Why Earned Media Is Still Relevant In PR

As the influence of digital and social media has soared, PR agencies who focus primarily on earned media (once known as publicity) are often warned that they’re falling behind.

There are regular calls for PR services to include paid media and other offerings. Many firms like to brag about how little they depend on earned coverage generated for clients. They’ve moved on to other things.

This is understandable, in part because PR is much more than media relations. But it’s also about the bottom line; the fastest way to grow is to offer more services, ideally those that can be automated and offered at high margins. PR agencies naturally want a piece of the digital media budget pie. Large firms in particular have big overhead to feed and face constant pressure to add offerings.

Earned Media: Labor-Intensive, Hard To Scale

Earned media work is notoriously hard to scale. When Tom Foremski referred to public relations as “an artisanal, hand-crafted service operating within a brave new digital media world that rewards scale,” he was probably talking about the back-and-forth that results in earned coverage. It’s difficult and time-consuming in practice — an inexact and often inefficient process that takes talent, imagination, and timing, and that rests on relationships.

But reports of earned media’s death are premature. A new study on the credibility of various information sources shows that it may be more relevant than ever. Three researchers looked at how people evaluate earned news stories, traditional ads, native ads, independent blogs, and branded blogs. The study’s authors surveyed 1500 members of a consumer panel and conducted focus groups with 46 of them.
The upshot? Consumers found earned media stories the most credible of all the information sources they reviewed.

Earned Media Beats Paid And Native Ads

It always comes down to credibility. That’s what earned media offers – within limits – and that’s what many PR agencies still deliver. It’s also notable that although the highest percentage of study participants found earned media stories the most credible among all the news and ads provided, they valued posts written by independent bloggers, rating them more credible than corporate blog content.

The news isn’t all bad for paid media, though. Though study participants considered ads less credible than earned media, they found them useful and showed a sophisticated understanding of how different information sources work together. The study’s authors points out, “people recognize that companies will face legal consequences if they don’t tell the truth.”

Negative Comments Add Credibility

Interestingly, negative information or reviews aren’t a dealbreaker for most people; in fact, they tend to enhance authenticity and therefore can make an earned media story or social post more credible.

What fared the worst in the study were the native ads shown to participants. Nearly half considered them the least credible information source, using words like “sneaky,” “tricky,” and “disingenuous.”

So, should PR agencies double down on their earned media offerings? Not necessarily. The point is that when preparing to buy a product or service, people tend to get information from many sources. PR campaigns should continue to deliver messages and tell stories across paid, earned, shared, and owned channels. Yet the study does reinforce the central role of earned media as a PR deliverable, and it’s backed up by the results of PRWeek’s most recent Agency Business Report.

Earned media remains a centerpiece of what we do, and although many agencies are expanding their offerings, it’s valuable both as a key service and as a point of view that stresses the credibility of a brand message.

PR Firms Can’t Be All Things To Clients

There’s also the credibility of the agency offering itself. The mega-firms who’ve invested in paid media services can plausibly do so, but many simply can’t be all things to all clients. Look at the flipside; today it’s common for branding, digital marketing, or even SEO agencies to say they offer PR or earned media services. But no knowledgeable communications professional would trust them with a major PR campaign. The promise just isn’t credible.

Bottom line, we should focus less on the superiority of any one source of information and more on better integration of messages that are consistent and compelling across all platforms and channels – including earned media, which will be a key part of public relations for a long time to come.

6 Ways To Generate PR When You Have No News

The PR plan has clear visibility objectives that call for earned media or branded coverage — and there’s news that will help tell the company’s story. But after the initial executive moves, product launch, or funding announcement, then what? How does a PR team keep the momentum going if things get quiet?

6 ways to build publicity when it’s quiet

Be an expert

Media need experts every day to fill out stories with quotes and commentary. Expertise is the gift that keeps on giving, particularly for large stories about complicated issues, important trends, or previously obscure developments. From the investment expert who weighs in on a stock market dip, to the child safety author who shares Halloween advice for parents, expertise makes the media world run. And as every PR professional knows, sharing a client’s expertise is a strong way to build media relationships.

Speak up on owned media

One way to be in the public (or industry) conversation is to start it — with relevant content. It’s another strong way to share expertise, of course, but content can also run on informed opinion. Any CEO who hasn’t yet weighed in about industry issues in thought pieces on a blog or LinkedIn should consider cultivating a strong point of view. An interesting bylined article or blog post can make its way around social channels and be picked up by a trade or business outlet. Guest blogging on a prominent vendor, customer, or partner’s channel is another way to expand the reach, and a good method for grabbing visibility when hard news is scarce. To gain traction, the content should be memorable: calling someone to task, advocating a new approach, or advancing a distinct point of view. For most B2B companies, it’s part of a proactive content campaign that raises brand awareness, boosts searchability, and even helps generate leads.

Be reactive

Proactive marketing of expertise is the first line of defense of course, but given the opportunity, a quick way to generate relevant news is to capitalize on breaking news stories relevant to customers. Watch for stories about competitive moves, big industry developments, financial market changes, or mergers in a given space. If an industry expert is offered for commentary within the short window of opportunity that follows relevant news, it’s a win for everyone involved. As we mentioned in a previous post, every PR team should have industry monitoring in place to identify reactive pitching opportunities. While this doesn’t always pay dividends, it’s one good option to generate publicity in news voids.

Make news with opinion or behavior surveys

Most PR plans are informed through research, even if it’s general customer information or category analysis. But an hoc data-driven story is a good option for pitching the media during lulls. Many companies have market research or category data that has nuggets of valuable, even newsworthy information in it, but no one realizes it. Often it can be mined for stories. And for those who don’t have usable research, they can create it easily through an omnibus survey or flash poll. The key is making the data tell a relevant story, gaining points as an industry authority, or promoting a common pain point or question that customers have. Nearly any issue can be turned into a data-driven story that initiates a brand new conversation — a story that your firm may be well positioned to tell.

Leverage customer success

This is a tried-and-true tactic for getting trade media visibility, of course, but it can also work outside of trade channels. An artificial-intelligence-driven analytics company may not have news to announce, and its story might not resonate beyond narrow tech blogs. But if that company is helping another business like Blue Apron or Peloton serve customers or boost revenue, the story becomes more appealing. Even if a B2B service has helped a smaller up-and-coming brand, it may still be relevant to local press, specialist media, or social discussion groups. Case studies are some of the most powerful tools a B2B company has, and they can be used and repurposed in a variety of ways to fill in those news gaps. The challenge is to get customers on board in advance; some of our clients find it useful to make testimonials part of the deal when negotiating the business agreement with new customers.

Do something good

If nothing dramatic is going on, why not make something good happen? A full-blown CSR program might be ambitious for some businesses, and a thin commitment made for PR purposes is never a good idea. But any company can create legitimate local news through a commitment to a community cause, for example. Or, it can test-drive a philanthropic campaign through pro-bono work for a not-for-profit, or a pilot to benefit an underserved consumer segment. Sometimes it’s a demonstration of corporate values. When WeWork announced it was “going meatless,” major media covered its move, in part because it was controversial, but also because it was an unusual demonstration of the company’s commitment to its own principles.
PR teams and agencies strive to drive a steady drumbeat of coverage, but tech companies of all sizes run into occasional news droughts. With a little ingenuity, the drumbeat can continue even when there’s little to sing about.

Does Pay-For-Placement PR Work?

When companies choose a PR firm, the compensation model is usually a factor. Most PR agencies bill on an hourly basis, or in monthly retainer fees. But there’s another way of billing that’s fairly controversial among agency professionals,  — the pay-for-placement method.

Can it work?

We may be biased, because we’ve never worked on a pay-for-publicity basis, but it’s fair to ask if it can be a better model for some clients. So, we talked with someone here who used to work at a pay-for-placement agency and did a little research.

The pros & cons of pay-for-placement PR

Pro: You get what you pay for

When hiring a PR agency, companies often ask, “How do I know you’ll generate results?” And it’s true, when it comes to earned media, PR teams can’t guarantee exactly when the coverage will be generated, nor do we have perfect control over the content. Clients may wonder if their firm is working as hard as they should for the retainer, or billing the right amount of hours. In theory, at least, pay-for-placement eliminates the uncertainty that comes with other billing methods.

Pro: Just gimme publicity

Maybe the model works for a smaller company whose PR needs are limited to earned media. If an early-stage company or startup feels it just doesn’t need a PR agency partner to help develop communication strategy and it has little need for overall reputation management, messaging, thought leadership, media training, or other benefits of a PR services partnership, then a simple pay-to-play publicity package may suffice. But it’s hard for us to imagine how the publicity results can be truly high-quality without a proper strategy, message development, and ongoing agency advice.

Con: Quantity over quality?

You get what you incentivize. So the pay-for-publicity method would seem to emphasize quantity over story quality. X dollars for X media placements sounds equitable, but a given story may have far less actual publicity value than another. Some articles may feature the company or product prominently, while others may only include a mention; articles vary in length and tone; some stories may be highly searchable, while others are behind a paywall. For a B2B tech company, great coverage in a trade publication or a good review by an analyst may yield greater value than a feature in Forbes. The dollar value doesn’t consider any of these factors, and if it does, it’s probably hopelessly complicated.

Con: It discourages fence-swinging by the agency

Generating large, high-impact media coverage in a top-tier business publication or TV news program can take months. An agency that operates on the pay-for-publicity model still has to pay its salaries, so chances are its team won’t invest the time in the big-ticket stories that take time to deliver. And the client may lose out on a typical agency’s value-adds related to media relations and merchandising of earned coverage. A good PR team will seize reactive media pitching opportunities that pop up with breaking news, but they don’t quit when the article goes live. PR pros amplify and leverage any earned media wins to maximize impact. This can be absent in a pay-for-placement relationship.

Con: It’s too transactional

The highly transactional nature of the pay-to-play system can limit the client-agency relationship, and the value both parties derive from it. When a PR team truly knows the client’s brand voice and is immersed in its culture, it can tell its story most effectively. But again, that takes time. PR teams whose financial model encourage them to invest the time in long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with clients will offer a deeper level of service than those simply looking to score media placements for fees.

Big con: Pay-for-placement can invite abuse

The pay-to-play mindset may tempt some to cut corners or worse. Just last month, Buzzfeed exposed a  contributor who was taking payments from clients in exchange for linked mentions in his own articles in media outlets like Entrepreneur. PR agencies have also been caught offering journalists kickbacks to publish for their clients —  payola, plain and simple. Because of this, many journalists frown on the PR pay-for-placement compensation practice; TechCrunch announced it wouldn’t work with such agencies.

Done right, the pay-for-placement model can probably work for companies at certain stages of development. But given PR’s relevance to a company’s overall reputation and its role in helping attain business objectives, most can’t afford to neglect a fully realized PR approach, no matter the client-agency billing system. For a deeper dive on various agency billing models, check out this post on how PR agencies budget and bill.

What Happens After The Reporter Says Yes?

Seeing a client’s interview in a key publication is still a quintessential public relations win, so PR pros spend a lot of time perfecting media pitching. But once we get a “yes” to a pitch or interview request, it’s no time to sit back and relax. What happens next is arguably more important than what came before. To maximize the impact of earned coverage, the media relations pro must master the pitch, the interview, and the promotion of the story.

What happens after the reporter says yes?

Nail it down, fast

A good PR person will immediately schedule the interview and send a confirmation to all parties. This may not be as easy as it sounds given travel schedules and other commitments, but it’s important to seize the opportunity. If a reporter ends up postponing the interview, take it in stride, but do your best to ensure that the client won’t.

Always overprepare

If the reporter is unfamiliar with the interviewee or the company, the PR person will offer introductory information, naturally. But never assume the journalist will take the time to read the background provided, or that he will stick to suggested questions. (Many journalists prefer not to offer questions in advance, and even if they do, things change.) The main job of the PR person at this point is to control every aspect she can, from the client briefing down to the conference line chosen for the interview. (Don’t laugh; in a busy agency, it’s easy to double-book the same line for two calls!)  The PR team will offer interview prep in the form of a briefing document that offers background on the journalist, previous stories, interests, and a summary of goals and recommended message points for the interview. Check our earlier post for best PR tips on media interviews.

Join the interview

The PR person will typically join the reporter and the executive on the call (or in person) to make sure all goes smoothly and to troubleshoot anything that may come up. Journalists don’t always welcome the PR rep’s participation, but it’s standard, and it’s commonly part of our job. It’s not typical, however, for the PR person to interfere or interrupt the interview unless something goes awry. Any problem topics, questions, or areas of doubt should be cleared up beforehand; the journalist is there for the interview, not to struggle to get questions answered. But the job is still not done once the piece is published.

Post-mortem

We like to send a note recapping the interview and offering constructive suggestions for improvement, if relevant. It’s a good client service tip, and it may help a reluctant or meandering spokesperson to stick to what is most pertinent for future interviews. It’s also important to pass on any feedback offered by the journalist. In tech PR, it sometimes happens that a client executive gets too far into the weeds or assumes an unrealistic level of technical knowledge by the reporter, so good criticism is valuable.

What happens after the story publishes?

How did we do?

Once the article or segment is live, both parties evaluate it for accuracy; it’s not uncommon for there to be small errors in names, titles, or other details. Most journalists are very open to making factual corrections, and it pays to act fast, because the life of a story may be short. Most importantly, the PR agency and client will assess whether the story helped accomplished their objectives and how to merchandise it to key audiences.

PR leverage and amplification

Time to leverage the win. The company and its PR partner will amplify the article on all owned media, starting with social channels. It may be added to the website newsroom feed, distributed to contacts in email marketing, or occasionally in paid advertising. The PR agency can help by sharing major stories on its own social channels and website. And why not give your sales department more ammunition to close leads in the form of the earned credibility that a positive media placement provides? For six ways to amplify media outcomes, see this earlier post.

Make it snowball!

A positive feature or compelling interview tends to generate additional media interest. In the B2B PR realm, larger publications can pick up trade journal placements, which carry a lot of clout. While this may happen organically, it’s advisable to be proactive in pursuit of snowballing coverage. The PR team can pitch a similar story in another context or a follow-up story to other outlets that won’t compete directly with the original story. The story can be pitched targeting media in another vertical, or the agency may approach a broadcast outlet in the wake of a print story. It’s important to ride the wave of media momentum as far as it can possibly go.

PR measures up

After garnering a major piece of earned media in a key publication, amplifying and snowballing, the PR team wants to know how much it moved the needle on goals like awareness and lead generation. Clearly it’s best to have metrics established in advance as well as access to data like a client’s web analytics. Different companies will have different budgets, priorities, and methods for quantifying earned media coverage. See our earlier practical guide to measuring PR outcomes for advice on evaluating earned media as well as progress against big-picture PR goals.

Donald Trump’s Not-So-Secret PR Weapon: Earned Media

Like most primary-watchers, I’m tired of reading –  even tired of blogging  – about Donald Trump. Yet you can’t deny that the candidate has a talent for public relations. There’s one thing that separates Trump from others in the dwindling Republican field – and I don’t mean his billions, his business background, or even his hair. The real secret of Trump’s rise is the earned media coverage he’s able to generate.

It’s absolutely staggering how little his campaign has had to spend in paid advertising, because he generates so much coverage in earned media through interviews and resulting social chatter.

The media, of course, have enabled him; they know that Trump is likely to say something entertaining or outrageous, and that he’s good for ratings. But even as other candidates have finally turned on Trump to try to cast him in a negative light, he keeps on owning the media. And his timing is pretty impeccable.

 

Consider the chart above, and bear in mind that this was back in August, long before the primary season, when most people are relatively tuned out of election politics coverage and media had many more candidates to cover.

Now fast-forward to 2016. During the last Republican debate, Marco Rubio dumped a binder’s worth of oppo research on Trump – from a lawsuit over illegal Polish workers on one of his projects, to the now-defunct Trump University. Showing some pretty sharp PR skills himself, Rubio kept the barbs coming, relentlessly urging viewers to “google it.” And one charge seemed to stick; searches for “Trump University” soared in the hours after the debate. But within 24 hours, Trump managed to grab control of the conversation by calling a press briefing in which he was endorsed by none other than New Jersey governor Chris Christie – a shocking turnabout that was good for at least three news cycles.

After Super Tuesday, Trump declined to give an official victory speech, opting instead for an oddly staged press conference at his Mar-A-Lago club in Palm Beach. The objective? Ostensibly it was to debut a slightly more gracious tone and move to the center in preparation for a general election. But I’ll bet a Trump t-shirt that the real reason was to keep Ted Cruz out of primetime.

Yes, it’s all about the media. Even after his failure to disavow white supremacist David Duke’s endorsement sparked outrage, Trump continued to dominate the news with his backpedaling on the issue. It’s enough to make you wonder if Trump is truly the person for whom any PR is good PR – no matter how bad.