Engagement for Your Cause: Earned Media in the Digital Age

After more than 13 years in media – first as a journalist, and then as a media relations professional—I started noticing how traditional earned media coverage just wasn’t cutting it in the digital age.

When it comes to getting the word out about your issue, cause or organization, there are three types of media you can use: owned, paid, and earned.

Paid media is, simply put, advertising. Owned media are the channels, tools and content that you control. At one point, that meant your brochure or newsletter. These days, those tools run the gamut from your website, blog and e-newsletter to the latest social media fad (Vine, anyone?).

The third type of media—earned—is considered the holy grail of media. Traditionally, earned media has been defined as the visibility you earn when a journalist reports on your issue, cause or organization. It is coverage in newspapers, on the radio, on TV. Typically, you or your organization orchestrate a strategic news moment, which you share with reporters through news conferences, press releases, or just targeted pitches. It’s not free media. You earned it not just through the newsworthiness of your story, but through the sheer work it takes to land coverage.

In today’s digital age though, the definition of earned media has expanded. Now, it’s no longer just what reporters are saying about you. These days, you also earn visibility through blogs, email shares, and social media interaction and engagement. This is earned media 2.0, and it’s more powerful than ever, accelerating visibility and conferring third-party credibility to your news.

We’re All Media Publishers Now

There are two reasons for the evolving nature of earned media.

One is that we are all media publishers now. At one point, only media companies and journalists generated content that people could consume. Now, with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blog platforms and so much more, everyone can amass an audience. The only distinction these days between traditional media companies/professionals and everyone else is simply audience size. Mass media reaches a larger audience size, but even that has shifted. Remember when everyone made such a big deal about Ashton Kutcher having more Twitter followers that CNN? And that was back in 2009.

The democratization of media has given all of us an unparalleled opportunity to engage audiences, to get our issues and our expertise out there, and to have our voices heard. We need to take advantage.

The second reason is that technology and the web have drastically changed how we consume news. The days of sitting in front of the television for the evening news or waiting to read about the news of the day from the morning paper has long passed. Now, we encounter news pretty much all day long, on multiple platforms (our smartphones or tablets, our desk or laptops, via search) and from multiple sources (our favorite podcast, our high school friend Alicia on Facebook, or our favorite niche blog).

Rethinking our PR Strategies

If the definition of earned media has been redefined, we now have to rethink our PR strategies as well. Traditional media relations is simply no longer enough. Organizations and causes have to embrace the power of their own media channels in order to tell their story and engage their stakeholders.

Our media strategies must integrate owned media outreach with media relations. That means developing e-mail content or blog posts along with press releases and targeted pitches to media. It means prioritizing a social media strategy with graphics or other content that encourages sharing and engagement. During the media monitoring phase, it means tracking not just the hits we get in papers or on the news, but also whether we’ve sparked conversations on social media or on blogs. And it means using owned media or paid media to create an amplification loop of any earned media 2.0 coverage generated. . A great example of this type of integrated strategy is United We Dream’s recent “Operation Butterfly” campaign, which successfully combined traditional media outreach with great use of owned media engagement for maximum impact.

Finally, it means building it before we need it. A segmented email list, a website with a blog or a section on our website that can be continuously updated, and consistent engagement on social media channels are now necessary owned media ingredients of an organization’s ongoing communications strategy. By spending time building engagement across our owned media channels, we’ll be perfectly positioned to score earned media 2.0 when strategic news opportunities hit.


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