OTTAWA—We need to talk about earned media and the insidious ways in which legacy and digital media platforms individuals. It’s one of the ways former U.S. president Donald Trump received wall-to-wall media coverage in the run-up to the 2016 election and throughout his presidency. It helped get him elected. The same is happening with Conservative leadership contender Pierre Poilievre.
Hubspot’s blog defines earned media as the following: “Earned media, or earned content, is any material written about you or your business that you haven’t paid for or created yourself. Although this type of media is always published by a third party, there are ways marketers can position themselves for earned media opportunities.” So basically, earned media is publicity you didn’t pay for and didn’t initiate. They are clips of content shared by individuals other than the content creator, news and commentary on campaigns that don’t originate with the campaign, but are discussed on television, radio, and other digital platforms. Earned media outstrips paid media, or conventional advertising.
Take Canadaland, for instance, which recently caused a huge uproar after inviting National Post reporter Terry Glavin on to speak about his latest piece, which questions the veracity of the existence of the remains of Indigenous children at residential schools. This is on the heels of a similar New York Post article, which was tweeted by noted diversity champion and dog shampoo enthusiast Jonathan Kay to his 66,538 followers. I refuse to link to either of these articles because that would be me providing them with earned media and promoting residential school denialism. But most media outlets don’t have that level of discernment or cultural competency, and will platform nationalist notions of white supremacy and patriarchy without a second glance. And that’s how these ideas are sanitized for civility and are spread.
Basically @CANADALAND used Indigenous people’s trauma for clicks and subscriptions amid “debate” without taking responsibility for the earned media they are giving this viewpoint or “movement”
— Erica Ifill (@wickdchiq) June 6, 2022
As I walk through digital media’s valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, but holy crap it’s everywhere. And it stinks.
Trump, in his run-up to the 2016 U.S. election, spent the least amount of money on the primaries compared to other candidates; the same held for the general election. For all that Trump is, he’s a genius marketer and understood digital marketing like no one else at the time. While former president Barack Obama opened the door to the community-building side of digital and social media, Trump exposed its seedier side, using it to galvanize and foment grievances into a whitelash that I’ve written about before in this paper.
The New York Times estimates that Trump benefited from about $2-billion worth of free media: “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in. Senator Bernie Sanders has earned more media than any of the Republicans except Mr. Trump.” The article goes onto mention that Trump was better than any candidate at generating earned media.
Poilievre is looking to do the same. And Canadian news media is obliging him, vociferously. Poilievre knows the game he’s playing here. Why do you think he won’t grant interviews to legacy media players used to enjoying premium access to any political candidate? Most are grateful for publicity. However, if you are astute at digital media, you recognize that if you build your own platform and beam out your message to supporters, they will amplify it to their group chats, their social media groups, and their own platforms. Legacy media will talk about you without you initiating anything. This is the targeted approach. In addition, once your profile rises on social media—i.e. you reach influencer status—legacy media comes to you. That’s how it’s done, and that’s what is being repeated in the Conservative leadership race with Poilievre. He has touched a nerve and threatens to galvanize white grievance politics into a movement all the way to Rideau Cottage (let’s not pretend 24 Sussex will be retrofitted for health and safety by then).
This is a failure-of-journalism lesson that media refuse to learn.
How do you think I got to be influential? It wasn’t because I was parroting the status quo. And that’s the insidiousness of this new-old media model. One must be at least effervescent, if not full of vim and vigour, which are two traits I inherited from my Guyanese ancestry. In other words, the more off-brand you become, the more attention you receive. And the more you do it with emotion, the more attention you receive, which is what Trump, Sanders, and Poilievre all possess—anger. And that anger reflects that which is felt by many voters. Growing economic inequality and the exportation of the middle class over the last couple of generations lead us to political divisions along those same lines.
Also: hate clicks are more valuable. Those who like you will like your content; those who hate you will share your content. (Same goes for those who love you.) Our current digital media ecosystem rewards the extremes—extreme points of view with extreme emotional delivery—and rewards an emotional response. The old broadcaster talking head is dead. Long live the king, which is always content.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.