Communication Channels in Public Relations

Broad Communication Channel Categories

When we're dealing with a large number of anything, it's easier to break them down into some type of categorization to make sense of the number of items. Many ways would work to break down the large number of available channels for public relations purposes, but one of the most widely used is the PESO model. Created by Gini Deitrich (2014), PESO officially expanded the universe of public relations professionals beyond the earned category. Though some misperceive public relations as primarily utilizing earned channels, PR uses each of the categories (to varying degrees based on the work being done). Let's start by breaking down PESO.


PESO stands for Paid, Earned, Social, and Owned channels.

Paid channels are those owned by by someone else for which the communicator pays to access. Paid channels require the message to fit certain requirements. Some requirements may be related to when the message can be released (e.g., your billboard will be up for two weeks for this amount of money), what type of content can be shared (e.g., nudity is not allowed), and other specifics (e.g., your advertisement must be 30, 60, or 90 seconds long). Paid channels are often most associated with marketing communication, but they are still a channel used by public relations when the situation is appropriate. Examples of paid channels include: broadcast advertisements, social media advertisements and boosted posts, billboards, and product placement.

Earned channels are those owned by someone else for which the communicator has to do something the channel owner deems worth of sharing. Earned channels are those most associated with classic public relations practice. Earned channels are perhaps the most challenging channels to publish/appear in because the gatekeepers (those who own the channels) get full control of what topics, content, and tone is used in the communication. For instance, a newspaper reporter attending an event held by a political candidate will certainly report the number of people who attended and a few other basic details, but the reporter can decide to write a long story, a short story, or can relate the event to a prior scandal. The reporter gets control over the story (in conjunction with the editor) within the ethics of journalism. Gaining access to earned channels requires the public relations professional to do something newsworthy enough for others to want to share through their channels. Examples of earned communication channels include: newspapers (often through special events, press releases, or press conferences).

Social channels are owned by someone else where professionals are given access to share and receive messages wtihin the guidelines of the platform. While social channels seem like they provide similar features to owned channels, social channels are controlled by those who own the platform, which means they set the rules for communication. Social media channels typically give wide control of times for posting, but the type of content (e.g., no links in Instagram captions), the length of posts (e.g., 240 character limit in Twitter), and other factors are controlled by the platform owners. Failure to abide by rules for the platform may mean being suspended or barred from the channel.

Social media is unique in that it is typically regarded as the most symmetrical communication channel in terms of the ability of an audience to communicate equally with the organization. While some channels are primarily used to push messages out to an audience, social is used equally to share messages with audiences AND receive audiences (at least when it's being done well). Examples of social communication channels include: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and TikTok.

Owned channels are those controlled by the organization and public relations professional/communications professionals. Typically owned channels provide the most openness for communicators because they are typically free from the more strict rules/limitations of paid, earned, and social channels. Notably, most owned channels still have some type of limitation or body governing the channel. For instance, websites must abide by legal standards regarding copyright law or they risk being sued. Owned channels provide more freedom for posting, but this carries the cost of potential skepticism by readers. Consider a recommendation found on an organization's website. While positive customer testimony is generally a positive thing, on the organization's website positive customer testimony is expected. After all, what organization would post lukewarm or even bad reviews on their own website? While owned channels are useful, recognize the potential skepticism of communication consumers in owned channels. Examples of owned channels include: websites, newsletters, email, and blog posts.

PESO 2.0

In 2020, Deitrich updated the PESO model to include the importance of integrated communication strategies. Deitrich argues, or perhaps recognizes, effective public relations practices require use of paid, earned, social, AND owned categories to successfully engage with audience members. To read more about the integrated PESO 2.0 model, check out Gini Deitrich's 2020 article about the newest PESO 2.0 update.

Directions and Symmetry

All communication starts with a sender and a message. Fifty years ago, linear communication models (i.e., sender -> message -> receiver) were widely accepted, but today most communication professionals utilize some type of interactive model. Interactive models suggest communication occurs with simultaneous messaging coming from the sender to the receiver (in the form of the message) AND the receiver to the sender (in the form of feedback). We know not all communication channels are created equally, and one way to evaluate the utility of a channel for a message is by looking at the directionality and symmetry of the channel.

1-Way Communication Channels are channels where the sender pushes out a message to an audience, but the audience has no ability to communicate back to the sender using that channel. The world is full of exceptions to rules, so while completely 1-way communication is unlikely, 1-way communication channels emphasize pushing out the message without expecting a response from the audience.

2-Way Asymmetrical Communication Channels are channels where the sender pushes out a message to an audience, and the audience has some mechanism to communicate back to the sender. However, the audience receiving the message has limitations to the responses they can provide to the sender. For instance, in a press conference, the primary communicator is the spokesperson who called the conference. While reporters and others attending the conference can typically ask questions or make short statements, the bulk of the communication and the person guiding the channel (typically) is the spokesperson.

2-Way Symmetrical Communication Channels are channels where the sender pushes out a message to an audience, and the audience has space to communicate back to the sender with few limitations. Social media is often heralded for the ability to create 2-way, symmetrical communication spaces to connect organizations with audiences and publics. For instance, an organization may make a social media post. Audiences can respond to the post with a comment or reaction (e.g., like/love reaction), and audiences can repost organizational content to their own personal pages (e.g., retweeting). Audiences can also post stories or content about an organization on their personal pages in unconnected ways to the organization. For instance, a customer can post an attractive picture of a lunch plate from a local coffeehouse, tag the restaurant, and share a positive story about the quality of the food. The symmetry of the communication provides a method through which otherwise silenced audience members may have space to voice their experiences.