Communication Channels in Public Relations

Communication Channels in Public Relations

Introduction

A PR professional's job is to communicate messages to particular groups of people in strategic ways to build, maintain, and fix relationships with publics. To do so, we need to use the appropriate communication channels and strategic tactics to best communicate our message.

Think about it this way. Let's say you need to break up with a dating partner. We know the task: end the relationship. You know what has to happen at the end of the message for the message to be successful. Part of what you need to do is evaluate the correct channel for the message. Face-to-face? Text? Email? What'sApp? YouTube publicly posted video? Facebook post? Tweet? Some of these are better, some of these are terrible. Imagine being broken up with via public Facebook post. Yikes.

Our first task (after determining the end-goal of the communication) is to think about the correct channel for this public. If the public doesn't communicate with a particular channel, that's obviously not going to be a good way to send a message (or receive feedback).

Go back to the breakup example: If you broke up with someone via What's App and they don't have a What'sApp, the message would not be successful.

After the simple question, "what channels do they have available" we need to answer "what channel is best?"

For a breakup: Texting is easier on me, but maybe harder on the person who is being broken up with. Phone call may be good and appropriate if it's a long-distance relationship. Face-to-face is typically associated with the best way.

After you select the best channel for the purpose and public, you have to think about the best way to approach the message.

For a breakup: Do you go with blaming yourself? Do you say the relationship just isn't going where you want to go? Do you say you've found someone else? What is the truth, and how can you help the other person understand why the change is happening/the purpose of the message?

Then, you select your words. The words need to be specific enough that the public knows what they are supposed to do with the information afterward and has the relevant/necessary information.

When breaking up, you can't say, "you good?" and assume they'll know you're breaking up with them. You need to be clear enough with your words that they understand what's happening.

With this understanding in mind, let’s talk about broad categories of channels (PESO and 1-/2-way communication channels) and specifically walk through a list of available channels.

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

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.

Available Communication Channels

Paid Channels

Billboards

Billboards are large, localized, stationary spaces where advertisers may place visual messages to relevant audiences. Typically located near transit routes, billboards typically communicate simple, highly visual messages to anyone who passes the space. Billboards may be digital or analogue. The cost of communicating through a billboard typically depends on the location of the billboard and the desireability of the location of the billboard. 

Because billboards are not owned by the people advertising on them, billboards have certain communication limitations. Contracts with the advertising space owner determine acceptable content (in conjunction with FCC regulations).

 File:Billboard signs welcoming suffrage envoys 159033v.jpg

"Billboard signs welcoming suffrage envoys 159033v" by Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. is in the Public Domain

While billboards tend to be viewed as a primarily marketing-based channel, they are useful in Public Relations practices as well. For instance, public health campaigns frequently use billboards to engage wider groups of people with messages. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, cities, hospitals, and other organizations spent millions of dollars getting out the message of COVID-19 prevention. Messages such as "social distance" or "get tested" or "get vaccinated" did not necessarily directly connect to specific service providers; these messages were shared to attempt to influence the behaviors and perceptions of publics. 

Print Advertisements
"When it comes to print advertising -- newspapers and magazines -- you have two choices: display ads or classified ads. Larger newspapers usually have separate staffs for the two types of advertising. Display ads are the regular ads found throughout the paper. Classifieds are the text-only "want ads" found only in their own section towards the back of the paper; they are sorted by type and are sometimes free. Classified ads are commonly used to advertise job openings and announce meetings. You may wish to choose specialty publications (church publications, newsletters for community organizations, etc.) to reach specifically targeted groups. Check with the paper or magazine's advertising department for details on their services and requirements.

Most newspapers and magazines measure ads in inches. Rates vary according to the publication's size; many papers give discounts to nonprofit organizations. Ad sizes are referred to in terms of the page layout --¼ page, ½ page, full page, and so on.

Newspaper advertising used to be much more difficult for advertisers wishing to run ads in more than one publication before 1984, when newspapers across the U.S. adopted the Standard Advertising Unit. Before this, the shapes and sizes of newspaper ads varied widely from one paper to another, making a confusing time for all advertisers. The change reduced production costs for display ads by making it easier for advertisers to come up with designs that could be used in more than one newspaper without being altered."

("Using Paid Advertising" by Center for Community Health and Development is CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Earned Channels

Newspaper

A news story is a written or recorded (or, occasionally, live) article or interview that informs the public about current events, concerns, or ideas.You don't usually write the story – though sometimes local media will use exactly what words you give them – but you provide story ideas to journalists who then flesh out your idea to create the story as it appears.

news story can be:

  • Long or short, depending on its newsworthiness (we’ll discuss this more later) or interest to people who watch TV, listen to the radio, or read the paper.
  • Written, recorded, live, or taped, depending on the medium you use and the timeliness of the story
  • Hard - full of important facts and news items, or soft - focusing on the personal, more human side of a news event or situation. An example of a hard news story is an article on the alarming rise of HIV cases in heterosexual women. A soft news, or feature, article would be a story about a man in a wheelchair overcoming architectural barriers in town as he moves through his day.

What are the benefits of using television, newspaper, and radio stories to spread your message?

  • They can provide cheap, immediate coverage of your issues
  • They can connect you with the largest and most diverse audiences
  • They give you the possibility of continuous, in-depth coverage of your issues as long as you provide stories that sell
  • News stories add credibility to your work, since they’re much more widely believed than advertising
  • They offer a wide variety of strategies to communicate your message
  • They can provide a fairly comprehensive explanation of your issue or description of your organization and your work
  • They’re free publicity"

("Creating News Stories the Media Wants" by Center for Community Health and Development is CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Press Release
"A press release is a brief written summary or update, alerting the local media about your group’s news and activities...Press releases are an effective way to communicate information about upcoming events or important news. Press releases allow you or your organization to communicate directly with the community, show your perspective on events or recent developments, and gain publicity for your cause. In this section, we'll look at what a press release is, when to use a press release to communicate with the public, and how to create a press release that effectively communicates your message.

Press releases are similar to news articles in that they inform the public, but they’re usually prepared by people like you who are working in specialized fields, like community development or public health. You probably know by now that it can be difficult to tell the community what you’re doing, and what you’re about."

("Preparing Press Releases" by Center for Community Health and Development is CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)

But why include press relesases in the earned channels? Press releases are written with the hopes they'll be picked up by an earned channel, meaning the earned channel (e.g., news media, bloggers) will post the piece written by the public relations or communications professional in as close to the originally written form as possible.

Press Conference
Press conferences are an infrequently used channel of communication, but are a powerful way to announce newsworthy or crisis-based information, especially in situations where information needs consistent updating. Press conferences bring together multiple (sometimes disparate) journalists and others to release information from an organization. In the case of a crisis, a press conference may be used to release updated information about damages, deaths, or memorials. When an organization has a major event like hiring a new central administrator (e.g., new CEO), the organization may hold a press conference to alert all media sources simultaneously. 

Typically a press conference will include:

  • A statement made by the initiating organization
  • Documents from the organization, often in the form of a press kit
  • Time for question and answer with the spokesperson of the organization

For instance, during the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic, press conferences were frequently used by political figures and health professionals to share updated COVID infection rates. These press conferences also shared updated scientific research and protocols to promote safe choices.

Social Channel Samples

Social media channels (or social networking sites) experience some of the quickest shifts over time as compared to other communication channel categories. For instance, the number of characters available in a Twitter post shifted to 280 characters in 2017, changing from the 140-caracters available since the platform launched in 2006. Fundamentally, this changed the way communicators could use Twitter as a channel. Likewise, the algorithm dictating what content is curated into the newsfeeds of users for platforms (e.g., Facbook, TikTok) shifts over time. Sometimes when the algorithm shifts, content must be written differently to most effectively match algorithm priorities. 

As of November 16, 2021, the Statista Research Department reported the following as the top 15 social networking sites (by usage) in the world. 

  1. Facebook
  2. YouTube
  3. What'sApp
  4. Instagram
  5. Facebook Messenger
  6. Weixin/WeChat
  7. TikTok
  8. Douyin
  9. QQ
  10. Sina Weibo
  11. Telegram
  12. Snapchat
  13. Kuaishou
  14. Pinterest
  15. Twitter

An incomplete, working list of social networking sites is available here

While this reading does not get into the specifics of each of these social media channels, more information is widely available online. 

Owned Channels

Website
"A website is any collection of one or more web pages -- single files that can be displayed on the web...Almost every major corporation, nonprofit organization, and educational institution uses the web to distribute information...Most local and regional organizations and initiatives have websites, and these vary widely in terms of how elaborate they are, how nicely they are designed, and how much information they contain.

Having a website lends your agency or organization a certain amount of legitimacy and credibility. Websites are now so nearly universal that it has become generally expected for any legitimate agency or organization to have one...Any organization without a website simply doesn't exist for many of them. You can put an enormous amount of information up on a website -- far more than can fit into a single brochure or public service announcement. You can include your website address in your brochures, advertisements, or other promotional materials to encourage people to visit it and find out more information. Whatever information you put up on your website is immediately available to anyone who wants it --24 hours a day, 7 days a week --no waiting for a fax or an envelope in the mail...The web is a good way to reach people who have difficulty getting information through more traditional means, such as people who are unable to get out of their homes due to disability, lack of transportation, or illness. It is also a good way to reach people who may be ashamed or embarrassed to pick up a brochure in public or visit your office...

Any correction, addition, or revision you make to your website will be immediately available to those who access it. While a misprinted phone number or some other piece of information on some printed material, such as a brochure or flyer, can be a potential disaster, mistakes on your website can be immediately corrected. A website is an effective way to get information out very quickly, which is great when information is changing rapidly. For example, if you are involved in a local political campaign in which things are happening often that require quick responses, or you just want to keep people up-to-the-minute on what's happening with your fundraising drive, you can post this information on your website. Having a website with email links for contacting people in your organization provides an easy, instantaneous way for people to contact you.

("Preparing Press Releases" by Center for Community Health and Development is CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Newsletter
"A newsletter is a printed report of information and ideas that is distributed on a regular basis (e.g., monthly or semi-annually) to a group of interested people. Newsletters are typically from two to eight pages in length. They vary considerably in cost, quality and content.

When should you create a newsletter?

  • To keep your members up to date about what's going on.
  • To keep the public informed as well.
  • To educate all readers about issues and ideas that concern your group.
  • To build cohesion and a sense of pride among your members.
  • To spark new interest in, and increase recognition of, your agency.
  • To offer a format for information exchange that doesn't yet exist in the community.
  • To reduce the amount of time spent on information sharing at your group meetings.
  • To announce your regular meeting.
  • To replace meeting minutes by creating a section in the newsletter devoted to meeting summaries

("Creating Newsletters" by Center for Community Health and Development is CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Blog

"...Blogs began as an online, public version of a diary or journal. Short for “web logs,” these personal sites give anyone a platform to write about anything they want to. Posting tweets on the Twitter service is considered micro-blogging (because of the extremely short length of the posts). Some services, like LiveJournal, highlight their ability to provide up-to-date reports on personal feelings, even going so far as to add a “mood” shorthand at the end of every post. The Blogger service (now owned by Google) allows users with Google accounts to follow friends’ blogs and post comments. WordPress.com, the company that created the open-source blogging platform WordPress.org, and LiveJournal both follow the freemium model by allowing a basic selection of settings for free, with the option to pay for things like custom styles and photo hosting space." 

("Social Media and Web 2.0" by University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing* is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Blogs are a useful spaces where organizations may utilize the longer-form nature of the channel combined with the typically more informal communication space. Rather than the more official expectations of an organization's website, a blog provides the space to communicate less formally. 

*Note: The original authors of the text "Social Media and Web 2.0" requested to not be listed under the attribution aspect of citations. See here for more information or clarification.

Fact Sheet

"A fact sheet provides a summary of an event, product, service, or person by focusing only on essential information or key characteristics. It is more concise than a backgrounder and serves as a quick reference for reporters. However, the fact sheet is not meant for publication. The headings of a fact sheet vary; the creator of the document chooses how to categorize major information. The most common type of fact sheet is the organizational profile, which gives basic information about an organization. This includes descriptions of products or services, annual revenues, markets served, and number of employees.

The standard fact sheet contains a company letterhead and contact information. The body is single-spaced, with an extra space between paragraphs and subheadings. Although the fact sheet is typically one page, put the word “-more-” at the bottom of the first page to indicate additional pages. Similar to the press release format, include three number signs or “-30-” at the bottom of the document to indicate the end. To make it easy to read, group similar information together and include bulleted items if appropriate.

Click here for an example of a fact sheet. Keep in mind that the subheadings/categories used in this example may not be used in another one. Writers have some flexibility in the categories they choose in a fact sheet."

(Description from “Press Kit Materials” by Jasmine Roberts is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Press Kit or Media Kit

"Press kits or media kits are packages or website pages that contain promotional materials and resources for editors and reporters. The purpose is to provide detailed information about a company in one location. Although a press kit delivers more information than a press release, the overall goal is similar: to secure publicity for a company or client.

Major events or stories that require more information than is typically included in a press release warrant a press kit. Examples include a company merger, the launch of a new product, a rebranding campaign, or a major change in organizational leadership. Press kits can be hard copy or digital. Hard-copy press kits use folders with the company logo, whereas digital press kits use a website page or are sent in a zip file via email.

The following materials are found in a press kit:

  • Backgrounder
  • Press release
  • Fact sheet
  • Publicity photos or list of photo opportunities
  • Media alerts

Click here for information on how to assemble a press kit."

(Description from “Press Kit Materials” by Jasmine Roberts is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Conclusions

Selecting the best communication channel can be a difficult choice. However, by having the type of list we're working on collectively building here, we hope to expand the possible options.

We look forward to continuing to build this communication channel resource (that's the beauty of an OER, isn't it?). If you've got suggestions for ways to improve the resource or additional channels to add, please contact Prof. Julie Walker at julie.walker@smsu.edu.

References

Center for Community Health and Development. (n.d., a). Creating a website. Retrieved from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/participation/promoting-interest/website/main

Center for Community Health and Development. (n.d., b). Creating news stories the media wants. Retrieved from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/media-advocacy/news-stories-media-wants/main

Center for Community Health and Development. (n.d., c). Creating newsletters. https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/participation/promoting-interest/newsletters/main

Center for Community Health and Development. (n.d., d). Preparing press releases. Retrieved from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/participation/promoting-interest/press-releases/main

Center for Community Health and Development. (n.d., e). Using paid advertising. Retrieved from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/participation/promoting-interest/paid-advertising/main 

Dietrich, G. (2014). Spin sucks: communication and reputation management in the digital age. Que Publishing.

Dietrich, G. (2020, February 27). PR pros must embrace the PESO model. Spin Sucks. https://spinsucks.com/communication/pr-pros-must-embrace-the-peso-model/

Harris & Ewing, Washington, DC. (1915). Billboard signs welcoming suffrage envoys 159033v. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000423.

Roberts, J. (n.d.) Writing for strategic communication industries. Retrieved from https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/stratcommwriting/ 

Jasmine Roberts

https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/stratcommwriting/