More than a decade ago, newspapers saw readers en masse abandon print for screens. “What happened to newspapers 10 – 15 years ago is what’s happening with television now.” Travis Ragsdale, Director of Communications & Public Relations, Kentucky Lottery, says. It’s not uncommon to find households that have forsaken cable, preferring to spend their time scrolling through social media instead. This paradigm shift has created a golden opportunity for lotteries to change their public relations strategies. The North Carolina and Kentucky Lotteries have hired multimedia journalists to produce content in-house to make the most of it.
According to the Pew Research Center, advertising revenue for local TV over-the-air broadcasts dropped from $22.4 billion in 2002 to a projected $17.86 billion in 2022. This shift in revenue streams is a direct result of changing viewer habits. From 2016 to 2022, local TV stations’ average prime news viewership dropped from 3.86 million to 2.22 million, while midday news decreased from 2.48 to 1.86 million. This exodus from traditional TV is due to millions of other online options consumers now have. Gone are the days of Walter Cronkite, replaced by Washington Post’s TikTok journalist, Dave Jorgenson. Social platforms have democratized media for better or worse.
“The days of legacy news outlets have drifted into the past. People in their 20s or 30s have no recollection of that media landscape. To them, media has always been whatever is in their social feed,” Seth Elkin, Managing Director of Communications, Maryland Lottery, comments.
Lotteries now have more flexibility to control their communication if they shift more of content production in-house, which is arguably necessary. Consider Maryland Lottery’s recent 50th Anniversary at the state fair. Atlas Experiences hosted the Cash Bash promotion, an interactive gameshow for ten second-chance winners. The event could not have gone better. The show ended with 63-year-old Virginia Holland winning $100,000. The crowd was cheering, the set looked great, and the winners were ecstatic. It was content ripe for the news. The only problem was no news stations attended.
“We connected with all of the local TV stations, one of which was a sponsor of the fair, but, of course, we know how tough it is to get earned media,” Elkin says. “It really underscores the need to be able to generate your own content.”
The stations’ absence likely stems from factors other than a lack of interest. “All traditional media, but TV in particular, is stretched so thin … they’re starved for content,” Ragsdale says. “But they don’t have enough people to produce it anymore.” It is one of the reasons Maryland Lottery is in the process of creating a position for a multimedia expert. They’re following the paths of the Kentucky and North Carolina Lotteries, which hired Travis Ragsdale and Adam Owens, respectively, in the past year as part of a communications strategy overhaul. Both come from broadcast journalism with experience on both sides of the camera. By bringing in experts, the lotteries hope to entice the stations by supplying ready-to-air lottery news content. It solves the stations’ issue of lack of content and resources to produce it. It gives the lottery more control over their message and narrative.
Ragsdale highlighted a recent instance where they pre-recorded sound bites of their CEO Mary Harville during the summer 2023 jackpot runs. He then sent the clips to media outlets as the jackpots grew into the billions, who in turn used them without edits. No news turned into them shaping the news.
However, producing content to send to stations is not the only goal. Creating vibrant channels on social media platforms is just as, if not more, important. “The quest to get traditional media coverage isn’t the priority it may have been even a few years ago. If we’re going to reach the next generation of lottery players, we need a multimedia presence to do it—something engaging, relevant, and entertaining, but also delivers our information at the same time,” Elkin said.
In North Carolina, Owens is accomplishing this by posting heartwarming winner awareness videos on the lottery’s social media channels. For example, Randy Stroud wanted to fix his ‘72 Monte Carlo but didn’t have the time or money. Instead, his beloved classic car sat rusting on his front lawn, until he won $200,000. Stroud’s story may have gone unnoticed if not for Owens, who elicited the story and even went one step further.
“After speaking with [Stroud], I thought, ‘If I really loved this car, I’d have its pictures all over my phone.’ So, I asked him, and he replied, ‘Absolutely, I do.’” Owens chuckles. “I jokingly told him, ‘We’re not leaving until I see those pictures.’ He was more than happy to share them with me.”
Owens then used those pictures in his video to give it more authenticity and depth. This personal touch resonated with viewers, making the story more relatable and memorable. Being one of Owens’ first videos for the lottery, it set the tone for what was to come. Over the next six months, his videos accrued over 10,000 views on North Carolina Lottery’s YouTube page.
It also doesn’t preclude these stories from being picked up by traditional news stations. Another story that was about Souleymane Sana who wanted to send a portion of his $100,000 prize “back home.” When Owens probed him further about what “back home” meant, he revealed a poignant narrative. In Mali, students face challenges due to inadequate educational facilities. The schools need to be improved, and the children require more resources for proper education. While Sana might not have been the biggest winner, his contributions to building schools for children resonated deeply, prompting news stations across the country to cover the story. It ended up going viral.
“It’s always important to ask the next question because you never know when you’re going to uncover something really cool,” Owens says. “Coming from television, I was excited to show the amazing storylines the lottery encounters daily. I was like, ‘Wow, we could do some incredible stuff here’.”
Many lotteries have these relatively small winners with compelling stories. Ragsdale’s highlighted a $100,000 Powerball winner in Kentucky, who was a bus driver for his local school system. The winner wanted to retire, and this win was the final push he needed.
“That’s a relatively small win, right? It’s only a $100,000 Powerball win, but it went viral because of the story,” Ragsdale explained. “I think it even got picked up by the Mirror in the U.K. It’s a good job by our Winner Awareness Specialist, Jennifer Cunningham, for identifying this nugget of his story.”
What’s the Cost?
For other lotteries wishing to copy their lead, Ragsdale and Owens both agreed it is imperative to maintain high-quality standards during production. Sound, lighting, and video must all meet professional standards. Without full commitment to the right equipment and skilled personnel, the content produced may not achieve its intended purpose or reach. Traditional media outlets in particular have strict quality benchmarks that content must meet before it’s considered for use. Videos marred by shakiness, blurriness, or poor sound quality, will not be accepted.
Given today’s technology, reaching these standards isn’t as onerous as they once were. In 1992, a cheap Electronic News Gathering (ENG), the classic shoulder-mounted camera, cost at least $10,000 and could run as much as $30,000. The price tag is significantly cheaper today. “People automatically think creating a TV-quality product will cost us a fortune. But it doesn’t have to be as expensive as it once was,” Owens says.
Ragsdale uses a Sony A74, which costs about $2,500. He also has various camera lenses, providing versatility in various settings. Additionally, he is equipped with all the necessary accouterments: a high-quality wireless microphone set, a three-panel light kit, and a tripod.
It is the same for Owens. “We got a whole new set of gear. We had some things here and there, but nothing we needed to do the kind of things we’re doing now. Then we got the first couple of winner stories done, and I believe that’s when folks here realized what’s possible.”
That’s A Wrap!
With early success in their lottery careers, Ragsdale and Owens continue improving their operations. Ragsdale recently hired a second employee to assist him, and Owens is looking to expand his team or train others to take on more of these responsibilities.
Ragsdale envisions creating regular feature videos. The goal is to avoid random postings and maintain a consistent schedule. “We want to create consistency across our owned channels. You must create a pattern so people know what to expect,” Ragsdale says. “Developing consistency is critical when telling a story over time.”
Since they started, their lotteries have rallied behind their efforts. “When I first joined, I asked people to share ideas for videos outside of the winner awareness, beneficiaries, or experience stories. At first, they trickled in, but now I always pass folks in the hall who are excited to tell me about a video I should record,” Owens reflects.
The hurdle for achieving great storytelling has dramatically diminished, enabling lotteries to connect with their audiences without relying on conventional gatekeepers. To accomplish this effectively though, they must look beyond their internal resources and enlist multimedia journalists capable of capturing and editing compelling narratives.
“It’s not marketing, and it’s not product focused. It’s communicating with our players the way we do in PR—telling stories about what’s going on with the lottery, what’s making news, what’s interesting, or the latest big winners we have,” Seth Elkin adds. “We’ve got to go where people are, and we need to do that in a more engaging way than we have in the past. If we don’t, we’ll be missing a generation of potential lottery players.”