The Power of Earned Media in the 2020 Election & for Brands

Listen up, everyone. We all just got a lesson in the power of earned vs. paid media and it was delivered by a billionaire who made his fortune in – media. The interesting thing is that his strategy of relying on paid (ads) over earned (articles and interviews) media didn’t work. Michael Bloomberg was one of the big losers on Super Tuesday and Joe Biden (not a media titan), who spent next to zero on ads, was a big winner.

So, what does it mean and why should you care? Earned media include the stories, interviews and opinion pieces that are pitched to reporters and editors and often carry a byline. Paid media refer to print, broadcast ads and any other content that is controlled and paid for by an organization and/or person, put directly in front of an audience without any interpretation or perspective provided by a journalist or influencer. In other words, the message (ad) is yours and you’ve paid a lot of money to tell it exactly the way you want it, without any third-party journalist interpreting it for the reader.

While the numbers being quoted by pundits vary, Bloomberg’s campaign spent $198 million in advertising between January 1 and Super Tuesday. Overall, according to FiveThirtyEight, the billionaire candidate spent $448 million (an unprecedented amount) in securing a variety of paid media over the course of his campaign. By contrast, Biden has spent next to nothing: $7 million. To be more specific, in Virginia and North Carolina, Bloomberg spent $18.4 million on ads and Biden spent just $449,000 – and Biden won.


My theory is that this outcome points to the fundamental difference in what public relations (earned media) delivers versus what advertising can do for a brand.


Companies, people and products that are the subjects of balanced/fair to positive stories in recognized outlets become credible to the audience because their claims are corroborated by the writer. When the same company, person or product is the focus of an ad, readers know that the ad has been paid for by someone who has a vested (financial) interest at stake and that the brand values or product claims in the ad are uncontested. Ads may deliver awareness but because readers understand they are bought and paid for, credibility and trust aren’t the main benefit of that type of marketing.

Maybe audiences are getting wiser about the difference between a candidate’s ads versus his/her image as it comes together in stories, interviews, debates and speaking engagements. With advertising being a more expensive investment to get your message across, does it make more sense to build credibility through public relations, turning to ads to raise awareness once your image as a credible, trusted entity has been established?


I wonder what media mogul Michael Bloomberg would say.

March 6, 2020


By Maura FitzGerald


Thought Leadership