How to Set Realistic Earned Media Expectations

25 July 2019 8:00am
Media relations, news and events, due dilgence

The boss walks into your office and says, “I want to see this story on the front page of the [insert major region-specific media outlet here, e.g. the Wall Street Journal].” They are talking about the new project or service your company has spent the last year developing. It’s the most promising launch the organization has seen in a while—and the company wants to announce its availability with a major media relations campaign that will set front pages on fire with excitement.

It’s a scene familiar to communications pros… and one that rightfully fills them with dread. While the common saying “advertisements are paid for, media is prayed for” isn’t exactly true, the notion that there is an element of earned media outside of your control couldn’t be more correct. You can have the perfect plan, most thorough media research using the best tools along with a killer outreach strategy and still fall short.

This is why expectation setting is an absolutely critical step at the beginning of any media relations effort. Before the first pitch is ever made, there must be accurate level setting with all stakeholders; Clients, executives, department heads and/or subject matter experts should all know that no one can control the news cycle… and that no matter how exciting the company announcement may be there are no guarantees in securing media placements.

But as any media relations pro knows, this can be easier said than done. While they may have the best of intentions, overly zealous stakeholders may have a hard time understanding the intricacies and uncertainty of earning media placements. To help, we’ve compiled some best practices to ensure everyone is starting with the same expectations.

Identify and Eliminate In-House Bias 

For people who have spent the last year or more developing a product now ready to launch or fine-tuning a first-of-its-kind service that will disrupt an industry, that’s their world. To them, announcing the culmination of their efforts is the most important thing at that moment in time.

While this internal bias often manifests itself in enthusiasm—and that’s a good thing—it can also create an echo chamber in which it can be incorrectly assumed that the biggest news within an organization will be equally important for those on the outside.

Part of expectation setting includes focusing internal passion into a realistic plan.

The responsibility to help colleagues understand how a company’s announcement fits into the broader media environment falls on communications professionals. You have to be the voice of reason that is willing to challenge the “herd mentality” and provide the perspective of the outside world. It isn’t always an easy task, but doing it at the start of a media relations plan prevents a confrontation later in the process.

Promote Good News Judgement 

A good sense of what is and isn’t newsworthy is a vital skill for those working in communications roles who intend to reach out to the media. It’s a skill that is crafted and perfected over time, but colleagues that you may be working with haven’t had the opportunity to perfect their news judgment. Part of expectation setting involves imparting some of that wisdom to them.

But thinking like a journalist requires more than a sixth sense. Judging what’s newsworthy (and what’s not!) requires evidence to back up instinct. Solid media research will definitively uncover the kinds of story angles, supporting materials, sources and announcements that stand the best chance of earning media coverage.

Taking this step can show the team how incredibly high the bar is, especially for national or global news coverage. You’re not just reaching customers or potential customers—the news must be relevant to the majority of a given outlet’s audience. In practice, this often means it must have the potential to impact the economy, enact a widespread change in consumer habits or provide some unique and insightful perspective on an ongoing global or national conversation.

Here’s an example: Rising student debt is currently a major conversation the world over, and companies that have started to offer benefits packages that help to payback student loans have earned major media coverage for their efforts. Normally, the minutiae of employee benefits might be deemed too “boring” for mainstream media, yet, because it inserts itself into a national conversation, it becomes a much more newsworthy topic.

Provide Valuable Alternatives

We’ve established that not every media plan can realistically earn primetime news coverage, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity for other types of earned media. It’s the role of media relations professionals to help internal stakeholders see the bigger picture—and demonstrate the value—of earning media coverage in unfamiliar media outlets.

For example, consider quality over quantity. If your company announcement impacts only a specific population, or is targeted to a niche industry, a segment on CNN may not actually be the most strategic route. Local news outlets, business journals and trade publications often attract a targeted audience. While these media placements may not be reaching as many people as a splashy national media outlet, the quality will be much higher.

Communicate with your team to show them the value of pursuing these opportunities. In addition to a higher likelihood of securing coverage, these are valuable placements in terms of reach and influence. Metrics like reach, influence and MozRankingprovide a quantitative analysis of an outlet’s value.

Most importantly, have these discussions up front. Be frank without being pessimistic and ensure consensus on how to measure success. Don’t promise any specific coverage and share timely updates. This open communication will set the foundation for a collaborative media plan in which all parties are part of the process.

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