The explosion of social media and a plethora of digital communication channels in recent years has greatly expanded the public presence options for small businesses. And anyone who has followed the plight of traditional media since the mid-1990s will know that these have been tough years for the industry. Thousands of newspapers and magazines have shut their doors under the pressure of the internet.
These closures have been driven by the loss of the advertising monopoly that traditional media once enjoyed. Advertisers have migrated online, and audiences with them. This in turn has done some damage to the business models of many publishers and shrunk their businesses.
Nevertheless, even after years of downsizing, there remains a certain appeal for many business owners in seeing their products or services mentioned in the editorial content of newspapers or magazines. And it can still be argued that the mainstream media is highly capable of providing valuable publicity; with Paul Bainsfair — Director General of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising — associating "main media" channels with longer-term reliability and growth, saying to Marketing Week earlier this year that:
“It is reassuring to see that some companies are revising up their investment in main media advertising; this is where they will build the longer-term growth of their brands, which is crucial to weathering these tougher times.”
"Earned" media, as it is called, refers to unpaid mentions, reviews, interviews, or other journalistic coverage of your company and its services. It is distinguished from "paid" media (advertising or other paid promotion) and "owned" media (your own website content, blogs, and social media channels).
There are potential advantages in pursuing earned media, as opposed to paid or owned media. One is the prestige and credibility that attaches to certain publications and the wider audience and exposure that they can offer.
If you execute well, you can adapt your firm's message to whatever subject journalists are interested in at any one time. For instance, an owner of a home security firm may offer themselves for interview about a sudden increase in burglaries.
If the story is a popular one, it will be shared by readers through their own social media accounts, which magnifies your message and public presence.
Of course, the other clear advantage of earned media is cost. Other than your time in agreeing to an interview or issuing a press release, this is generally a much cheaper option than taking out a paid advertisement.
There are also potential downsides in earned media, however. One is that, even if you think you have a good story to tell, there is no guarantee that the media will agree. Many a business person has spend considerable time providing quotes and background to a journalist only to find that their comments were completely omitted from the final story.
A second drawback is that you have little to no control over the outcome. How will your quotes be used? Who else is being quoted in the story? What angle are they pursuing? Your brand could be associated with a negative angle that does you no favours at all.
A third potential drawback is the quality of the final story. Years of cutbacks in newsrooms have removed layer upon layer of quality control. Slipshod fact-checking, poor editing, and amateurish writing are now par for the course.
Finally, consider this: even if the story is well-written, factual, balanced, and relevant, and even if your message is well-delivered; the article may be locked behind a paywall, which puts a limit on the number of people who will see it, and also means that no-one can share it.
Though it certainly is an avenue worth pursuing, you must be extremely careful in how you approach earned media. You should choose quality publications and journalists you trust. You should make sure you're very clear about what angle they're pursuing. You need to know who else they are talking to. And you need to consider the extent to which the final content can be shared.
By the way, don't expect to have clearance approval on what goes to print. You may be able to ask the journalist to check your quotes back with you, but few publications give interviewees veto power on publication.
Ultimately, if you really want total control over your message and the context in which it is used, that's when to really consider paid or owned media.