If you have a product or service to sell, you want as many potential customers as possible to hear about it.
Word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping off point when you’re starting out. Yet before long you will need to reach a wider audience. This means engaging with newspapers, magazines, broadcast media, web sites and blogs.
There are two ways businesses use media to get attention; advertising and publicity.
Newcomers can confuse the two. That’s a mistake as they are different and operate in parallel universes.
Advertising is always a commercial transaction. In most cases you buy a fixed amount of space in a printed publication or air time from a radio or TV broadcaster.
Online advertising is more complicated. It often comes down to display advertising like banners and boom boxes or text ads but there are many other ways to do this.
Your advertisements can appear on web sites, in electronic newsletters or even as an integral part of an application like Gmail.
When you buy advertising you provide the advertisement at your cost. People in the business call this your “copy”.
If you’ve got enough budget you can hire a creative team to prepare copy on your behalf. This is not cheap. Yet it is worth the expense if you’re running a major campaign. Clued-up advertising specialists know how to press the right buttons and get results.
With advertising you get to say where, when and how often the copy will run. More important, you have complete control over the message and the delivery. Up to a point. Some publishers may refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in advertising.
Advertising prices are loosely based on the number of readers, listeners or viewers the media delivers. Experienced advertising buyers talk of CPM or the cost of reaching a thousand people.
In contrast with advertising, you have almost no control over publicity.
Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make all the important decisions. They may choose to listen to you, but they might ignore you. They have no obligation to listen.
In principle whether you get heard depends on the newsworthiness of your message. If your story strikes a chord, they’ll take notice. If it’s boring, they’ll ignore it. At least that's how it used to work. These days a lot more questionable publicity material finds its way on to the news pages.
Surprising though it may seem, journalists have a strict ethical code. They are not for sale. Their job is to keep their readers informed regardless of external commercial pressure. (There are exceptions to this that we’ll cover in a moment).
This is why you should take care when seeking publicity. You should not imply to a journalist that you will place advertising in return for favourable editorial. There are arrangements where this can happen, but it works in a different way.
At best you will insult them or offend their professional pride. At worst you will create a situation where ethics mean they can’t touch your story. They may choose to take a more hostile approach to underline their independence.
Their overriding loyalty is to their readers. Journalists don’t regard aiding your sales as any part of their job. Nor should they.
This might seem confusing to some people; media companies are commercial businesses. You might think editors and journalists would jump at the chance of making money.
Yet, taking a longer term view makes good business sense. Readers, listeners and viewers hold media with a strong ethical code in high regard.
This not only means that more people get to see or hear the editorial; it means they see the advertisement. Strong editorial integrity usually delivers better, i.e. more involved or wealthier, readers. The ones you want.
Research shows advertising works best when the editorial is credible.
Even when a journalist does respond to your publicity in a favourable way, they still get to choose what they write and when the story runs. You can’t choose the words, place or time. Trying to do this can cause problems.
They choose the angle. They also decide how many words to devote to your message. They can choose whether your rivals get to comment or not. An editor might use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions. Not you.
You wouldn’t expect to pay money to a publisher when they use your publicity. Yet, there are some media properties that will ask for a payment in return for running it. This brings us to the world of paid editorial or advertorial.
Some media might run your vetted publicity in return for you buying advertising. There’s a whole spectrum of commercial arrangements. At one end there is a total separation of editorial and advertising. At the other there are properties that are, in effect, nothing but paid advertising.
At that extreme end of the scale you are dealing with vanity publishers. People who will take your money and make you look good or feel important. Your mother may like the result, but you won’t sell much this way. Readers are not fooled.
As a rule, publications that sell their editorial integrity are not well-regarded by readers. Experienced publicity people discount the value of these publications.
Readers tend to know when they are looking at paid-for editorial. They learn to trust it less than independent content.
That said, paid-for editorial works best in trusted publications. A newspaper that publishes real, independent advertising that runs a paid-for report or supplement is better than a publication where integrity is for sale.
Get a publicist or PR agent
While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialists. The most common arrangement involves hiring a public relations or PR consultant. It’s their job to know which properties, editors and journalists are receptive to which message.
A good PR company can save you a huge amount of time and trouble. They’ll help you prepare your message and train you in the art of handling follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.
Some public relations companies have extensive publication and journalist databases. Other operators keep all this information in their heads. They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each potential outlet.
Be warned that public relations companies rarely guarantee results. In fact, you should go out of your way to avoid any PR operator who makes that kind of promise.
One misconception is that publicity is all about press releases or press conferences. Both have an important role to play, but they are only the tip of the iceberg; most important PR takes place out of sight.