This coming Sunday, May 21, is National Memo Day. Yes, apparently that’s a thing. (Memo to readers: May 21 also is National Strawberries and Cream Day, but you’re on your own for that one.) While there seems to be no consensus on who created National Memo Day, the purpose is to call attention to useful notes that highlight and address various concerns, issues or problems, so, in honor of National Memo Day, today’s “Tip of the Week” addresses not so much an issue or a problem, but a daily preoccupation for us law firm publicists and marketers – orchestrating and distinguishing between earned and paid media opportunities. Feel free to pass this memo around.

A significant part of our jobs as publicists involves identifying, evaluating and executing public relations initiatives that involve earned – and, less frequently, paid – as well as owned media. For purposes of today’s memo and quiz (take notes, there will be one later), I’m going to set aside owned media. While owned media – which a law firm controls and is made up of such collateral as blog posts, client alerts, case studies, white papers and other assorted types of content – is critical to a successful PR and marketing strategy, there’s not a lot of gray area concerning what it is and what to do with it. The same cannot always be said about earned vs. paid media.

What Are Earned and Paid Media?

Just so we’re all clear on the differences: Earned media refers to placements and the residual exposure from those placements that are free, based on merit and bestowed – if you will – as a result only of the value and substance of the information and the creditability of the source. For law firms and attorneys, this includes published firm news elsewhere than at the firm website or in firm publications, as well as thought leadership quotes and insights from attorneys as sources for reporter-driven articles, and published articles authored by attorneys as credible authorities on the subject matter.

Paid media is just as the name implies. It includes advertorials, which are a particular focus of this discussion and are articles or stories that are written to appear as credible journalistic endeavors, yet are actually paid promotional pieces.

What Are the Benefits of Earned and Paid Media?

Earned media is more desirable than paid due to the implied endorsement, credibility and trust in a law firm or attorney that the story or article helps to build. That’s not to say that paid media has no value. For example, advertising elements on business-focused social media platforms, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, can be successfully leveraged to raise a law firm’s or attorney’s profile with positive messages targeted to distinct audiences – and there are others as well, such as ads in community-event programs or business journals.

Throwing a wrench into the comparison is the increasingly blurred line between earned and paid media as publishing models evolve and readers’ sensibilities adapt to the new paradigm. Online proliferation of real vs. “fake” news vs. other types of information also competes more and more for audience share.

Time for a Quiz!

For a few insights on the differences between earned and paid media and how to recognize which is which, try answering the following questions (with the answers to follow).

  1. A magazine editor offers to profile an attorney or law firm. Earned or paid opportunity?
  2. A “journalist” informs you that an attorney or law firm “has been selected for an interview, inclusion or feature as a result of his/her/its leadership, innovation, achievements, etc.” Earned or paid opportunity?
  3. A trade magazine editor offers to publish an article by an attorney. Earned or paid opportunity?
  4. A journalist with a United Kingdom (UK)-based business or trade magazine offers to interview and/or profile a firm or attorney.
  5. A business magazine or daily newspaper invites you to upload your press release or announcement about firm or attorney news or accolades. Earned or paid opportunity?


  1. One clue to identify this as earned or paid is the recipient of the email or phone call solicitation – an attorney vs. a PR or marketing pro who is more likely to “sniff” out the devil in the details. As you probably have already surmised, these are almost always “pay-to-play” articles. Attempts to avoid PR and marketing gatekeepers are intentional, since the goal often is to literally sell an unsuspecting attorney on the prospect of being the subject of a vanity feature story. This tactic also sometimes makes it difficult for the firm to later put the kibosh on it. Another gut check on these types of opportunities is whether marketers or lawyers have ever heard of the publication. If not, there’s probably a good reason. Does the magazine have verifiable circulation numbers, paid advertising or a news focus? If not, these are red flags. There are many such publications with credible-sounding names and pitches. The majority of their readers are the companies or individuals getting featured, and the editorial content is of minimal value or influence.
  2. This is a paid opportunity. Full stop. Feel free to chuckle at the blatant attempt at ingratiation. Next question?
  3. Unless a firm or attorney has a preexisting relationship with said journalist or magazine, one clue that this is probably a paid pitch is that it’s proactive. Most industry trade magazine editors don’t have the bandwidth to make personal outreaches to solicit sources or authors of articles. This is one area where PR pros play an important role in building relationships and generating earned opportunities with today’s still-vital – yet admittedly shrinking – industry trade magazines and websites.
  4. See answer to question #2. Also, if the “opportunity” is coming from a UK-based publication, you can almost guarantee it’s not a freebie. The pay-to-play model in publishing is even more predominant in the United Kingdom than in the United States.
  5. The correct answer is earned, or paid, or both, or it depends on which way the wind is blowing. As I noted in a previous article, an increasing number of online news publications are encouraging users to post news directly to their sites. Many postings are free, while others amount to paid advertising (albeit in the guise of a “news” posting). And some listings that were free yesterday might have a price tag tomorrow. Suffice to say, this is all over the map. Media publishers are dealing with smaller staffs and more virtual real estate that needs to be filled with content, so they need publicists’ help in creating and uploading news and information. They also need revenue, so this is an ongoing tug of war that has no clear winner.

How’d You Score?

Don’t fret about your score. This quiz was intended to help illuminate and identify some common earned vs. paid media opportunities, with the prevailing wisdom being that earned media is more valuable, more challenging to secure and manage, and more effective for promoting the thought leadership of attorneys and law firms to key audiences.

Need other ideas on how to raise your firm’s or attorneys’ profiles through media relations initiatives? Contact me, Randy Labuzinski, at