Earned media is one of the oldest aspects of campaigning, and at times, one of the most forgotten. Campaigns are often so focused on their paid-media strategy that many of them overlook the power of good press. They don't realize until it’s too late that a good earned media strategy can often provide a larger return on investment than paid media ever could.
Favorable coverage in the local newspaper or on a regional TV news broadcast helps a candidate build a volunteer base and boost their fundraising operation.
To illustrate the point, let’s look at the earned media strategies for two candidates running for Congress in neighboring districts in Pennsylvania as they prep for a major endorsement event. (These are based on actual campaigns, but we’ve switched up the names and some details.)
Scott Smith and Jerry Jones are both Republicans running for Congress in neighboring districts in rural Pennsylvania. Smith has served in elected office for years, while Jones is a former state senator who held a leadership position during his tenure.
A leading Christian conservative group plans to publicly back both candidates, and has decided to announce its endorsements at a rally in the largest city in Jones’s district. The event is set for a Saturday a few weeks before the April primary. It’s the first major endorsement for both candidates.
Smith decides to run a toned-down primary campaign, and didn’t put much energy or thought into an earned media strategy. His campaign obtains a small list of media contacts through a county party chairman, but the campaign has no direct relationship with these journalists. Ahead of the endorsement event, Smith’s spokesman emails the reporters a media advisory and then prepares a press release to send out afterward.
Jones staffers, on the other hand, have a relationship with media in the district thanks to his experience in the state Senate. They make sure to get a list of contacts for the remainder of the district from the county chairman and rather than just sit on the list until it’s time to send out a press release, Jones directs his spokesman to start building relationships with reporters and editors.
The staffer starts phoning local political reporters. He contacts the local TV stations and introduces himself to assignment editors and finds out the best way to contact them in the future. When it comes time to tell them about the upcoming rally, the staffer sends out a standard press release, but then follows up with a personalized email or call to several reporters who the campaign has networked with.
Fast forward to the day of the rally and, not surprisingly, none of the reporters on Smith's press list show. Instead, a political writer from the largest newspaper in his district pieces together a summary of the event based on the press release and the story gets buried.
Meanwhile, two political writers from key newspapers in Jones's district write full-length stories about the event, phoning his campaign and the Christian conservative group for quotes before running their stories. A local news station sends a cameraman to film B-roll of the rally and interviews Jones and the group’s executive director for a package that airs later that day.
Both candidates got the same monetary donation and pledge of support from the Christian conservative group. Yet Jones’s campaign got significantly more mileage out of the event—in the form of supporters interested in volunteering on the campaign or offering unsolicited contributions—simply because the candidate’s communications team built relationships with the local media ahead of time.
It’s often the little things that make a difference in a close congressional race. The personal touch of communicating directly with a reporter or a producer is a small thing and it doesn’t take up your entire day. Commit that time now and you will see the benefit come Election Day.
Katie LaPotin is an account executive at Advocacy Ink, a full-service public relations, communications and political consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. Previously, she worked at a Republican polling firm and on several campaigns in southeastern Pennsylvania.