There’s a saying in our line of work: “Advertising is paid for. Public relations is prayed for.” These days, it seems more and more PR pros have turned to paid media as a primary tactic for clients and campaigns. Whatever the reason may be — team bandwidth, lack of creativity or even laziness — more often than not, PR professionals will try to convince their clients that they need to pay for media coverage or advertising in order to spread their message to consumers, whether through pay-for-plays, press release distribution services, paying influencers with cash for sponsored content, etc., in an effort to boost PR metrics (which they usually end up multiplying anyway).
Contrary to popular opinion, there are several disadvantages to paid media, including poor credibility with the consumer, higher spend for brands and companies and limited audience reach. A recent study released by Cision shows that 81 percent of CMOs and brand marketers rate earned media as more effective than paid media. So, why is it that PR pros run to these tactics as a primary solution? It could be that the program just isn’t intriguing enough, or the brand or product as a whole is a hard sell. Or, they’re just looking to boost impressions and advertising values to have something positive to show the client. Whatever the reason, I’m calling shenanigans on this tactic and believe that brand marketers should know that paid media is not the way to go when it comes to getting quality results and return on investment for their brands. After all, we’re PR pros, not advertising reps!
I founded New Jersey-based BML Public Relations in 2006 and have made it my business to get top-notch earned media coverage for our clients, in the outlets they want to be in, with either zero to minimal spend on paid tactics. As a boutique agency, BMLPR has acquired hundreds of projects and clients often with modest budgets, or at least not the budgets of some Fortune 500 companies. For clients who don’t have bags of money laying around, our team has needed to be extremely clever and very strategic in order to produce results that exceed client expectations and deliver an impact. Below are some ways to plus-up your earned media game:
News-jacking gets big results!
In fall of 2017, we were brainstorming creative ways to make a splash for one of our clients, Villa Italian Kitchen, a QSR brand known for its pizza and other Italian offerings. With Pumpkin Spice mania on the horizon, our team created the first Pumpkin Spice Pizza in an effort to cut through the traditional Starbucks-owned clutter. The unique pizza, which also was a minimal operating cost to the brand, was created and pitched far and wide to media outlets nationally and within the brand’s footprint. It became a hit across the country, inciting a heated debate as to whether or not the Pumpkin Spice Pizza was actually good! In the end, it was featured in more than 990 quality media stories (over 1 billion impressions using no multiplier). It either astounded or enraged thousands on social media and also grabbed the attention of several late-night TV hosts, including Jimmy Kimmel, who was definitely not a fan, but still talked about it on three separate shows and even had Villa’s COO on his show as an in-studio guest!
It didn’t matter whether or not people liked the pizza. The point was that everyone was talking about Villa Italian Kitchen and its Pumpkin Spice Pizza. And there was no crazy expense to it. Our team did what they do best: came up with a great low-cost idea, hit the phones and created a serious frenzy.
Don’t hide behind email!
With the onset of new technology and thousands of social media channels, unfortunately, many PR professionals have become lackadaisical or even too comfortable with their current technique of pitching media. They send out a mass email blast to thousands of media outlets, and they cross their fingers and play the percentages that something hits. This is definitely not the way to secure the quality media coverage for which your client has paid.
Our society has changed so drastically in the past few decades, especially in terms of our social interaction, that PR pros needed to transform and adapt along with it. To be honest, some have just gotten lazy. We went from faxing pitches to emailing them, and from calling editors’ desks to Tweeting and texting them. And that was great when it was new, but nowadays, every media outlet is being bombarded by mass emails and tweets, with national outlets amassing thousands in one day. In my office, I ask one simple thing of all of my team members when they’re pitching: “pick up the phone and bring our client’s news to the media’s doorstep.” Media relations is the key to results, and results are what we get paid for. If you’re allergic to the phone, you’ll never stand out in the crowd.
Media are people too!
In my experience, I’ve found that one of the keys to earning media is to create and maintain personal relationships with media contacts. It’s so important to treat each of your media contacts like a person, instead of a target. Pick up the phone and have a conversation. Read what they’re writing. Approach them with unique and interesting angles. Take the time to meet for drinks. To this day, I still reach out to my contacts just to ask them if there’s anything they need help with, whether it be finding someone to interview, or coming up with a creative angle for something they’re working on. I’m now at the point with some of my media contacts where I can text them a pitch just like I text my buddies. Relationships are key to our success
Honesty is the best policy
On the opposite end of the spectrum, people may ask “but what if the program was a dud from the start? What do PR people do then?” First and foremost, be straight with your client from the get-go, even if they don’t want to hear it. If you don’t think something has legs from a PR standpoint, tell them. There’s no sense wasting your time or their money trying to make something out of nothing. Of course, that’s usually not what they want to hear, but thankfully, true PR professionals are some of the most creative people on the planet, and I’ve been fortunate to learn from and work with some of the best. We’re natural problem solvers and big thinkers at heart. So, we should be able to do what we do best: come up with creative strategy that works for the client and the media.
PR’s biggest advantage is that it gets media coverage and makes news without the advertising dollars. That’s the biggest difference between the two industries, and that’s why brands hire PR firms. As a PR pro who’s been through years and years of different PR firms — different pitches, different campaigns, different technology, the list goes on — the one piece of knowledge that I hope to pass on to future PR pros is to just never forget the basics. They’re what PR was built on and will always generate the results you’re striving for.
Brian Lowe is founder and CEO of BML Public Relations.