10 Tips For Getting Unpaid Coverage

How do you garner significant unpaid media attention for your credit union? Create a compelling good news story with multiple chapters.

Here's how our marketing agency worked with $1.6 billion (U.S.) Common Wealth Credit Union, Lloydminster, Alberta, to create sustained media interest that has resulted in incredible unpaid coverage for the launch of a free checking account. While free checking accounts in the U.S. are commonplace, that isn't yet the case in Canada.

Common Wealth CU approached us with a simple brief, "We want to launch a free checking account for the under-25 group and connect with the youth market in Northern Alberta."

Our solution was to name the new product Young & Free and create a fully integrated marketing campaign, combined with a spokesperson search to find the voice of Alberta's under-25 crowd. The campaign comes to life on a dedicated microsite at www.YoungFreeAlberta.com. Public relations has played a significant role in the success of this initiative.

Here are 10 tips for getting unpaid coverage and how we leveraged them in the Young & Free initiative:

Tip 1: It all starts with a good story

People are drawn to a good story. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of world events, we all take comfort in learning about something interesting and positive happening locally.

The standard practice in this case would have been to issue a press release to local media and trade publications, noting the features and benefits of the free checking account, and hope for the best. Instead, we started by crafting a compelling story.

We knew the account was for the 25-and-under group; we knew this group felt largely ignored; and we knew this group did not respond well to traditional advertising. We also knew this group was tech-savvy and proficient with social media. Here is the first paragraph from our launch press release:

CWCU introduces Young & Free, the first free financial management service package for young Albertans. The Young & Free platform includes a sweet package of free, unlimited banking services plus a much-anticipated Young & Free spokesperson search to find a savvy young person to represent and be the voice of 17- to 25-year-olds. Young & Free members will have access to a microsite jammed with helpful hints, polls, blogs and trivia to help them move toward financial independence.

Tip 2: Get your internal publicists talking

Before going public, all 400 Common Wealth CU staff became Young & Free experts. CUES member Jeff Mulligan, president/CEO of Common Wealth CU, explained in person the program's importance to all staff. Each team member was trained and given a detailed information kit. It was extremely important to set the tone early on and build internal understanding and excitement for Young & Free. On the day of launch, all staff were encouraged to send an e-mail with a link to the www.YoungFreeAlberta.com microsite to five friends and family members. This helped to build early excitement.

Tip 3: Use adversity to your advantage

Don't be afraid to go back to the media for help. We had allotted four weeks to attract 10 qualified applicants. After three weeks, we had three. Rather than quietly trying to minimize our challenges, we went out with another press release:

CWCU announced today it is extending the Young & Free Spokesperson Search for two more weeks to Nov. 9, 2007, to allow entrants sufficient time to produce and edit their video entries. "We are hearing from many would-be Young & Free entrants that they require more time to prepare their spokesperson video submissions so we've extended the search to November 9," said Jeff Mulligan.

Another round of local coverage in more than a half dozen community newspapers, one local television station and two regional radio stations enabled us to attract a total of 11 qualified applicants. We had built a positive relationship with the local media and they were willing to do what they could to help this story succeed.

Tip 4: Play within the "Small World Web"

The vast World Wide Web can be overwhelming. Credit unions typically put up a static Web site and fail to exploit the Internet's potential. Sites like Facebook, with more than 70 million members, are considered too big to bother with. However, when you get inside, you realize that this social network, more than twice the size of Canada, is just a series of small communities and inter-personal relationships. We set up a Young & Free Alberta profile on Facebook-an anonymous character that the eventual spokesperson would inhabit-and joined a number of community groups. We also befriended Common Wealth CU staff members to help subtly get the word out. This worked well, in combination with very targeted banner advertising, to entice a number of spokesperson applicants, including our eventual winner.

Tip 5: Enable conversation

The focal point of the www.YoungFreeAlberta.com microsite is an interactive blog. In the first 120 days of the program there have been more than 100 posts with more than 400 comments. A bonus to this two-way conversation is how it has enabled our PR partners, Brookline Public Relations, to keep sending reporters back to monitor progress. This has resulted in significant additional TV, newspaper and blog coverage.

Tip 6: Three young minds are smarter than all the marketing strategy we could ever dream up

Once we had narrowed the applicants to the top three, we encouraged each finalist to run their own aggressive two-week campaign. All three finalists had different ways of garnering votes: posting additional YouTube videos and blog entries, starting Facebook groups, arranging newspaper, radio and television interviews, recording podcasts and putting up posters. During this period, unpaid media reached a fevered pitch as all of Northern Alberta seemed focused on this little credit union competition. The tipping point was when the three finalists were interviewed live on a Canadian network TV morning show (akin to Good Morning America in the United States).

What we learned from this is when people are given the freedom to explore ideas and express themselves without boundaries, the sky is the limit. When you write your credit union's story, be sure to draw from your employees and members. Everyone has a story worth telling, not just the marketing and communications department.

Tip 7: Announce everything in a meaningful way

The public voting came to a close and, after a very long and nerve-racking week for the finalists, the big spokesperson reveal happened on Dec. 10, 2007. Again, we pitched the local and industry media, which had been following the story, with not only a standard press release, but also with an exclusive video of an "Ed McMahon"-style unveiling of our chosen spokesperson, Larissa Walkiw. Larissa has been interviewed on three TV programs and featured in more than two dozen print and blog articles since being voted in.

Tip 8: Go around the world to be taken seriously in your own backyard

Traditional media is fascinated with new media. Case in point, Larissa created a brilliant 90-second animated educational video on the differences between banks and credit unions. Because videos that are posted on YouTube can be embedded on other Web sites, a popular video has the potential of becoming a viral sensation. This video has been embedded on more than two dozen credit union Web sites and blogs and has been viewed more than 13,000 times. Once again, this gave our PR partner another interesting chapter to pitch the media and, sure enough, Larissa was asked back on TV to discuss her latest success.

Is there someone in your organization volunteering overseas? Is your credit union involved in an initiative outside of its marketplace? Has a key employee received national or international recognition for his or her achievements? Have you hosted a foreign exchange employee? Think about how you can package the interesting stories that take place within your credit union. This goes back to tip 1: It all starts with a good story.

Tip 9: Keep telling your story

From the beginning, Young & Free Alberta was planned to be a multi-year initiative. We have engaged the media with a story that they will continue to follow with each new chapter. When we enter into the 2009 spokesperson search, we will no doubt follow exactly the same PR plan but change the content of the chapters.

Tip 10: Outsource when it makes sense

You may not have to do everything yourself. If you are taking on a credit union-wide initiative above and beyond your marketing department's regular workload that has sizable goals, it may be a wise investment to bring in outside expertise. In this case, Common Wealth CU hired our agency, Currency Marketing, to develop a brand and launch strategy and we, in turn, partnered with an experienced PR firm, Brookline Public Relations, to spearhead all PR activity within the coordinated marketing program.

PR results

In the first 120 days of the Young & Free Alberta program, there have been 28 print articles, 11 TV segments and seven radio segments for a combined total of more than 2.1 million impressions and more than 400 brand mentions. These numbers do not include the more than 40 industry blog posts. The total unpaid local media value is over $180,000 to date. Not bad for a checking account launch. You can view all the media coverage at www.YoungFreeAlberta.com/about.

Final advice

Stop writing standard press releases and only presenting big checks to charity and start building compelling good news stories that can be creatively pitched in chapters. It is the ticket to positive, ongoing media coverage.


Tim McAlpine lives in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. He is the President and Creative Director of Currency Marketing, an integrated marketing agency specializing in helping credit unions attract the next generation of members. Tim is best known as the creator of Young & Free and CUES Next Top Credit Union Exec, and co-creator of the CU Water Cooler.