Although all three are fairly obvious in hindsight, it is probably best to take a moment and define them.
Paid- Stuff you bought. Radio ads, PPC, TV spots, print ads, banner ads, corporate sponsorships, etc. You spent money on these with the sole purpose of bringing in business through the door (or online). In summary, they are what you want people to think of when they examine your brand, and the message may not be 100% accurate to reality. For example, you could say you have the greatest prices ever with paid advertising, but it certainly does not make it true.
Owned – Stuff you own. Your website, your social media channel and presence on the social media channel, your inventory, the uniforms of your employees, the actual brick and mortar of your establishment, etc. All of these carry your company branding, and work as advertisements for your business. They are static, and relatively unchanging. In their totality, they most accurately show your audience or customer what you are really all about. Although there can be some manipulation of the owned media, people can examine your owned media for themselves, and make judgments.
Earned – Stuff you have little real control over. Word of mouth, the responses on your social media sites, reviews from news agencies and critics, your customer satisfaction indexes, your reputation, etc. These are what your market thinks of you. You can have the greatest facility in the world, and all the advertising you want, but if your reputation is bad, you are going to struggle with repeat business. You influence this, but you don’t control it.
Each of these areas is extremely important, although they function very differently. The overlap of some aspects, and how they share the same space, is proof positive that it is impossible to pay attention to only one of these types of media. For example, you cannot have reactions on your Facebook wall (earned) without having a Facebook Page (owned). Excellent reviews on Yelp (earned) won’t bring some customers into a store with bars on the windows in the wrong part of town (owned). Paying for a great radio spot to bring people into your horribly staffed, badly organized store (owned) can result in no new sales, and could actually hurt your word of mouth (earned). So you can see how they are all related, even though they are not the same.
As you work your way down the list, the level of control shifts from your hands to others. For example, you can say whatever you want in your paid ads, based on as much fantasy as you want. They are your words. When you get to owned, there is a certain level of control. You can redesign your website however you want, you can paint your store, and you can dress your employees up in wonderful attire, but if your shelves are empty, you can’t fake it. There is some control. Bad reviews, based on misinformation, virtually destroyed Audi (the 6000 debacle) Ford (saddlebag gas tanks) and others. Your earned media can be influenced, but don’t think, even for a minute, that you can truly control it.