The true power of earned media for PR pros

Some industry experts want to move the PR professional out of the realm of media relations and into the sphere of marketers, but earned coverage still packs a big punch.

Editor’s note: This is our second article in a series about the PESO model. Each piece will examine a different part of the model, paid, earned, shared and owned media.

Many PR pros must educate clients on the true value of a PR campaign for their brand or organization. 

Though many industry insiders are frustrated by the public’s readiness to conflate “publicity” with “public relations,” most still see media relations as a central PR function. Add the fact that earned media carries more trust with readers, and your media pitch might start to feel more important.

Earned media is one of the four pillars of the PESO model, the blueprint for integrated communications developed by Gini Dietrich in her book “Spin Sucks.” However, as newsrooms shrink and earned-media opportunities become scarcer, PR pros must adapt to get the stamp of approval from legacy media outlets.

First, PR pros must convince their clients that earned media has value for their organization despite the decimated news media landscape and the ease of self-promotion. 

Kevin Maloney, vice president of purpose for Porter Novelli, says: “At the outset of any engagement, it’s critical to have an open and honest conversation with your client about what success looks like from an earned media perspective, as well as the content, access to spokespeople, etc., that will allow your team to deliver valuable coverage.”

Worth the effort?

However, you have to show that your coverage has value.

“Generating clips for the purpose of clips is of little value in today’s media relations landscape,” says Brian Ellis, an executive vice president at Padilla.

“Placing value on a media placement should always be based on the purpose of the campaign and the metrics that will be used to evaluate that campaign,” Ellis says. “Earned-media campaigns can drive traffic to a website, entice customers into stores and cultivate leads for business development. The key is to identify clear goals for the campaign at the very beginning, so story development, media targeting and pitching efforts can deliver the desired outcome.”

Is that asking too much? With today’s media tools, Ellis says, it’s easy to gauge the influence wielded by a media placement.  

“We now have the ability to measure the impact of earned-media campaigns in relation to the full PESO model,” he says. “Digital analytics gives us the insight into how a story might impact web traffic or social discussions. With the right data sources, it can also be tied back to customer inquiries and brand awareness. It all connects back to the purpose of the campaign and the metrics that will be used to measure that effort.”

Particular metrics can help identify earned-media success.

Meredith L. Eaton, director of North America for Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, says: “Looking at the publication’s readership in terms of unique monthly visitors and audience demographics, as well as social shares of the piece, is helpful. Some sites, like Forbes, even show the number of individual article views at the top of the page.”

However, she says the best way to track is through links. “Hopefully, the placement is in a publication with a high domain authority and includes a link back to a page on the company’s website,” she says, “so you can track click-throughs and traffic. And if the article includes key messages or keywords you want associated with the brand, even better.” 

Eaton also advises asking your customers for information about how they heard about your product or service. “It can also be really helpful to have a first question for any inbound sales calls be, ‘How did you hear about us?’” she says. “Fingers crossed, a few may say they saw you in that great media article.”

What media pros want

There are news cycles, and there are cycles in the news. 

How journalists find story topics has changed in recent years with the advent of social media and the supercharged 24-hour media cycle. There’s been a pivot to video and a push for visual content. Every journalist now has a Twitter handle and will sometimes share breaking news straight to their feed instead of waiting to write up the item for their newspaper.

Speaking of newspapers, they’re still in heavy decline.

Where is a PR pro supposed to pitch a story—and what kinds of stories are media pros looking for?

“It really depends on the outlet, but human interest stories are a proverbial winner, as are pieces supported by proprietary data,” says Andrew Cross, senior vice president of public relations and partner with Walker Sands. “And pieces with compelling images or video accompanying them will play well on social media.” 

Maloney agrees that social media shares are crucial for earned-media success.

“Today, an article’s shareability is top of mind for both reporters and their editors,” he says. “In addition to crafting a strong and concise pitch, sharing proof points and offering your spokesperson, it’s vital to consider what types of visuals or multimedia you can provide a reporter to help bring the story to life and drive clicks.” 

Maloney says you should consider building assets and visuals to accompany your piece. 

“Investing the resources to produce a creative infographic or short video that enhances your product launch, campaign or research report will not only pay dividends in helping to secure earned media, but it will also help amplify the readership of those articles,” he says, calling it “a win-win-win for you, your client and the reporter.”

Eaton has noticed elevated enthusiasm for organizations doing social good. “There’s been a big appetite right now for companies that are doing more for the greater good—as long as they’re doing it authentically, in line with their brand values,” she says. 

She adds: “Nearly 50% of consumers believe that companies can do more to impact social change than governments these days, so brands that are actually having a societal impact are hot.”

Finding your lane

You can make lists of relevant reporters on Twitter or use tools like Muck Rack or Cision to maintain media lists—but it is essential to develop a relationship with reporters that cover your niche. 

Once you find the right reporter, you must tailor your pitch to ensure you grab his or her attention. Even though many reporters are on Twitter, most still want to be pitched via email. Therefore, a well-crafted email pitch might be your best tool for finding coverage in legacy media outlets and digital publications.

When you’re reaching out to journalists, Maloney says, “consider three simple factors: content, timing and spokespeople. These considerations are especially important when trying to break into the news cycle and establish a client as an expert commentator within a particular industry.” 

It’s not enough to forward your CEO’s résumé and expect a media hit. 

“You need to be able to offer a reporter a new or contradictory perspective/content and deliver it at a moment in time that is most helpful for that reporter … a breaking news moment when the reporter may be scrambling for sources,” Maloney says. 

He adds that it is helpful to think about how you can make a journalist’s job easier. “You should always consider what additional value, other than an on-the-record interview, your spokesperson can offer a reporter,” he says, “which might include making the spokesperson available to speak on background or offering to refer the reporter to other experts in your spokesperson’s professional network.”

Cross offers a simple test for making sure your media pitch has legs. “Most important is your ability to answer the timing question: Why does this story matter now?” he says. “Make sure you have a clear ask or next step, and if pitching via email, leave supporting facts or data points as bullet points toward the end.”

Eaton warns against falling into a media rut. “The most successful pitches often don’t have a standard set of components,” she says. “It’s dangerous to fall into a specific format every time.”

Context helps.

“It’s always good to give substance to a perspective or problem,” Eaton says, “otherwise, having a C-suite perspective, providing a customer, having something exclusive to offer, including data, and keeping it timely with current events can all help make your pitch harder to pass over.” 

Ellis says media pitching must be taken as a process, not an event. 

“Unless you have built a strong relationship with the journalist, most successful pitches include multiple touchpoints,” he says. “Step one is just to get them to take interest in your topic. Your first pitch needs to be short and entertaining—two or three sentences, max. The goal of that first pitch is to generate questions in the mind of the reporter. If you can appeal to a reporter’s desire to learn more, you are halfway there.”

Boosting your placement

In an integrated media world, you should always look for ways to help distribute your earned media on your own social media channels and in your newsroom. (You must ask for permission, though, before you republish a media outlet’s work.)

“Before securing coverage, and ideally at the outset of pitching, you should develop a plan to promote media hits,” says Maloney. “This can be done by sharing an article an executive was quoted in via Twitter, ensuring your employees know their CEO was on Bloomberg by distributing the clip via the company intranet, or by leveraging a paid service to promote an opinion editorial.”

Cross recommends tagging the journalist when your share their work on social media. “Select coverage should go in an online newsroom and in internal or external email newsletters, as well,” he adds.

“This is perhaps the one area where most earned-media campaigns fall short,” says Ellis. “Today, even a single hit can be enhanced with a strong earned media extension campaign. Sharing the story on your owned digital and social channels is the quickest and cheapest option, but that’s just the start.

“Paid influencers can also extend your reach and support an ongoing discussion about the topic. Leveraging the content to entice bloggers to pick up the story can extend the life of that one placement. The content can also be repurposed into a native advertising campaign that links the viewer to a credible third party. The overall goal should be to integrate earned-media efforts into your marketing campaigns so you can leverage the successes within each channel.”

The op-ed or the feature?

Is there equal value in getting your CEO featured in a journalist’s profile and getting a publication to publish your CEO’s op-ed?

These PR pros agree that each kind of media placement has its place in your outreach strategy.

“It certainly depends,” says Cross. “An op-ed can be a better tool when communicating a position that requires depth and nuance, such as advocating for policy. Being quoted in a feature piece brings a level of gravitas with it, showcasing you (or your expert) and your company to be an authority on a particular topic.”

Eaton agrees. “People often think being quoted is better, since it shows that a journalist thought highly enough of you to include your perspective,” she says. “That level of third-party credibility is extremely valuable, but that also leaves your message up to the interpretation of the journalist, whereas an op-ed gives you a chance to control the message and delve deeper into a topic, taking it in the direction you want it to go.” 

Ellis suggests that you try to get both. “If you can secure the quote in the feature piece, why not take that topic and create an op-ed/guest post for another outlet?” he asks. “If one journalist found the topic interesting, there are other opportunities out there. “

Keeping clients happy

Many clients don’t understand the media placement process—and that means PR pros must work hard to manage client expectations when embarking on an earned-media campaign.

“Earned-media campaigns can be fickle,” says Eaton. “Your story angle or piece of news can often be trumped by so many things outside of your control—whether it’s the editor’s discretion to cut your comment, or major breaking news grabs all headlines for the day, it’s all too easy for earned media you were counting on to not come through.” 

However, you can help your case by forcing your client or leadership team to drill down on what is newsworthy about your story. Also, don’t sell a media placement as a panacea for your stakeholders.

“Too many times we think earned-media campaigns can solve every problem, and that’s simply not the case,” says Ellis. “A single article in The Wall Street Journal may make the C-suite happy, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to move the needle. Practitioners need to be honest and frank with their clients around the newsworthiness of the story.

“The key to successful earned-media campaigns rests in the richness of the angles. The more angles you can generate that appeal to a wide swath of media outlets, the greater the possibilities. It’s a numbers game, because not every pitch angle will sell.”



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