The creep of “news deserts” across the country is causing communications consultants on both sides to reexamine earned media strategies for campaigns and groups.
Following the demise of some 1,800 newspapers, there are now roughly 3 million people in America without a local paper, according to a report by Pen America, which found that: “With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.”
Comms consultants have been dealing with this difficult local media environment for many years, but now some are turning to alternatives to get their clients’ messages out. As the director of battleground state comms for Priorities USA in 2020, Steve Pierce used a mixture of relationship building with local reporters, working with partners on the ground to find subjects for stories and paid digital to amplify the group’s messaging.
“It’s really tough out there,” said Pierce, now a senior director at Bully Pulpit Interactive. “If you talk to any reporter that works in a local market, they’ll tell you the same: The number of jobs is constantly shrinking.”
With that in mind, Pierce wanted to ensure he was providing a value-add to the reporters he was contacting for coverage. “We don’t want to just be the people who are constantly pinging you with press releases. These journalists have a really hard job. Sometimes being asked to cover multiple beats, keeping their finger on the pulse of different things.”
He offered reporters help finding local subjects for stories. “If you’re writing about a particular topic, we’ve got lists of people,” Pierce would tell the reporters. “It was both helpful for the press, and also aligned with our strategic objectives.”
Krishana Davis, a newly promoted director of digital at Precision, notes that a local earned media strategy should include working with freelancers.
“They have more of an incentive to find a place and work with an editor to pitch your story than a full-time, on staff reporter would,” she said, adding that newsletter authors should also be on campaigns and groups’ radar. “Substack invested a large sum of money in several Substack accounts that were local journalists on the ground. They want to provide funding and support for people on the ground,” she said. “Local will never die.”
GOP comms consultant Mark Harris agrees. While influencer marketing is generating more buzz now as local journalism struggles, Harris notes that creators with large followings may not have a significant audience inside a campaign’s district.
“Your local television news and your local print publication still get more readership,” he said. “I definitely thinks there’s a mindset that exists sometimes — there’s too much focus on social media and not enough on the outlets,” said Harris, a managing partner at Pennsylvania-headquartered ColdSpark.
“It’s easy for me to get a hundred likes [on a post]. It’s harder for me to work over time to develop a relationship and package a story or pitch a story.” He added: “Nine times out of 10, I would still rather get a good news article or a good broadcast news hit.”
But to get that hit, comms consultants have to work harder. “You’ve to build [a media event by] making it as easy for them as possible,” Harris said.
Beyond locating events near TV stations or newspaper newsrooms, campaigns and groups can also invest in high-quality B-roll video that producers can use as part of a package for television news.
“I don’t think you have to necessarily produce a long-form piece for a candidate,” especially if you don’t know where you’re going to place it, said Deborah Camiel, a new VP of communications at California-based 50+1 Strategies. “If you do have the ability to go out and shoot [six-eight] minutes of really, really high-quality video for a candidate, having a video bank … is really, really valuable.”
Camiel also notes that comms strategists don’t need to be pessimistic about the future of local journalism. She pointed to the launch in Los Angeles of Spectrum News, a 24/7 channel devoted to local news coverage that has other outlets around the country.
“So there is a regrowth … on local news that I think is important,” she said.