Redefining “Earned Media” in a Changed Media Landscape

May 13, 2024

Over the next few weeks, we’re taking a deep dive into the four types of media that form the backbone of an effective law firm marketing and communications plan. Paid, earned, shared and owned — “PESO” — represent the full interconnected landscape of channels for distributing your firm’s messages to your target audiences. The PESO model, brainchild of PR thought leader Gini Dietrich, has now been around for a decade and was updated this year to reflect the many changes that have occurred in media since she first published it.

In our work at Page 2, we are constantly striving to translate the PESO model into a workable action plan specifically relevant to our law firm clients. In that spirit, we are going to tackle the four media types in a different order, starting with earned media, something that matters a lot to law firms — and causes law firm marketers no small amount of anxiety.

What is earned media?

Earned media is any coverage of a brand by a third party that was not paid to distribute the message. The fact that you “earned” this validation from a voice your audience trusts — generating authentic credibility — is what makes this type of media so valuable.

And the fact that you cannot purchase earned media is also what makes it the most challenging of the four media types to master. With great impact comes great uncertainty. While you can do a lot to tee up positive coverage, you can’t really predict or control how reporters and influencers will frame your messages. The independence that makes their opinion credible also introduces the possibility of unfavorable coverage or, more likely, being ignored. Attorneys who do not come from a communications background sometimes struggle with the uncertainty of earned media campaigns. “Why can’t we just make them say what we want them to say?” If favorable coverage could be purchased or guaranteed, it would be a lot less valuable.

How has it changed?

Earned media used to be synonymous with media relations, the classic PR work of building and nurturing relationships with reporters so they might be more likely to call one of your attorneys for a quote or write a favorable piece on your firm. Media relations is still a core tactic within this category — especially when it comes to reporters who cover specific industries — but the collapse of traditional media means there are far fewer outlets and reporters to court in 2024. While this change has forced marketing and comms professionals to rely less on earned media, 33% of respondents (up from 30% last year) in the 2024 PR Week Global Comms report say their overall media strategies rely on earned media the most. That’s a pretty sizable proportion for something people keep saying is dying or dead!

How can both of these things — that media outlets are disappearing and that earned media still exists — be true? The answer lies in what counts as earned media today and how all those laid-off industry reporters are continuing to deliver content to their audiences. In addition to the remaining traditional news outlets in the mainstream and trade/industry press, earned media wins can now come from upstart and niche initiatives like

  • subscriber newsletters managed through tools such as Substack
  • podcasts
  • social media influencer channels
  • industry-specific blogs
  • awards programs and invite-only events

What does an effective earned media campaign look like today?

“Media relations” is now more broadly understood to focus not just on connecting with reporters but also on nurturing relationships with referral and word-of-mouth sources, investors and influencers.

Building an effective earned media campaign in 2024 starts with two questions: 1) Who are the most influential voices in our niche? And 2) What, if anything, are they currently saying about our firm? Once you understand those two things, you can build out a plan that articulates the messages you want to be sending and outlines steps you can take to persuade these trusted sources to consider telling your story through their own channels.

How do we know if an earned media placement was “worth it”?

It has always been extremely hard to evaluate the results of earned media campaigns. You can track media mentions, but how can you determine whether those mentions are directly, or even indirectly, converting prospects into clients? Many of the metrics organizations relied on in the past — such as impressions — are now understood as “vanity metrics,” numbers that sound great but don’t actually mean anything for ROI. Engagement metrics, the likes and comments and shares that tell you more about how the mention resonated with your intended audience, are somewhat better. But you don’t always have visibility into these numbers through the original outlet, and not all the people you are trying to influence are interacting with the social media posts through which you share the earned content. The fact that you never quite know which media mentions will take off and how they might influence — there’s that pesky uncertainty again — means it’s a good idea to aim for a steady drip of high-value placements.

How does earned media intersect with the other types of media in our plan?

The PESO model only works when it is a truly integrated plan. Sometimes teams decide to go all in on just one of the four types of media, but that rarely works because you cannot sustain the momentum of any one result unless you keep all four plates spinning. What that integration looks like in practice varies a lot, but here is a very simple example of how a single earned media mention could activate the three other media types:

Earned: A key energy-industry outlet publishes a Q&A with an up-and-coming partner who focuses on public finance matters within the energy space.

Shared: Your team posts a link to the Q&A with a handsome graphic on LinkedIn. When people in your social networks share the post, “like” their posts and comments to give the content additional traction. Use energy industry hashtags and tag key followers in the energy space to engage them in conversation.

Owned: Your team creates a website news item and/or blog post linking to the Q&A. You might also include a mention of it in an internal announcement and in the external firm newsletter that goes to the energy segment of your mailing list. You could add it to the attorney’s website bio and to RFP materials. Bonus points if you go beyond sharing the original version in any of these places to provide additional commentary on how your firm’s practice group is transforming the expertise mentioned in the article into wins for clients.

Paid: Depending on the original outlet’s reprint policies, you may be able to excerpt a portion of the Q&A alongside the attorney’s headshot to create a compelling ad purchased for an upcoming conference program or other sponsorship/advertising opportunity.

More earned: The link to this Q&A could become part of pitch to another reporter or an element of an awards submission that generates additional earned media coverage.

How does earned media currently figure in to your firm’s media strategy, and what would you like to change about that? Let us know!