job) but facilitators of communication. Yes, they do try to control the message, but that’s the nature of what is basically a diplomatic function. It’s my job as a reporter to be able to interpret their “handling.” One can hardly expect companies to willingly incriminate themselves, so to speak, and PR people have rhetorical expertise that the average company executive may not. At least in terms of their role as shapers of the message, they seem to me a natural outlet for social media communications.

    • Anthony, I don’t disdain PR pros for doing their appointed duties — quite the contrary. I worked very profitably with them for many years, and always heeded their advice and even instruction not to get too carried away and say “too much.”
      Should companies incriminate themselves? No, but they should willingly clean up their act when they have done something that can be seen — and, BTW, will likely be seen — by the public as incriminating. Be honest, own up, apologize, make right. To the extent that PR professionals can encourage and expedite that, more power to them.
      But I still don’t see these guys/gals as the best people to manage an excellent social media operation…

  2. Wow, I never thought I’d see Ken and Augie get into a heated discussion…well as heated as you can get in public space like this!!! 🙂

    I am resonating with both of your comments. Ken is right about the balance of earned, owned, and paid media. Circa 2014, they all need to work together (which is btw, nothing new, it’s just that we have technology inserted in the equation now). Augie certainly provides a point of reason in throwing out the extreme ends of the spectrum of PR and Marketing folks. Yep. And if you speak to the savvy PR folks, there’s a ton of low-hanging fruit out there.

    One thing I want to definitely reinforce is the idea that Social, Marketing, and PR, needs to be an “all hands on deck” function. Really, done well, the entire enterprise, almost without exception, needs to be doing Social – and doing it purposefully and well. I truly believe that’s where things are headed. Here’s an example: As I was thinking about this Comment, I stepped out for lunch with my daughter. The goal of the lunch was to stop at a local Outlet Mall and, in preparation for the 2014 insurance conference season, outfit Dad with something besides male, pale, and stale oxford button down shirts, while leveraging post-holiday sales. So here I am checking out at Tommy Hilfiger with some great stuff at 70% off, picked out by my daughter, both of us with our smartphones at the ready, as usual. Now is that a marketing event or what? A satisfied customer, with the tech to grab and share media, with a newsworthy event, with tons of followers. Instead, the clerk went through the motions and got us out of there as fast as possible. No perks for checking in. No requests for sharing, rating, tweeting – nothin.

    I’m also curious why neither of you mentioned Crowdsourcing, or more specifically, Crowdvertising? The above story could also be part of a Crowdvertising initative, couldn’t it? An ongoing campaign to get customers to share positive experiences, favorite items, most compelling stories, etc. Let’s get the customers involved in our messaging?!?! They’ve got the stories and the tech, the outlets, and the time and desire. Yes? No?


    • Mike, yes, the really important point is indeed that paid, owned, and earned need to be managed together, and I think that means they need to be centrally managed within an organization.
      And I wouldn’t call the conversation heated — passionate, maybe, but with mutual respect.
      Must admit I wasn’t really thinking about crowdsourcing/crowdvertising here. Maybe because it’s the PR guys/gals in particular and the Corp Comm guys/gals in general who tend to be most scared of and opposed to these kind of initiatives… But, as you know, I’m a big advocate of crowdsourcing — it’s just a tough sell in most companies.

  3. First, thanks for the dialog, the kind words and the link!

    I must say that it is hard to detect your ” modicum of respect” for PR. I think deriding it as “damage management and news prevention” is to focus on the people doing PR wrong and to lose sight of how smart PR professionals are changing in the social era. It’s a little like saying, “Marketers are spammers.” Well, yes, some are, but not the smart ones.

    I’ve worked in organizations where Corporate Communications was completely missing the boat for how PR is evolving and thus failed to adjust for social’s role in distributing news and creating relationships. But I’ve also worked in an organization where Corp Comm saw its role as brand development and reputation enhancement. In that organization, creating relationships and deploying the right content was baked into the culture of PR. You, perhaps, need the opportunity to work with better PR pros!

    If we level the playing field of this discussion, omit both the idiot marketers and the idiot PR hacks and instead focus on the folks who do both right, I think you’re left with this: Earned media cannot furnish (except in rare exceptions) the kind of scale, reach and impact that marketers need in order to produce the results expected (as measured in acquisition, sales and purchase intent). Marketers cannot afford to spend increasing amounts of time producing content that reaches decreasing number of consumers (which is occurring on Facebook and will, I predict, occur in other social networks as earned media gets nudged out of the way by growing paid media). Because of this, this forces marketers to be ever more edgy and to produce pure entertainment so detached from the product, service or brand promise that it may rack of “likes” but will not change minds, increase purchase consideration or create advocates.

    But if you focus on PR done right, you can see earned media is appropriately aligned. PR doesn’t deal with hundreds of thousands of eyeballs and it doesn’t need to measure success in terms of purchases or acquisition like marketing needs to. Smart PR focuses on getting the right word out in the right way (not in boring people), and I see this goal as well aligned to earned media’s opportunities in the coming years.

    As an aside, I used to have the same attitude that you do about PR. I used to mock PR as people with lists that merely spam out press releases. Then I got to work with some smart PR pros, and I have a fresh perspective. In the end, I honestly think it is the dumb marketers scratching for attention that will continue to invest in earned media while the smart PR professionals will focus on building relationships and reputation in earned media.

    BTW, I also suggested that Marketing could just turn over the keys to the social media accounts to Customer Care, as well, since they already are in the business of one-to-one responses and most aligned to give customers what they want in social media. I’ll await your criticisms of that suggestion, as well. 🙂

    Thanks for the interesting critique!

    • Augie, first off, let me say that I religiously follow Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything (argued) is crap; therefore, don’t waste your time refuting crap. Your stuff is never crap; therefore, your stuff, sometimes, very occasionally, is worth refuting when you’re not QUITE right.
      I admit, I really don’t have a lot of respect for MOST PR professionals — which is why I said I have a “modicum of respect” for the profession. People who do their jobs well, as they understand those jobs, and as their organizations EXPECT them to do those jobs, deserve a modicum of respect.
      However, in most orgs, what’s expected of PR people is exactly what makes them least qualified to “own”earned media today. Are there individual exceptions? Of course, and I know a few. I think they are still the exception(s) that (who) prove the rule.
      And it’s not like I have a rosy view of MOST marketers, either. You showed quite conclusively that there are a lot of dumb, or desperate, or dumb and desperate marketers out there. But at the the end of the day, these are, as you acknowledge, the innovators in most orgs, and I think it would be a big mistake to take earned media out of their hands. (Not, BTW, that they will concede on the point, anyway,)
      As for customer care being handled one-to-one by customer care people, I don’t disagree at all. I just think this should be coordinated, overall, by the marketing guys (whatever they happen to be be called in their orgs).
      Admittedly, I haven’t explained this in detail, but I do think earned media can in fact earn its keep, but not (ever) by itself. Bring together paid, owned, and earned media in a meaningfully sensible organizational manner — overseen by “marketers”– and you can make it work.

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