“Earned media” is important to every political campaign.  “Earned media” simply means press coverage – all the different types of media that you don’t pay for, like newspaper articles, TV news coverage, interviews on the radio, coverage through online blogs and media sites, etc.  Campaigns spend lots of time trying to figure out how to get the press to cover their campaign, but many never figure it out.

Press coverage is important, first and foremost, because it is free.  Your campaign may spend thousands of dollars running TV ads, and yet get the same amount of exposure from one well-planned media event.  The second reason why press coverage is important is credibility – when you run an ad, everyone knows you paid to get it in the paper or on TV.  Voters put up their guard, because they know the information is biased.  When the newspaper does a story on your campaign, voters trust it, because they know it was written by an ostensibly unbiased source.

When trying to garner earned media coverage for your campaign, the most important things to remember are:

#1 – Earned Media must be Earned

There’s a reason why press coverage is called earned media.  Generating press coverage is hard work.  Running paid ads is easy – so long as you’ve raised enough money, you can run ads at will.  Generating press coverage, though, is labor-intensive.  It requires diligent cultivation, real activity, and constant follow up.

#2 – The Press Wants News not Fluff

If you want the press to cover your campaign, you have to do something truly newsworthy.

Remember – the press has a job to do, and running whatever you send them is not part of a journalist’s job description.  Journalists are tasked with reporting news.  Many campaigns mistake campaign fluff for news.  Journalists will not make the same mistake.

What does that mean for your campaign?  It means that if you send a reporter a press release touting your candidate’s bio, it is unlike the reporter will even give the release a second glance.  If you send out a release with a compelling stand on an issue, it might get covered.  If you send out a release that your campaign raised $1,000,000 online in one hour, well, that’s news, and it will get run.

Your campaign’s job is to frame all of your activities and issues as real news for reporters.  You want the reporter to cover your issues and message.  The reporter wants to cover breaking news, or at least a long-term, in depth news story.  That tension will always exist.  The best way for your campaign to overcome it is to frame what you want covered as real news.  Heck, make it real news.  Then let reporters know about it.  You’ll stand a far better chance of getting your campaign press releases covered that way.

Want an example?  Let’s say you want the press to cover your candidate’s amazing bio, because he was a war hero and successful businessman.  That’s nice, but it’s not really news.  One way to get your candidate’s bio covered is to hold a big press conference announcing his candidacy, if you have not done so already.  Campaign announcements are usually covered and you can usually work in your candidate’s bio.

Alternately, if it’s not appropriate to hold an announcement event, your campaign could issue a major statement, stating that if elected, your candidate promises to create 1,000 jobs in town for military veterans.  Then highlight your candidate’s own transition from his military career into business.

#3 – Stay on Message

I know you’re tired of hearing it, but it’s that important… no matter what you do (including garnering press coverage)… stay on message!  Make sure that all of your earned media efforts tie back to your campaign message and issues.  Staying on message will ensure that the voters know your candidate and what she stands for!

Types of Press Coverage

There are several different types of press coverage your campaign should be working towards:

Commentary on Breaking News – You’ll want to get your candidate quoted as news breaks in the district.

Feature Pieces – The campaign should attempt to get local news outlets to write pieces just on the candidate, campaign, or one of the campaign’s key issues that portrays the candidate in a positive light.

Interviews – Many political reporters are willing to do interviews with candidates and will write or broadcast extensively on that interview.

Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor– Your campaign should try to get op-eds and letters to the editor written by the candidate and/or key supporters places in local newspapers.

Endorsements – Many daily papers and some magazines offer endorsements.  Try to meet with the editorial boards that make these decisions and encourage them to endorse your candidate.

Call In Radio – If your candidate is comfortable doing so, appearing as a guest on call in talk radio programs may be a good way to raise name ID and also get the host talking about you, often for a few days before and after your appearance.  But be careful and be prepared to deal with callers who vocally support your opponents.

Establishing Relationships and the Rules of Engagement

Your press secretary (or, in very small campaigns the campaign manager) should establish relationships with the key political reporters covering your election very early on.  Reporters should know that they can contact your press secretary at all hours to get comment for a story, even if they are on a tight deadline.

The candidate should always be one step removed from the press.

You may have seen news stories where there is a comment from one political candidate, and then the line, “Mr. Smith, his opponent, was unavailable for comment.”  This type of reporting often happens when one candidate’s press secretary immediately returns a call, and the other candidate’s press secretary takes a few hours to call back.  By then, the story is already filed.  Call reporters back as soon as you are prepared to do so.

One mistake many campaigns make is for the candidate to be in constant, casual contact with reporters.  This is a major mistake.

The candidate should always be one step removed from the press. If a reporter wants to schedule an interview with the candidate, he or she should be told to call the press secretary to set it up.  Under no circumstances should the candidate be e-mailing, calling, or otherwise contacting the press on a regular basis unless it is for a pre-arranged comment or interview.  Also, be sure that no one from the campaign, be they staff or volunteers, talks with the press unless they have clear approval from the campaign press secretary.

Anyone from the campaign who will be speaking to the press should be well prepared to do so.  One of the main jobs of a press secretary, in addition to garnering press coverage, is to prepare the candidate and others to speak to the press on behalf of the campaign.  Be sure that you have facts and figures straight, and go into the interview with a clear sense of what you want the story to say.  Think through how you will tie this story back to your campaign message and issues, and do so.

A final word of caution: be careful around reporters.  Most of them are very good people who do a good job, but remember that they do have a job to do.  Be careful about speaking to them off the record, or in a casual joking manner.  Many campaigns have been burned when things the candidate thought he said “off the record” were reported in print, or when things he said jokingly were picked up by a microphone and played on the evening news.

Media Kits, Press Advisories, and Press Releases

When starting your campaign, develop a well-designed media kit to give out to all reporters covering the campaign.  This media kit should include a bio on the candidate (with a picture if possible), a campaign brochure and bumper sticker if they are available, clips of recent press coverage, the press secretary’s business card w/ contact information, and any relevant issues papers that have been released.  This media kit should be regularly updated to give out as needed.

The campaign should also have a good media list in place to send out quick media advisories / media blasts.  These media advisories be used to respond to breaking news, to alert the press that the candidate or other campaign official is available for an interview, or to alert reporters that the candidate will be attending an event that they may want to cover.

Similarly, the campaign should issue press releases on a regular basis containing real news, including new issues the campaign is highlighting, events the campaign is holding, and positive “horserace” information, such as how much the campaign has raised and how well you are doing in the polls.

Getting Through the Clutter

Reporters are busy people, and top reporters receive hundreds of press releases a day.  It’s important to break through that clutter if you want your campaign news to be covered.  The best way to do that is to develop a good relationship with key reporters, and to offer them real news they can use.

Press secretaries should also follow-up their press releases with phone calls to the reporter.  While you shouldn’t badger a journalist, a follow-up call to select reporters after sending a press release will often be enough to get yours noticed and at least read.

Holding Press Conferences and Media Events

The rule that we discussed for press releases also applies for press conferences: make sure you are announcing real news at these events.  Reporters will stop coming to your press conferences if they are pure fluff.  Also, be sure to send out media advisories several days before the event announcing when, where, and why you are having the event, and also who will be there and available for comment to the press.  Then, send out another advisory the day before the event reminding journalists of the time, place and purpose.  You may also want to call key reporters to make sure they are coming.

Of course, press conferences aren’t the only media events you will want to use to garner press coverage.  Reporters can be invited to campaign rallies, to candidate tours of factories and schools, even to accompany the candidate on a day of campaigning.  Always remember, though, to stay on message, and use caution when dealing with the press.