Donald Trump’s Earned Media Mastery: What Changemakers Can Learn


By Glenn Turner and Shayna Samuels

Raise your hand if you’re tired of hearing about Donald Trump. Seriously, unless you’re completely unplugged, you likely hear or see his name multiple times daily.  And though he’s constantly in our faces, unlike most presidential candidates, he’s paying for very little advertising. Yes, he says outlandish and offensive comments which garner media attention, but he’s so good at what he does that he is able to frame the messaging around the Republican primaries simply by not doing something – like opting out of a debate or skipping the Conservative Political Action Conference.  In essence, Trump has mastered what’s known as “earned media.”

According to the New York Times, over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention ($400 million last month alone), about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history.

Earned media refers to publicity gained through promotional efforts other than advertising. It’s word of mouth buzz – and it’s the most credible form of marketing. And, as Trump’s campaign shows, it has incredible potential impact. Consider how many millions of dollars Jeb Bush’s campaign spent on paid media – begging for attention and influence, to no avail.

What’s the main lesson here for those businesses and organizations with a social mission?

Gone are the days of only being heard if you pay to advertise. While paid marketing still plays a role, the Internet – with social media at the helm — has opened things up and leveled the playing field for everyone to have a voice.  Everyone seems to be racing to embrace and conquer the digital marketing landscape, but increasingly people are tuning out paid advertising, with some even opting to use ad blockers to eliminate it completely (nearly 200 million did in 2015).

Earned media is ultimately more effective.  So, what’s the secret for earning media successfully, assuming you’re not Donald Trump?  A strong public relations (PR) and media relations strategy.

Unlike paid advertising, media relations and PR focus on building relationships and garnering authentic coverage.  You’re not an ad in the sidebar; you’re the focus of the story.

PR can be an untapped gold mine for mission-based digital marketing. You’re not just selling something; you have a larger purpose – a heart, an emotional connection to your issue. With strong PR, you can get others to share your story, raise awareness of your cause, build relationships with those who support it, and create social change.

Consider Patagonia as an example. For nearly 20 years, the company has initiated environmental campaigns to tackle issues that matter to its outdoor-enthusiast customers.  Each one has led not only to making the world a better place, but also to immeasurable earned media. The company’s VP of marketing said that paid advertising is the “dead last” thing Patagonia wants to do.

The company’s worth is upwards of a billion dollars, and it has millions of enthusiastic fans on social media and beyond. Good PR is powerful.

PR and media relations can also boost your digital marketing efforts in the following ways:  

  1. Ignite stories into viral digital campaigns. A recent example was Random Acts of Kindness Week, an annual campaign coordinated by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation since 2000. This year we at Ripple Strategies (our social impact PR firm) took the story of the organization and its inspiring event to the media and the campaign went viral. #RandomActsofKindnessDay ended up the #1 top trending hashtag on twitter with almost 170,000 tweets in one day. Influencers, celebrities, and heroic everyday folks performed acts of kindness and shared their stories on social media including: Sesame Street, Ellen DeGeneres, Disney, Amy Poehler, Dr. Phil, Whole Foods, Coca Cola, Starbucks, AirBnb, Today Show and many more. Verizon gave away free lunches; the Pittsburgh Steelers had a random drawing for a player’s helmet; Columbia Records gave away CDs … the list goes on. It was the foundation’s most successful campaign to date — fueled by a pre-launch PR push to get influencers to share their stories.
  2. Align your organization or business with trusted sources. There are certain outlets that are widely considered legitimate news sources –  CNN, the New York Times, NPR, etc. If someone reads or hears a story about you from one of these trusted sources, it creates instant credibility through third-party validation, which is more valuable than digital marketing ads from unknown sources – of which there are an overwhelming abundance.  Have you ever heard of Christopher Gray or Audrey Cheng? Probably not. Yet, they’re social entrepreneurs that made the Forbes list of 30 under 30 for 2016 and you have to admit – simply reading about them in a trusted source like Forbes makes them seem more trustworthy and successful.
  3. Result in high-quality promotion. Typically in digital marketing the main goals are quantitative – more likes, more clicks, more impressions. Smart PR focuses instead on quality. Which would have more influence over you — 10 digital side-bar ads or one compelling article with compelling messages in an outlet you trust? Likely the latter.

Ultimately, while digital marketing can be fruitful, a strong PR plan and media relations strategy can be immeasurably more powerful. Ads come and go. Clicks and likes are nebulous metrics. Stories inspire. Stories stick. And stories last – they can be referred to and shared for years to come. Never underestimate the power of earned media.  Donald Trump sure doesn’t.

Image credit: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

Glenn Turner and Shayna Samuels are co-founders of Ripple Strategies, a PR Firm Specializing in Media Campaigns that Accelerate Social Change.