Dan Kahn is the president and CEO of Kahn Media.
A few decades ago, the earned media landscape was relatively straightforward for PR and business leaders to navigate. Many newspapers and magazines had full-time staff members entrenched in the communities they covered. PR and business leaders looking to secure press coverage for their brands knew the “who’s who” of media—and were able to cultivate long-lasting relationships with them.
However, three factors upended the earned media landscape. First, in 1996, the Clinton administration’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 spurred deregulation in the industry. Whereas news outlets previously had local ownership, suddenly, bigger national companies started taking over them by the dozens, consolidating ownership. As a result, many news outlets became increasingly disconnected from their communities, making it more challenging for PR and business leaders to form working relationships with the press.
Then there was the rise of the internet in the early 2000s. Newspapers and magazines didn’t change their publishing models quickly enough. Fearing cannibalizing their print publications, they didn’t implement web-first strategies to get news out the door. The result? They were late to the online publishing game, ultimately hindering their ability to monetize their content effectively for the digital age.
Finally, the traditional news distribution model changed due to declining sales. Whereas newsstands once lined public streets and grocery store checkout lines, they’re no longer as prominent.
Combined, these three factors led the news industry to where it is today—dominated by private equity firms, cash-strapped and more reliant on decentralized freelancers rather than in-house staff. That’s not to say that earned media as we once knew it is completely gone; major news outlets still exist, and PR and business leaders should try to secure coverage from traditional news outlets. However, they should not rely on traditional news outlets for their earned media efforts—they should seek earned media coverage from influencers.
More people than ever are out there who can spread the word about a company’s products or services. They’re just not sitting in traditional newsrooms. PR and business leaders should follow five strategies to connect with them and form strong working relationships.
When people think about how influencers interact with brands, they often think of affiliate marketing—paid media. Paid media is a valuable strategy, but it’s a marketing strategy, not a PR one. Earned media is a PR strategy.
While paid media has its benefits, the costs can quickly add up. Paying an influencer, say, $500 per post, can cost a company thousands of dollars over a year. By contrast, earned media is more cost-effective and has the added benefit of greater authenticity to audiences.
Before reaching out to any influencers, PR and business leaders should craft earned media strategies so that they have a clear, aligned understanding of what they want to accomplish, why they want to achieve it, how they will accomplish it and how they will ultimately measure success.
When crafting earned media strategies, PR and business leaders might be tempted to only pursue macro- and mega-influencers with hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, respectively. But doing so is a mistake. There’s value in seeking influences with fewer followers; these influencers are often more accessible and less expensive to work with. Additionally, because they don’t have massive followings, they’re usually better able to forge strong connections with their followers. In my experience, PR and business leaders should consider influencers with 10,000 followers as the baseline starting point. Once an influencer has 10,000 followers, that’s usually a sign that they are intentionally growing their audience; they have something to say. PR and business leaders should also check for brand alignment and sift through influencers’ online interactions with followers to ensure they’re positive. Of course, they should also check to see that influencers aren’t involved in controversies.
Once PR and business leaders identify the first several influencers they want to pitch, they should note to repeat the search routinely. New influencers are constantly popping up, and the more influencers a brand works with, the better it can spread its message.
PR and business leaders should set clear expectations when engaging in initial talks with influencers to minimize the chances of misunderstandings.
In my experience, I’ve found influencers to be transparent, and they appreciate transparency in kind. To be transparent, PR and business leaders should explain why they’re reaching out and how they’ll engage with the influencer. Moreover, they should be clear on what they’re asking for in return—and the ask should never be, “We love your work; we’ll send you our product in exchange for a good review.” Instead, it should be, “We love your work; we’d like you to share your honest thoughts with your audience after trying our product or service.” What an influencer says after hearing that statement will clue in PR and business leaders on whether or not they’re a good fit. If the influencer asks for money in return, the brand’s leaders should remember that it’s affiliate marketing. If they want to pursue that route, it’s okay, but they’re no longer in the realm of earned media.
Additionally, PR and business leaders should always have written agreements with influencers and not rely on verbal promises. If an influencer doesn’t keep their end of the agreement, the brand’s stakeholders need to follow up. For instance, if the company sent an influencer a product in exchange for an honest review on YouTube within a month, but it’s been over a month, and the influencer hasn’t posted, then the company’s leaders can reach out and tell the influencer to post a review or send back the product.
PR and business leaders need to stay up-to-date with the influencers they’re working with. That doesn’t mean watching every single one of their YouTube videos and Instagram Stories the second they upload them, but it does mean having a general pulse on the types of content influencers are posting and how they’re interacting with their followers. By doing so, PR and business leaders can pitch influencers more effectively—and get ahead of any controversies that erupt.
Moreover, it’s critical for PR and business leaders to create crisis response plans so that in the event of a controversy, they aren’t scrambling to figure out what to do but can instead act swiftly to save their companies’ reputations.
Ultimately, PR and business leaders should treat working with influencers as partnerships. At their best, these partnerships are mutually beneficial; brands and influencers increase their reach together.
If brand stakeholders treat influencers with respect and grow those relationships over time, both parties can go on to work together in bigger and better ways—creating content that helps them both grow their brands.
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