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How earned media and purpose nurture each other

illustration of two puzzle pieces coming together

Developing brand purpose requires a deep audit of earned media and social media dialogue.

—Alexis Davis Smith, PRecise Communications

How a brand is trying to better the planet can drive so much earned media today. It could be about a soft drink giant investing in innovations and partnerships to reduce plastic waste. Or a retailer that year after year on Black Friday closes its stores and encourages its employees and customers to go outside. Or a jewelry maker that sources only conflict-free gems in their pieces.

This earned media can include news and feature articles, but also social media with posts from, and conversations between, influencers, fans and followers.

Make no mistake: Consumers want to know what brands are doing to help fix the world’s social, political and/or environmental problems, especially given a lack of faith that governments can address them, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Alexis Davis Smith headshot

Alexis Davis Smith

But what often goes unsaid is the inverse of this relationship: how earned and social media can not just be a delivery mechanism for purpose narratives, but inform it. Experts in this discipline say the relationship is, in fact, quite symbiotic: Earned media feeds into purpose, and purpose helps fuel earned media.

In addition to “candid conversations with leadership, employees and consumers,” says Alexis Davis Smith, president and CEO of PRecise Communications, developing brand purpose requires “a deep audit of earned media and social media dialogue.”

This is crucial as “consumers increasingly expect brands to connect with them more on a human level and less from a commercial perspective,” says Smith.

Your purpose should be timeless, but made relevant

Which is not to say that brands should be mining earned and social media to change their raison d’être every few years based on the issues of the moment.

Cathy Carlisi headshot

Cathy Carlisi

In fact, a strong purpose statement “should be timeless to the company,” which keeps it authentic, embedded across the entire organization and tied to business outcomes, says Cathy Carlisi, thinker and president of the Americas for BrightHouse, a Boston Consulting Group-owned creative purpose firm which worked on Always’ Like a Girl positioning.

“Purpose articulates why your brand exists and the universal human need it fulfills,” explains Carlisi, pointing as an example to a credit card company answering the question: “What does credit enable people to do and why does it matter to society? And why is it always going to matter?”

“While the articulation of your purpose might take a few months of work, the activation and embedding of your purpose is forever,” she says. “And so that is where the data from digital, social and earned media becomes unbelievably important.”

“Because once you have a timeless purpose, you should be constantly looking to make it culturally relevant,” Carlisi continues. “The question becomes, ‘How do we brilliantly synthesize the data and address timely needs of our customers and desired customers under the umbrella of our purpose?’”

Answering that question can lead to a number of initiatives, both internally, from new ways of supporting employees and suppliers, to external comms, like a social media campaign.

In the case of the latter, Carlisi likes to think of it “as having mined social media data and now giving back to where those conversations are happening. Brands can come into those conversations now talking about what they are doing, the actions they are taking and the behaviors they are wanting to change.”

Mining ownable space

Your “timeless” purpose and an analysis of social media might lead to the decision to stand up on a particular issue, but you’re more than likely not the only corporate voice trying to be heard on it.

Andrea List headshot

Andrea List

That is why it is important to have a data-informed plan when going out into the marketplace with purpose-focused messaging like you would any PR campaign, advises Andrea List, manager of analytics at Porter Novelli/Cone.

“When we undertake that kind of purpose analysis, it isn’t just about understanding how your competitors and industry are showing up on an issue versus how you’d show up. You also want to look at how any company on that issue is showing up,” says List.

And then using data to dig even deeper, she says, into tactically how companies are deploying spokespeople, strategic partnerships and channel strategy to get their messaging across.

On the topic of spokespeople, you might find, for instance, a company using its CEO as the main spokesperson on an issue that could benefit from having a variety of spokespeople to expand reach and sub-topics. “An analysis can help you define how you are going to use your stakeholders as ambassadors for a purpose journey,” List points out. “It helps you to find those open opportunities for communicating around your purpose.”

She also recommends using data to continuously track the performance of your purpose messaging, because a dip could signal it may need a refresh. “Given a 24-news cycle and how quickly cultural movements rise, it is very easy for a message to go stale, so you need to be monitoring how consumers are reacting to it,” says List.

Leela Stake headshot

Leela Stake

“Data brings real rigor to helping inform when and how to engage on a particular issue,” concludes FleishmanHillard’s Leela Stake, head of the firm’s global FH4Inclusion Initiative and a leader on its global CSR and purpose team.

“There are so many issues out there and so it doesn’t make sense to get involved on every issue,” says Stake. “That is where data mining, particularly on social, can help inform some of those decisions — to find what is ownable for your brand and aligned with its greater purpose.”


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