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A New Earned Media Mindset

How Communicators Can Improve Earned Media Outcomes in 2024

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As you might expect from a former TV producer and an ex-journalist, we are borderline obsessed with earned media. Sitting across the pond from each other, we talk all the time about the tiniest minutiae of our respective news media. Given recent changes to the global media landscape, however, something has been bugging us. 

Is our belief in the enduring value of earned media justified - or are we guilty of confirmation bias? After all, traditional news outlets are under pressure like never before, buffeted by declining trust levels (which hit record lows in 2023) and generational shifts in media consumption habits driven by the relentless rise of social media. Just this past month, news of massive layoffs at well-known media outlets flooded our inboxes while new, emerging media outlets sparked our curiosity.   

As senior media strategists at Zeno, we wanted to know more about how others are viewing earned media today. So, we surveyed more than 30 clients to hear their perspectives and gained new insights that will inform our approach in the months ahead. What we learned: despite the macro trends cited above, earned media continues to be the most credible and trusted communications channel in the marketing mix. 

It was clear that positive earned media coverage is still highly coveted and deemed important by the C-suite. The majority of clients we spoke to went further still, saying that it was the most important function in the communications mix. 

There were three key takeaways: 

  • Positive Earned Media Coverage is just as Important Internally as Externally - When asked about the value of positive earned media coverage within an organization, 80% responded that it instills pride among employees and 70% noted that it aids in talent recruitment. This indicates that the role of earned media is increasingly influencing and shaping an organization’s internal reputation.   
  • There is a Role for Paid Media within Earned Media Plans - When asked, 90% of those surveyed believe there is a role for paid media in earned plans. This demonstrates an evolution from attitudes of years gone by, when strict lines were drawn between paid and earned budgets, and using paid media dollars to generate or amplify earned media coverage was almost regarded as ‘cheating’. 
  • Journalists Can be Trusted to Get It Right. And Positive Coverage Can Have a Positive Impact on Business - Despite occasional reluctance to risk engaging with journalists, 70% responded that they believe earned media can properly portray their brand/organization. This is an interesting paradox given the overall decline in trust in the media. Better still, most of the clients we spoke to could cite specific examples of earned coverage having a tangible impact on business, such as boosting sales or improving earnings coverage. 

A New Earned Media Mindset  

Given these insights, we came up with three principles communicators should consider today to maximize earned media outcomes: 

  1. Prioritize Employees (and Prospective Employees) for Earned Storytelling – To instill pride and drive recognition, companies should consider creative ways to bring employees and their voices into earned story angles and content. This aligns with the feedback we hear from reporters – they want to talk to real employees and subject matter experts to dig a layer deeper and truly understand the company. Additionally, seek coverage in the media outlets that matter to your employees. Do you know where they get their news? Consider surveying your workforce this year to find out; then build earned narratives/strategies around those preferences. To attract top talent, consider partnering with HR/recruitment to learn about recruiting needs and creative ways to reach key talent segments. Find fresh ways to merchandise earned media successes to both current and prospective employees. 
  2. Build Paid Media into Earned Media Plans – Did your team secure a needle-moving piece of coverage that nails the story you are trying to tell? Why limit eyeballs to that one placement? Try leveraging native amplification to increase visibility with hyper-targeted audiences. With stand-alone paid tactics, consider 2024 as a year to test-and-learn with different tactics like paid search, social media amplification or new channels to reach emerging audiences. 
  3. Add Rigor and Nurture Relationships – Think about re-energizing your earned efforts this year. While earned is a highly regarded channel, it is typically also the most cost effective.  Consider measuring earned media moments in a way that shows business impact, through special URLs or by tracking stakeholder engagement. And finally, make time for relationship building – prioritize it.  Invest the time to strengthen existing relationships “between stories,” and build new relationships with emerging outlets to tell your story to new audiences. Oftentimes these outlets, smaller and more niche, have loyal followings that result in more tangible business KPIs. 

As ever with the media, the only permanent element is change.  Since the dawn of the printing press, we have been one innovation away from upheaval, and AI is now upon us. The next seismic shift will most likely emanate from a source that doesn’t yet exist. 

For now, however, earned media retains its status at the top of the comms pile.