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Earned Media as a Government Relations Tactic

Matt Duffy, Co-Founder, CampSight Strategic Communications

I remember my internship at an environmental lobbying firm in Washington DC in the mid-90s. There were about a half dozen interns and our first job each morning was to go through around 20 newspapers and clip out articles that involved environmental issues and paste them in a notepad that would then be copied and distributed to the higher ups. It was impressed upon us that this was the most critical task we had. Why? Because press matters. Although we have changed how we get and consume our news and information, the way it affects stakeholders is still very relevant and important.

Who would have thought I would have a created a career on that premise? Today, we demonstrate to clients how earned media influences the conversation in their favor. Often, we are helping them to participate in the conversation for the first time. Turning stakeholders of an issue into a champion of a cause is even more important in government relations because the participants are more likely to be consuming news at a higher rate than others, increasing the importance of messaging and the benefits – and potential risks – of communications efforts.

For those of you new to earned media, Brand Watch explains it this way: “Earned media consists of all the content and conversation around your brand or product that has been created by somebody else and published somewhere other than your owned channels.” It contrasts with paid media, such as advertisements or mail pieces that your firm invests its own money to get your story in the media.

You don’t have to bust your budget to run an effective earned media campaign, but you do need one critical tool: a relationship with the media outlets that matter to your organization. There is a good chance that you already have these relationships, but it is a relatively easy task to build one for the audience you would like to target. Identifying key outlets that will be interested in your story is crucial, and instrumental in building a contact list. With names, phone numbers and most importantly, updated email information, these relationships allow you to know that your press release, a.k.a., presser, is going to get in front of the right set of eyes. Even the most well-crafted presser is not going to be fruitful unless it goes to the correct person.

Press releases remain relevant today and many stories you read in traditional and new media have been planted by the seed of a simple press release. Aside from the who, what, where, when and why to include, a good “hook” is also important. Make sure that you have a compelling story to tell. After you send a presser, you should follow up with a phone call.

Letters to the editor (LTEs) and Op-eds are also an inexpensive and effective way to push your organization’s messaging and unique narrative. If you are concerned about having the correct advocacy message conveyed by the writer, your government relations or communications staff can pen the LTE for the constituent’s approval and signature. Also, don’t hesitate to identify and use a knowledgeable and trusted source on the topic to pen an opinion piece. Most experts are very receptive to putting their perspective into an Op-ed for free.

Once you do get some free press, it is important to have someone in your organization who can knowledgably and skillfully handle the issue in an interview with a reporter. Often a media outlet will send a reporter to follow up on a press release. This is where it is critical to have a voice from your team who is media savvy.

Unfortunately, all too often Executive Directors, CEOs, Board members and other organizational leaders are great at their jobs but not experienced in handling the media. Most organizations don’t face the same level of scrutiny as a presidential press briefing, but the potential risks and pitfalls are much the same. Every company or association should have a person whose responsibility is to prep your executives and lead them through media training. Internally this will be a communications person on staff. For most of us, though, there is no dedicated internal communications team, and that’s where an external public relations professional can help your team manage their organization’s communications and messaging. Keeping on point, pivoting back to your story and being informed go a long way when dealing with the media.

Of course, no matter how you structure an earned media strategy to support your advocacy goals, keep in mind that public officials and their staff are always on the hunt for mentions of their names in the media. Therefore, if there are critical policy makers who are decisive to your efforts, be sure to include them in relevant media messages.

Earned media is a great way for your organization to gin up some interest in your narrative and gain traction with decision makers. Though stakeholders may no longer be consuming information through copied clip pages, they are still monitoring and getting their information from traditional media outlets and it should be a part of any successful media strategy.