Briefing: The PESO Model
About the author
Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
Note: This article was first published on 16 September 2019 and updated with new information on 15 August 2023.
The PESO model (Paid-Earned-Shared-Owned), is widely cited, but is it well-understood? This briefing discusses its origins, its purpose and its application in public relations.
PESO is a media channel framework for digital public relations in an age of increasing integration across marketing communications channels and disciplines.
Understanding media for public relations
In theory, public relations is media neutral. In order to communicate and persuade, practitioners can use any appropriate media channel. This might involve interpersonal communication (face to face); it might involve mediated communication through third parties (such as influencers and journalists). In principle, it can include advertising as well as media relations – though in practice the cost of mass media advertising has meant that historically it was considered a separate discipline to public relations. Traditionally PR has focused on free or less expensive – but less certain – forms of media placement known as earned media (‘pray for play’ versus ‘pay for play’ in Fred Hoar’s words).
Scholar and author Ron Smith provides a useful model of pre-digital communication in which he contrasts the numbers reached by a channel against its persuasive effectiveness. Interpersonal communication is the most persuasive form of communication, but you’re constrained in the numbers you can reach. Mass media advertising has the largest reach, but is the least persuasive option.
So, by the end of the twentieth century there was a well understood distinction between paid media (advertising) and earned media (through media relations and other forms of third party endorsement). Advertising and public relations shared much in common, but there was one important distinction: money.
Digital and social media
Yet by the end of the last century, advertising was faced with a problem. The proliferation of media channels meant that it was becoming harder and more expensive to reach mass audiences with persuasive messages. Advertise too little and you couldn’t cut through. Advertise too much, and you risked boring your target audiences. Author Seth Godin expressed the paradox of advertising in 1999: ‘the more it costs, the less it works. The less it works, the more it costs.’
His answer was to promote what he called ‘permission marketing’ over ‘interruption marketing.’
Branding experts Al Ries and Laura Ries made a similar point in their 2002 book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. Theirs was a narrow rather than a broad argument: in the case of new brands, you need to lead with public relations (which they understood as publicity). Advertising could follow once the brand had been established. It’s a model that has worked well for technology companies from Microsoft to Google.
Something else changed with the rise of Google and the emergence of social media. Media became cheaper again as it shifted from print to online and from publishers to technology platforms. Advertising was now just a click away and did not involve lengthy media buying negotiations or involve the design and creation of artwork.
Yet, having established market leading positions, these tech firms could adjust their algorithms to make organic (ie earned) reach harder to achieve through social media, thus forcing organisations to pay to promote their messages or face declining communication effectiveness.
The distinction between public relations and advertising was fast disappearing.
The importance of prominent search results on Google is well understood (and well served by the search marketing business). Facebook’s large number of users makes it unavoidable in many sectors.
But should you put all your eggs in one basket? Rather than relying solely on sharing and promoting content on platforms such as Facebook/Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn or TikTok, organisations have learnt the risks of trusting everything to platforms and publishers who can change the rules, or suffer outages (if you’re not paying to use these services, then you’re not a customer but you do become a target).
This explains the other distinction in the PESO model: between shared and owned media (‘the two new kids in town.’)
Shared media (or social media) is when people like, comment on and share your social media posts and digital content. It has been proving an attractive channel given the popularity of social media and is supplementing or even replacing media relations in some contexts. Certainly, some social media influencers have discovered a more lucrative business niche than journalists in the twenty first century.
Owned media includes your own publications, websites, blogs and other media channels that you manage without relying on third party platforms. It may cost you more in up-front charges, but you remain in control and your content is not at the mercy of some other organisation.
Introducing the PESO model
The PESO model (a media cloverleaf model) is widely credited to US consultant and author Gini Dietrich. Certainly, she has copyright over the widely-adopted diagram created for the Spin Sucks website and her 2014 book of the same name.
Yet Heather Yaxley reminds me that the term PESO had been used by the Ketchum measurement expert Don Bartholomew a few years before this in a 2010 article. (Bartholomew died in 2015). He created a model for paid-earned-shared-owned media, with his focus being on the challenge of research, measurement and evaluation in an integrated age.
Yaxley adds: ‘It is also worth pointing out this 2010 McKinsey Quarterly article by David Edelman and Britan Salsburg that includes sold and hijacked media alongside what used to be called POEM (paid, owned and earned media). Both of these concepts still have value even though their execution has changed in the past decade.’
PESO is merely an acronym (a word formed from initial letters). Some have criticised it for appearing to favour paid media by putting this first, but Dietrich has explained that from a communication perspective it should have been OESP except that this would be less memorable and so less easy to brand.
Others have wrongly criticised PESO for encouraging a siloed approach, as if it presents a choice between paid, earned, shared or owned – whereas its intention was to create an integrated model in which all these channels contribute towards the sweet spot of improved reputation. Indeed, the subtitle of her 2014 book Spin Sucks reads: ‘Communication and Reputation Management in the Digital Age’.
Authority is one of the factors contributing to reputation: from a public relations perspective this should be interpreted broadly, but some interpret it more narrowly and measure progress according to a website’s Domain Authority, a rating given by the Moz toolbar.)
One update since the 2020 PESO model was published is the change in Google’s search quality guidelines from E-A-T (standing for Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) to E-E-A-T with the extra E being Experience (does the person creating the content have experience of using the products or services they’re writing about?). To explain this, Google wants to deliver quality search results, so needs to be able to identify quality sources. Those wanting their page or site to be highly rated by Google should strive to ensure that their content reflects these qualities.
Gini Dietrich has also written in her 2023 PESO Model Primer:
‘When the PESO Model is working at its best, it can help you establish authority. Authority means you’re a thought leader. Others see you as an expert … even your competitors. And Google links to you on the first page of results because it also sees you as an expert. This is the golden ticket.’
To test out Google’s application of E-E-A-T, these are the results of a Google search for “PESO Model”. Top ranked is an article from content experts Brandpoint; Gini Dietrich’s 2023 PESO Model Primer comes third; a Stephen Waddington article also from 2023 comes next. The 2019 original version of this article appeared sixth.
Yet we should also acknowledge the limitations of PESO. It’s only a media model. Media communication inevitably plays a part in public relations, public affairs and internal communication, but it doesn’t tell the whole picture. What about listening? What about research and analysis? What about creating strategies and plans – and seeking buy-in for these from senior managers, partners and other key players? What about project and client management? What about measurement and evaluation and process improvement?
The CIPR Professional qualifications (the Certificate and more advanced Diploma) both follow a similar model. There’s media and content in the middle (the what?), but this comes sandwiched between strategic planning (why?) and evaluation (how much and to what effect?).
Applying the PESO model
To show how the PESO model works, let’s consider a UK general election campaign – a classic example of an integrated campaign.
Paid Media: While electoral law limits the amount parties can spend on their campaigns, there are creative ways around this and parties will spend as much as they can afford.
Payment to promote posts on social media helps to solidify support amongst those receptive to their messages. Keyword advertising on Google can enable them to own and promote their main messages or themes (say ‘freedom’ or ‘fairness’).
A classic technique is to unveil an election poster to the media. That poster may only appear on one bus or billboard, but it’s still technically advertising. Yet the promotional impact comes through the Earned Media gained through the presence of TV cameras, reporters, journalists and political bloggers turning one poster into millions of ‘opportunities to see.’
Expect frequent media briefings from the main parties who attempt to set the day’s agenda and wrong-foot the opposition. Expect plenty of local media activity from candidates and their supporters across the country, especially in key battleground constituencies.
Though newspaper circulations are in steep decline, expect newspapers to regain some influence (and to claim even more) during an election – in part because unlike the broadcasters they have no duty to be impartial, so will revel in their role as cheerleaders for a cause.
Shared Media: Election campaigns in the UK are of short duration, so each party will seek to energise its base and to attract new supporters to the cause. Expect a barrage of memes and sound bites designed for sharing online and through word of mouth. Party strategists know that messages need to be repeated many times to cut through – but there’s always the risk of the message being ridiculed or subverted. Remember how quickly ‘strong and stable’ became mocked, then parodied as ‘weak and wobbly’ in 2017?
Though party funding plays an important role in a campaign (see above), all parties will want to demonstrate their popular support and talk down the influence of rich individuals, big business or their trade union paymasters. Everyone wants to be seen as on the side of the people, not the elites, so a demonstration of popular support is vital. Likes and shares are one measure; attendance at rallies and feet on the ground for leaflet delivery and doorstep canvassing are other examples of shared media. The medium is the message, remember.
Owned Media: The bread-and-butter of election campaigns used to be the printing of party manifestos, the carefully crafted messages in party political broadcasts (allowed on television for free), and the delivery of election leaflets through letterboxes. In addition to these, a twenty-first century campaign will be focused around party websites, digital channels and supporters’ blogs.
Branding is vital as strategists know how easily confused a voter can be when faced with a long list of names in the quiet of the voting booth. Television might present the next election as a choice between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, say, but no voter will be offered this on their ballot paper. Instead, they have to be able to quickly remember their party allegiance, identify the correct candidate on the ballot paper and signal their single choice with a cross (X). Expect plenty of visual reminders of party logos followed by X on election leaflets.
To state the obvious, we need to distinguish means from ends. In this example, the purpose of the campaign is to get elected. So why wouldn’t you use all channels available to you? The choice of media follows this purpose and is dictated by our knowledge of the groups we are seeking to engage and persuade. Media quite literally is the means to the end (not an end in itself).
So, you will inevitably be applying some variant of PESO media in your public relations. But this does not give you the whole picture. What’s the purpose of communicating? Who are you trying to persuade? How best to reach them to best effect and how will you know you’ve succeeded?