Between the Lines

Garner Media Exposure that Money Can’t Buy

Spencer Sutherland

May 6, 2013

Everyone knows that you can’t believe everything a company says about itself. That’s why communication-savvy organizations pitch stories to news outlets. They may not have the same control over the message that they would with an advertisement, but the credibility of a third-party endorsement can be invaluable.

In the era of shrinking newsrooms, however, landing “earned media” for an event or product can be challenging.

 “We’ve seen dramatic changes in newsrooms over last four or five years,” says Steve Wright, director of public affairs at R&R Partners. “At a press conference or public rally, I used to see teams of reporters covering the event. Now we’re getting a cameraman who brings a mic and asks a few questions.”

While news outlets are taking a much leaner approach, Wright says that the quality of the end product has been largely unaffected. This can likely be attributed to extra work by the PR professionals pitching and preparing the story.

 “It’s now common that the press releases I write on behalf of my client are becoming the majority of the news story,” Wright says. Beyond just providing the press with the narrative of the story, R&R often sends its own photographers and camera crew to get footage for stations that are too short-staffed to make it to an event.

News Still Has to Be Newsworthy

Just because news reporters are leaning more heavily on PR pros for production help doesn’t mean they are becoming de facto advertisers. “News agencies know when something is more of an advertising event than a news event,” Wright says. “They understand when you’re trying to sell something.”

If a business has a message to get out, it needs to ensure there is a newsy angle that will appeal to reporters and their audiences—which can be challenging at times. For instance, when the Utah Highway Safety Office asked R&R to spread the word about DUI prevention—a 40-year-old message—the ad agency knew it would need to try something new.

Rather than send out the standard press release about DUI checkpoints, R&R decided to do something more visual. The agency built a fake police accident scene at The Gateway, with a group of nine-foot-tall snowmen being smashed by the car of a drunk driver (complete with caution tape and severed snowman heads).

Not only did the display get plenty of attention from traditional media outlets, but it also spread virally as other organizations posted the pictures or the story. “Intermountain Healthcare posted pictures of the snowmen and talked about some of the horrible things they see in their ER rooms during the holidays seasons as a result of drunk driving,” Wright says. “And other establishments asked if they could have the snowmen come to their locations to share this important message.”

Before long, the story—and the snowmen—had taken on a life of their own. At one point, a snowman turned up missing. He was later found in a ditch behind a store with a note that said, “Been partying with Jack Frost, signed Steve the Snowman.”

 “Because the media had covered the story previously, the lost snowman became another topic of interest—keeping the message of drunk driving front and center,” Wright says. “It was easily worth $70,000–80,000 of media publicity.”

You Don’t Always Need the News

Not every company is going to have a product, service or story that is a good fit for the nightly news or the morning paper. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a way to get people talking about it.

Todd Wolfenbarger, partner and president at Salt Lake City-based communication agency The Summit Group, shares some simple advice: “If you can’t be the best, you better at least be interesting.” In the era of Facebook posts, Pinterest boards and YouTube clips, creativity can take your message a long way.

 “Twenty-five years ago, to make an ad stand out, you’d use film instead of videotape,” Wolfenbarger says, “Today, production values don’t necessarily need to be high—in fact, for some mediums, it’s better if they’re not high—as long as the message is creative and something that people want to watch and share.”

As an example, Wolfenbarger points to Old Spice, whose ridiculous web videos have racked up millions of viral views and helped reinvent the brand. “You don’t have to have a breakthrough, change-the-world product—look at Old Spice, it’s just deodorant—but you’d better be interesting.”

You may not need a professional film crew to create a funny clip for YouTube, but earning the most online attention requires a good understanding of the medium. Not only do you need to understand a digital platform’s constraints, e.g., a 140-character limit on tweets versus unlimited text on an Instagram post, but its audience as well. 

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