Back to PR Basics: How to Use Earned Media Effectively

The most common misconception about public relations is that it generates ‘free publicity’. The reality is that everything comes with a price tag attached. It could largely be the time invested and in that case the age-old adage that time is money holds true. However, there are ways in which an organisation can generate publicity in ways that are far cheaper than advertising. Welcome to the age of earned media. This is the opposite of paid media or, quite simply advertising.

As you plan your media, you look for the proverbial ‘low hanging fruit,’ and without stressing your budget. I does take expertise, tactics and commitment.

The first rule of the media one has to respect is that, you they don’t owe you anything. Which is why you have to worry if they come knocking.

In the PR profession we always say that if you want to keep the news hounds from your door, give them a bone to chew.

Yes, provide them with copy content that interesting enough for them to publish. That is being pro-active, or better still, earn those column inches or airtime in media coverage. It may not be guaranteed that your story will be published. However since it is a race for media attention, better be among the front runners.

We know that the instinct of the majority of business leaders is to lay low, but with scandals being the pre-occupation of a competitive press these days, you do not know when a crisis could thrust your organisation into the spotlight on front page headlines of the day.

Be conscious of the fact that you\’re not just in a race with everybody else trying to get earned media, but with breaking news the media has to cover as well. This includes bus disasters, political intrigue or earthquakes.

It is important, nay, strategic or tactical for you to draw up an effective media plan that can help break through the media noise and get a shoe-in to the limelight.

The first rule of thumb when preparing any material for the media is to keep away from the boring and mundane. You could well be thinking how fantastic your product or service, or your new ‘state-of-the-art’ peeling machine are. But it is how to reach your target audience that should be of concern.

On a classic chicken and egg scenario, it is the consumer of the eggs that should come first. After that, you can start thinking about products and develop a strategic plan to accomplish your jobs.

The reason why you have to consider your target audience first is because that will determine the most appropriate platform to reach them.

The temptation would be to aim for the newspapers perhaps because of their being ubiquitous and easy for the customers to access at every street corner. However, the disruption of the media industry has seen the rime of online and social media that is at palm’s reach of many.

Don’t forget that radio and television still has an attraction that has been enhanced by the internet. The idea is to use a platform that has the greatest reach, or better still use an integrated media approach covers most of them.

For one to be more targeted in their selection, the use of media research surveys could be of assistance. There are also plenty of online tools that can use data to pinpoint the sweet spots of media consumption.

Another important aspect is to think like a journalist. Which explains why many organisations employ reporters to run their PR operations. Though this may partially solve the problem, trained practitioners can utilise other specialised skill sets.

Thinking like a reporter will focus on what is interesting and worth publishing, rather than what tickles the bosses’ fancy. The former may not be newsworthy at all and stands the risk of being at the business end of an editor’s spike or litter bin. The news has to be unique, interesting and fresh, not stale and self-serving.

Earned media may not necessarily mean that you have to write your own stories, though that should be encouraged. You could pitch an idea to a particular journalist, say a business reporter, who might then find you as a handy source of material to add meat to the story.

You should then be ready to provide the ‘V11s’ if they are required, or audio, video and photos, when needed.

The need to know who will be writing the story is important. This is to ensure that you meet deadlines and make necessary amendments before publishing. There is nothing wrong with this approach especially if your organisation has developed an excellent working relationship with the publication.

There is no greater joy than seeing the fruit of your collective labour out in print, online or broadcasted. The key is to avoid it being overtly commercial. This can be true about thought leadership articles that leave one without any doubt who the source is even if it’s not mentioned in the copy.

Lenox Mhlanga is Lead Consultant with Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants. Contact him at


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