Public relations, or more precisely media relations, can be a tricky business. The art of getting earned media coverage for a product, service or business is not as easy as it sounds.

And while the degree of difficulty varies from brand to brand, the secret to securing editorial is NOT a media release. While many marketers and owners typically ask for one, a news release is neither essential nor needed … although it’s often helpful.

A release is useful in aligning a client team on key messages, spokesperson quotes, and the language the public relations professional should use when talking about the announcement with media. However, unless your company is publicly traded, and the announcement is material, the release is not required.

There are other, more critical elements for a successful earned media campaign: the right spokesperson, useful media assets including visuals, and, most importantly, an interesting narrative or story.

It’s no secret what makes news. Journalists consider timeliness, proximity, conflict, eminence and prominence, consequence, impact, and human interest to evaluate a potential story.

Yet sometimes these elements are difficult to find in brand marketing—or even non-existent. The trick is to dig deep to find the story, use seasonal opportunities to your advantage, or, when necessary, create a story of your own.

Find an Interesting Narrative to Secure Earned Media Coverage

#1 Dig Deep to Find the Story

If you dig deep enough, you often find your company has countless stories to tell. The challenge is to identify the “newsy” narrative, explain it without jargon, and package it to pique media interest.

One example is Vineland Research & Innovation Centre , an independent, not-for-profit research centre based in Niagara, Ontario. The Centre was seeking earned media coverage to support its goal of becoming a recognized centre of horticulture research and innovation excellence.

Initial interviews with their communications team revealed the Centre was up to some interesting things:

• How researchers are making plants more tolerant to drought
• The power of sensory traits to affect consumer choice
• Why technologies developed for space exploration impact growing practices on earth

We developed several “story starter” ideas for Vineland, short, 200-word narratives with catchy headlines and interesting background information explaining how the research benefits Canadians.

To give you a flavour of these “story starters,” here are the headlines:

• Drought tolerance: Perking up the Petunias: It’s all in the genes!
• Sensory traits: Give ‘em what they want: Filling the grocery shelves and garden centers of tomorrow
• Space technologies: Plants in space: how exploration is driving innovation here on earth

Local TV, radio, newspapers, and trade magazines all conducted interviews and ran stories in response to our ideas.

#2 Use Seasonal Opportunities to Your Advantage

There’s no one size fits all approach to securing earned media coverage. At times, it’s a matter of linking a brand to a seasonal opportunity.

Consider Crayola. Several years ago, they launched two new products into the Canadian market. Instead of pitching media on the products, we distributed a “creativity kit” for spring break, a time of the year when parents, grandparents, and caregivers are searching for projects to entertain their kids.

After receiving the package, many media commented they could easily build articles and stories around the content. PostMedia published a syndicated article through their network in Canada, TV stations ran March break contests, and interest spilled into other seasons including a Mother’s Day contest in the Toronto Sun, and coverage for back-to-school in Canadian Living and the Calgary Sun.

#3 Use Your Imagination to Create a Compelling Story

When it comes to earned media, the toughest situation is when a brand has nothing (or almost nothing) to help tell a story.

Hallmark Canada relied on earned media as its primary communications tool to build awareness at Valentine’s Day. This occasion presented an unusual challenge for the brand: it’s the one time of year when men purchase greeting cards. It’s also a time when moms and grandmothers buy cards for their school-age kids and grandchildren.

Apart from editors of gift guides, media have little interest in covering Valentine’s Day cards and gifts. While mom and grandma are likely to peruse these guides in the newspaper or a favourite magazine, men are not.

Our challenge was to create a communications program to reach multiple audiences and generate earned media to impact brand awareness.

The solution was crafting our own story called Pucker Up for Valentine’s Day, a hockey-themed communications campaign that appealed to Canadian men and women of all ages. The program focused on the fact that Valentine’s Day fell on a Saturday, the same night as Hockey Night in Canada.

Canadians, both men and women, faced a unique scheduling conflict: do they plan a romantic night out without hockey, celebrate early on Feb. 13th, or incorporate their love of hockey with romance on the 14th?

National research with 1,000 Canadians explored these questions. We discovered 40% of couples would choose to watch a hockey game, rather than celebrate the day in a more traditional and romantic way.

We distributed the survey results to media (and yes, we used a news release), provided them with additional regional results, gave them access to our company spokesperson, and developed an interesting visual for TV and print coverage.

Feature articles about the “dating dilemma” appeared in sports sections of major dailies, as well as in Valentine’s Day features and gift guides, reaching both men and women prior to Valentine’s Day. Significant earned media coverage across Canada also had a dramatic impact on brand awareness, consumer preference, and brand insistence.

No News Release Required—Really!

In all of these examples, we did not need a news release to secure earned media coverage. Instead, we focused on helping media tell an interesting story incorporating many of the criteria they use to decide what makes the editorial cut: timeliness or seasonality, conflict, consequence, and human interest.

Although media relations pros prefer to have breaking news to announce, brands don’t typically have it. And even when they do, it’s important to devote energy to developing the story, instead of focusing too much effort on the news release.

Whether you have lofty goals or modest ones for your brand, an interesting narrative is the only thing that matters when seeking earned media.

This post was originally published on MarketingProfs.