Earned Media vs. Paid Media in Political Campaigns

While the average person might blanch at being featured in the newspapers or on the local news station, political campaigns often burn the midnight oil trying to orchestrate newsworthy events that will get the media to pay attention to their candidate. All publicity isn’t created equal for political candidates; damaging news stories have sunk many a political campaign, and it’s rare that a political candidate is completely satisfied with media coverage, no matter how flattering it is.

earned mediaStill, getting positive (or at least objective) coverage from the media is a net plus for any political campaign, although most new candidates overestimate both the value media coverage and the amount of coverage that they should expect over the course of a campaign.

Here’s a quick disclaimer before we go any further: you can rarely win a political campaign on media coverage alone. It’s fine to attach yourself to an important issue that gets your name in the papers on a semi-regular basis, but if you don’t put in the work that a successful campaign requires, you could still be a high-profile loser on election day.

Having said that, a political campaign needs to differentiate between two different types of media coverage that are important to publicizing a candidate: earned media (or free media) and paid media (or bought media).

Earned media is the best kind of campaign coverage to get, since you don’t have to pay for it. When a newspaper, website or television news channel mentions your campaign in a legitimate news story, this is earned media. Most political campaigns are guaranteed to get at least two earned media stories over the course of the election season: when the candidate files to run for office, and on election day when he wins or loses.

Whether or not you get more earned media coverage than that is completely up to you and the amount of work and innovation you try to bring to your campaign. In order to get earned media coverage, you need to make it easy for the media to write stories about your campaign. That means generating interesting news and campaign events, and sending out regular press releases to local media.

Getting earned media coverage is more difficult than you might think, and you’re sure to get frustrated when the local media decides not to cover a campaign event that you put lots of time and effort into. A media organization can’t risk seeming too partial to a specific candidate, and won’t usually mention local candidates more than a few times over the course of election season. Still, you should do your part to encourage earned media coverage by making sure you notify every local media outlet whenever your campaign hits an important milestone or schedules a newsworthy event.

Paid media has its place in a successful political campaign plan, as well. Newspaper ads and television commercials are examples of paid media: getting a candidate’s name, face and message into a local media outlet by purchasing air time or ad space. Since the average candidate can’t count on a media organization to publish a slew of free stories about them, this is a viable–albeit expensive–alternative to earned media.

Whether or not your campaign should invest money into paid media is up to you. Generally, I’ve found that newspaper ads and television commercials just aren’t as effective as direct mail. While direct mail campaigns can be laser-focused on specific groups of registered voters, you’re usually paying for a lot of wasted coverage with newspaper and TV ads. The vast majority of people who see your ad in a newspaper or on television probably won’t even vote on election day.

Still, if you’ve done a good job on the fundraising front and you’ve already financed a broad direct mail campaign, adding some newspaper and television spots to the mix might be a good idea. Especially in larger statewide and congressional races, television can be an effective way to get your message out to a larger audience. Local candidates, however, should think twice before blowing most of their bank account on a few television commercials, and instead focus on mail and earned media.