Public Relations and Advertising: Life with or without borders?

As a PR professional, everyone always told you that good publicity is gained for free, and if you can publish just by pitching to the right journalist and selling the story to a high-end magazine: the world is yours! 

But well well well, have you ever been contacted by the magazine’s advertising team when their charming editor-in-chief didn’t want to talk with you at all? How many times has it happened to you that instead of getting in touch with the editorial team, you are speaking with a so-called commercial editor for the local newspaper? And that’s all – even without talking to the magazine’s editorial team at the beginning?

This short article will be about borders—borders that we create between the PR industry and advertising from the PR perspective. The boundaries that we create between both sectors. 

Public relations and advertising are balancing on the line when we think about getting free publicity for our clients or paying for a sponsored, earned media article. I will try to answer how thick-skinned or maybe totally opposite, how thin is the border that PR professionals are facing when trying to publicize for free and how to balance that PR vs. advertising inseparable relationship while being trapped with no options to choose from and sponsored articles only.

When exactly we should say YES, and when we should be assertive enough and say NO to the hungry online magazine’s editor that wants to get paid for the media coverage? I will provide a few tips on how far PR professionals can move and when we should put on hold when trying to publicize with the magazine’s internal advertising teams and when it is worthy of paying for sponsored articles. 

So, here we go:

Golden PR rule: Do not pay if you are able to publish for free

As the old PR mantra says: you should not be paying for any publication if you can publish the article for free, or more precisely if you can build trust with a selected journalist and the story will be covered without missing a beat. 

Sometimes it is better to ask the journalist once or twice per month what’s in his editorial calendar and what kind of topics he is interested to cover over the next upcoming weeks. That way, there is no need to go to the advertising team and beg them for a cheap, sponsored article! 

The situation gets quite complicated if we work with the journalists that… like to get paid for usually so-called great online reach and high-end magazine values that tend to fluctuate about the money only. In that case, whatever content or article you have to publish for the client, the quality of that article is on your side—thus I’m not in favor of paying for the piece of the text that at the end will land on the website within a bunch of sponsored articles that are looking almost the same

Golden “Border” rule: Pay if you know it is worthy of paying

With some industry’s online or print magazines, especially when you are trying to publicize across niche media titles such as retail or trade media, there is often no way than to go ahead with sponsored articles. Lots of these niche media are heavily relying on the incomes coming from advertising and sponsored articles. Luckily enough if you have a big retail client like M&S or H&M that will happily pay for that kind of exposure, but unfortunately that’s not always the case—and no money for that niche media often means no single publications at all. 

Before paying for any sponsored article, get the media kit, and double-check the online reach of the magazine or print circulation (for the print magazine). For online magazines, try to rely not only on the media package but also try to estimate for example online unique readers (UI) visiting the magazine’s website every month. 

If you are planning to underpin the digital PR campaign, thus potential SEO links across the media coverage—it is necessary to check the website’s domain authority (DA), especially if you are planning to localize the paid link across the sponsored content, then obviously the higher DA, the better SEO rankings and SEO traffic referring to your client’s website after the paid publication!

Reporting the impressions number and social media shares can be another way to assess the traffic coming from the earned placement. In a nutshell, pay if you are not able to get free media coverage at all or if your client wants to target the niche publications and has a dedicated budget to do so. 

You can split the media coverage between free and earned media coverage, let’s say in a 70:30 ratio, which means that the majority of the published content relies on free publications. Still, you are leaving around 30% of your PR budget for the sponsored articles, just in case when you are struggling to get the compromise with the editorial team or your storytelling is not good enough to convince the journalist to publish at the end. Indeed, some magazines might be sending you the paid media pack multiple times, instead of publishing straightforwardly your client’s unusual story!

Golden old-school PR rule: Do not pay at all 

In an ideal PR world, before no one heard about sponsored articles, paying for the article has been considered unethical. However, that was slightly before the advertising came into action, and some magazines created their internal advertising teams to handle the PR requests coming from the PR agencies. 

Both public relations as well as the advertising, are going more into digital, which still makes the advertising more measurable (with AVE indicator), thus potentially still giving the more incredible, and laudable outcome that is easier to measure than a PR campaign.

In that new, digitalized world the free PR publicity will be still harder to get and earned, paid media will be driving the most of the results, especially if we take into consideration the niche media and the media that are having the monopoly for publishing the selected stories only—if get paid.


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Author: Karolina Króliczek, Founder of PR Insight, Polish PR agency in London.
Cover photo by Jo San Diego