In a Facebook group I belong to, a fellow communicator posted, “For the first time in my 25-year career, I’m having trouble getting stories placed in media outlets that never used to be a problem. Can someone help?”

The comments were a litany of “me toos” with no real solutions other than commiserating with one another about how much more challenging the earned media landscape has gotten in the past several months.

In fact, the fifth annual State of PR report from Muck Rack surveyed more than 1,000 PR professionals, and 70% said they anticipate a growing challenge in securing earned media in the next five years. 

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The media landscape has changed significantly in the past five years—and it will continue to change, with some going out of business, others getting gobbled up by conglomerates, and more and more journalists losing their jobs due to layoffs or closures. 

Yet, we continue to do things the way we’ve always done them, hoping they’ll swing back in our favor.

They’re not going to. Ever again. It’s time to think about how to rejigger your earned media strategies to continue to build awareness, thought leadership, and credibility without relying on journalists. 

Earned Media Continues to Take a Hit

In 2008, a friend of mine who worked for USA Today called me. He was in town and invited me to breakfast. I was excited to see him because, despite having worked with him for several years, I hadn’t seen him in almost as many. 

We had breakfast at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Chicago. I remember this vividly because he told me that he had been furloughed while dining on eggs, yogurt, and granola. I remember my stomach feeling sick because I wouldn’t have a relationship at USA Today while he was out. And then he followed it up with, “And I don’t expect I’ll be back.”

Nooooooo! I felt awful for him, and selfishly, I was upset to lose that great contact. All of those years cultivating that relationship. Gone. With one recession. 

I’m willing to bet many of you have a similar story. Especially in the last three years. This all started in 2008, and it’s gotten worse. So what are we to do? 

But Online Reviews Can Save the Day

The 2023 USC Global Communications Report is all about reputation. One of its findings is that earned media isn’t as trusted as it once was, and online reviews have upended where people go for advice.

In a blog post I wrote about it, I said, “Reviews should be a top priority in your comms plans because employees, investors, and consumers say they are the primary driver of reputation. This suggests a paradigm shift for PR professionals, who traditionally focus more heavily on media and influencers, which all audiences ranked much lower in importance to them. Independent rankings are also very influential in building a reputation through communications.”

All audiences rank media and influencers lower than online reviews. All of them. And independent rankings are very influential, as well.

As earned media continues to be fleeting, what does this tell you? That you should focus on online reviews and getting independent rankings, of course!

This means building relationships (and often paying for accounts) with TrustPilot, Capterra, G2, WebFX, TripAdvisdor, Yelp, Google, and more. It means getting creative about asking for online reviews. And it means paying attention to the online reviews you do get, to ensure the bad reviews get a response. 

This is a shift in how we typically do earned media, but it’s the future. And notice there is some pay-to-play involved, which means you’ll have to get budget to make that happen. You’ll become a whiz at Glassdoor, other employee review sites, and consumer and B2B review sites. This is where you should spend your time in 2023 and beyond.

Which Pose a Great Opportunity

Before my husband buys anything, he reads the reviews. All of them. And then he makes a decision based on what complete strangers have said about the product. He does this everything from masking tape to the latest composter I’ve decided I want. He also doesn’t believe reviews if they’re all glowing. He thinks (and he’s probably right) that the company has incentivized the reviews and that they’re not fully honest. After all, not everyone likes everything.

This poses a great opportunity for PR pros looking to enhance their earned media opportunities. It can also cause some risk.

By encouraging and even incentivizing customers to leave honest reviews, you add to the social proof prospects will find when doing their initial information gathering. By responding to good and bad reviews, you have a chance to showcase customer service skills and potentially retain even unhappy customers.

And, if there are negative reviews, people like Mr. D will be happy to know you’re at least allowing people to be honest. 

Figure Out How to Use Them

It’s uncomfortable for most people, though. I know I don’t particularly love the bad reviews that I have on Spin Sucks, the book—especially the one-star review someone gave me because the font size is too small. As if there is something I can do about that. 

But some execs go so far as to ask us to remove the reviews. Can’t be done, but we can respond to them and see if there is anything we can do to fix their issue with the product or service.

My favorite kid’s clothing line right now, Lola & the Boys, offers discounts on your next purchase if you leave an online review. We bought one dress there that pretty much melted in the dryer. Typically I wouldn’t leave a review, but I wanted that 20% discount, so I gave it a one-star review. Super cute dress. Not a cute outcome. 

They reached out to me and offered to replace the dress. I said I didn’t want the same dress because I wasn’t keen on fishing out dresses from the washer to line-dry them. Instead, they gave me a store credit. They didn’t ask me to “fix” the review, but I did go back and edit it to say that if you do buy the dress, make sure you don’t put it in the dryer!

Online reviews work for every industry, from CPG and non-profit to retail and B2B. And PR pros can add this work to their repertoire to evolve their earned media efforts from journalists and influencers to online reviews and independent rankings.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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