In a noisy media landscape, it pays to listen.
It’s time to put the “ear” back into earned media.
Listen up. Consider for a moment that no one spends the same amount of time thinking about your company’s product or solution as frequently and as deeply as you do. That includes the journalists and influencers and their audiences you are trying to reach. This is the crux of the earned media profession; it takes a lot more than a collection of data and perfectly crafted talking points to get people to take notice. So how can you shift the dynamic of apathy to one that engages and interests your influencers? By listening more and talking less.
Talking points lead to less listening.
There’s no question that well-crafted talking points are the foundation of a strong media pitch and the valuable tools of a well-prepared spokesperson. While they are undeniably important parts of the equation, we must remember that it is our first-line audiences – the influencers themselves – that must be heard, seen and understood first in order to ensure success in reaching their audiences.
Talking points are the tactical outputs of a well-crafted communications strategy. They serve as concentrated, focused sound bytes of the most important messages we intend to communicate. But they can also distract us from identifying opportunities to make stronger connections. Talking points can inadvertently set us up to be listening for an opportunity to talk, rather than listening for an opportunity to hear information we may not have considered important in our preparation.
Of course, I’m not advocating for the wholesale rejection of talking points and key message preparation. Just don’t forget the possibility of not talking when it comes to earning the trust and confidence of the influencers you seek to engage. Before resorting to trotting out rehearsed talking points, first frame your overall approach by crafting visionary and strategic “listening points.”
What the heck is a listening point?!
For the purposes of discussion, think of a listening point as the inverse of a talking point. It is a primary insight through which all tactics – including talking points – are filtered. As we build our knowledge base for a strategic earned media program, we collect insights and information from a variety of sources. Listening points reflect a concerted effort to first listen to the drivers of those sources, including influencer audiences, stakeholders, end users and communities, before assuming you know what they need or through which formats and channels.
Five guidelines for building strong listening points:
- Ask better questions of your stakeholders and executive leaders. Not only will you end up with more valuable answers, but these insights will enable you to gain buy-in, prioritize your efforts and leverage their expertise more effectively. Asking them to define their vision for a successful program is only scratching the surface; you’ll need to dig deeper to uncover their underlying expectations and hesitations. Ask them what they fear the most about media coverage or how they feel about the demands on their time as key spokespeople. Ask them to produce specific examples of the types of coverage they really want to see and clearly define any topics that are truly off-limits. And then incorporate those insights into your strategy and implementation. Don’t forget to close the loop by finding ways to reflect those insights in how you report on outcomes, as well.
- Listen to, watch and/or read your influencers’ content more frequently and purposefully. While it may sound like PR 101 to suggest that you should research your targets’ past work, keep in mind that the most successful earned media professionals are spending as much time or more time reading/watching their influencers’ relevant content as they are spending writing outbound pitches, advisories and releases. By tailoring your value proposition according to each influencers’ specific style and approach, your connections will be more meaningful and your success rate will skyrocket. Influencers are your first customers. You ought to know as much about them and their work as you do about your end consumers and buyers.
- Ask more and better questions of your influencers. This one is easy, as is the logical extension of the previous guideline. With just a little effort, you can find common ground with just about anyone, and in a noisy space, finding common ground on a personal level will serve you well in your ongoing relationships with journalists and other influencers. Assume nothing when it comes to your interactions. Show interest beyond small talk. Ask questions and find excuses to be personable. It’s possible to be interesting and interested without pandering and without wasting their time or your own. And ultimately, ask them what they want, what they need in order to be successful, how you can become a valuable resource and then be exactly that, to the best of your ability and within reason.
- Practice. When was the last time you role-played in preparation for a media interaction? No matter how often you’ve managed a live interview or a desk-side visit, don’t underestimate the value of rehearsal. Leverage a colleague to play the role of journalist or influencer, framing the most challenging, most contentious and least obvious questions for the topic. Use the opportunity to consider the angles you may not have prepared and craft optimal responses. Never assume even a “friendly” audience won’t have a thing or two up his or her sleeve. And never forget that not having an immediate answer is always okay. Play the “follow-up” card whenever necessary, and practice various ways of expressing it. You’ll end up with a better response after taking the time to step away and think clearly. There’s no explanation for being surprised in an interview, other than poor preparation.
- Listen to your data. German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said “The alchemists in their search for gold discovered many other things of greater value.” Data can tell us whatever we want to hear if we don’t listen to what it’s actually saying. The best communications programs are rooted in data and start with thorough discovery and research on your subject matter. The key to effective discovery is to interpret your findings with an open mind. Whether you are doing a competitive analysis, a media scan for trends and coverage, or digging into a media database for new contacts or niche outlets, it’s important to be open to absorbing insights that you weren’t anticipating. It’s not unusual to discover that your biggest media rival isn’t (yet) your industry rival at all. Your true competitors for share of voice may not even come close to your market share, but they may dominate the coverage that you seek.
Is your earned media program built more on talking than listening? BVK’s approach will ensure that the conversation is successfully shifted in your favor.