The Media Value of Incumbency

According to the University of Virginia Center for Politics, since 1960, 4 of every 5 incumbent governors on the ballot, has been reelected. 

It is difficult to defeat an incumbent. Incumbency has built-in advantages including media access. While some aspects of incumbency advantage are difficult to quantify, media access is tangible, measurable and cumulative.

Any complete media strategy consists of three types: earned, owned and paid.  ‘Paid’ is purchased advertising. ‘Owned’ includes controlled assets like websites, blogs and social media. ‘Earned’ describes mentions in the press and shared social media—in other words, people talking about you.

According to AdAge  “Earned media is the most trusted and credible form of content for a brand.” It is more valuable than paid media (advertising) because it carries an implied endorsement that can’t be bought. Press and editorial coverage, for example, is trusted as neutral—so trusted it actually creates a multiplier of three to five times the value of the paid advertising equivalent.  Thus, the old marketing adage: “You pay for advertising, but you pray for press.”

Since earned media exposure is a natural benefit of incumbency, the value can’t be overstated. Let’s look at some of the media the governor enjoys with his media staff, state advertising budgets, multiple state websites, social media and earned media in the form of press coverage.  

Understandably, Governor Herbert is named often in connection with current issues ranging from Medicaid expansion to marijuana to poor air quality, but he also recently drew news coverage when he reported for jury duty. No one argues the press should not be reporting on elected officials—we paid dearly for that freedom. But we also sense stories earn greater coverage because they involve elected officials. Here is where the advantage of incumbency develops.

A Google news search from January—March 2015 of Governor Herbert shows he was mentioned in local newspaper headlines 57 times and named in television news stories and posts 102 times. For a challenger to receive that much exposure through paid advertising, it would cost at least $400,000 to create, place and manage ads. Considering the multiplier for earned media, the cost of equivalent media exposure rises to between $1.2 and $5 million. Even if a challenger could afford that exposure, they’d still be unable to purchase the intangible credibility and goodwill an incumbent enjoys. 

Now, consider the paid and earned media associated with events whose very existence are at the discretion of the governor such as the “Governor’s” State of Sports Award, Economic Summit and Energy Development Summit.  A conservative rate card valuation is more than $2 million and as much as $10 million given the context multiplier. 

But there is more!  The governor has his picture posted in every public office and his name on every piece of state letterhead and collateral. He gives a State of the State address, speaks at countless public gatherings and makes over 350 appointments to boards and committees.  As Governor Herbert reminded us when interviewed about jury duty, he “appoint[ed] half the judges in the state.”  All this generates significant and incomparable earned media.

When I asked several local ad agencies to estimate the earned media value of incumbency (which I place well in excess $20 million), they declined and reminded me the governor and his staff control the final decisions on dozens of state advertising contracts—highlighting again the advantage of incumbency.  

In the end, a concentration of incumbent power and influence is not good for democracy—another reason why now is the time to put in place term limits for statewide executive officials in Utah.

Rick Larsen is a former producer of film and television and currently advises clients on media and marketing strategy. He is also Chair of Utah Term Limits NOW!