Leveraging Earned Media for Your Online Campaign

An excellent presentation at last week’s NOI training examined the power of using your online campaign to gin up “earned media” (free media coverage as opposed to paid advertising), with Adam Green of MoveOn and Trevor Fitzgibbon of Fenton Communications looking at ways to create news hooks and to attach your campaign to unfolding stories. Much of what they covered should be familiar to experienced press relations folks, but they did an excellent job of showing ways that an online campaign can fit into a comprehensive press strategy.

Adam Green started things off by looking at WHY campaigns should try to get themselves in the newspaper, on television or in blogs — because it works. Media coverage can give a campaign instant credibility (“I read about you guys just the other day”), can help you reach a new audience, and is free (in money, though it can be VERY expensive in time). In particular, local media attention matters: it’s often easier to get than national coverage, it lets you leverage your local activists and it can lead to much broader distribution of your story if it gets on a newswire (even local blogs can help, since they may be disproportionately read by elected officials and other opinion leaders and can also serve as a source for national blogs — see this article for details).

But how to get coverage? Adam stressed the importance of finding real people with real stories and issues as the best way to get a reporter’s attention — the media are looking for the compelling and personal. Your online activists may be a natural source of material, because they can talk about national issues in an actual human voice and with a lcoal angle. Prep them with talking points as necessary, but their raw stories are going to make the strongest impression. If you’re not ready to turn them loose one-on-one with a reporter, solicit their stories through a blog or even through your email list (“send us your…”) and package them for journalists’ consumption.

Visuals matter, too, both for television and for print. No money for a photographer or video camera? Have your supporters shoot images and video FOR you and upload them to YouTube or Flickr — just be sure they know how to tag the clips so that you can find them (or that they email you the links). And if you’re doing a stand-up event, make sure your message (and your URL!) are in-picture. Remember the Mission Accomplished banner? Just do your best and hope you won’t suffer the same overdose of irony down the road.

Next up, Trevor FitzGibbon covered several other significant press-related points, starting with the importance of building relationships with relevant reporters (and, by extension, bloggers). Find out who writes or talks about your issues, cold call them and get to know them. Take ’em out for food! Or booze or coffee or whatever else strikes your fancy and theirs, but get to know them well enough that they’ll remember you right away when a relevant story pops up. Be sure to work around their schedules, though, and don’t just pitch stories — hang out for a while at first and be sure to keep in touch regularly.

He also discussed the importance of speed in good press work, since stories move fast in a 24-hour news world. It helps to have as much material prepared in advance (press packet, factsheets, background, video clips, etc.) so that you can get reporters what they need quickly. Clever is good — if you have a funny giveaway or other catchy hook, your material may be more memorable. It can be more important to be fast than to be perfect, though — send more info later, but get a reporter what you can right away if he or she needs it. In a new media world, new formats matter — if you’re first with a video clip, you may be the one whose words get spread around the world. [Note: Email is your friend, though building a resource page with links to relevant documents can keep you from clogging up a reporter’s blackberry or on-the-road email account with attachments.]

Issues also have to be framed properly — in a campaign setting, particularly if you’re trying to build up a story that’s not already being covered, you need to make your story political, pressing and relevant. It needs to be urgent and it needs to affect real people, so back to that activist list! Campaigns often have better luck hijacking an existing story rather than trying to uncover the un-covered, so think about ways you can hang your coat on an existing news peg. Again, pre-packaged materials can be a big help in responding quickly.

Once you’ve gotten that initial burst of coverage, you’re not done yet — have you passed it around to other reporters and bloggers? Once a story’s in a respected outlet, it has new credibility and you may find that you can get pickup in places where you’d previously been ignored. As with so many other parts of this communications game, persistence is a prime virtue.

Good stuff all around! Look for more from the NOI training over the next few days, Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.


Written by
Colin Delany
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