PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Working with the media
© 2002; 2018 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations main page About the author

During its publicity phase, public relations was virtually synonymous with media relations, and getting the media to run favorable stories about an organization and its activities was the cornerstone of that process. Some public relations people still think this way, but most now realize that media relations is only one small part of the overall public relations process.

Media relations does generate media coverage.

Although many journalists pooh-pooh the importance of public relations practitioners' leads and claim that the news media come up with their own story ideas, content analyses of major mass media seem to belie this. Researchers consistently find that a high percentage of news stories originate from public relations input.

Media relations should be a mutually beneficial two-way street.

Whether they willingly admit it or not, in general public relations people and journalists are mutually dependent on one another.

Thus, both can benefit from a positive working relationship. While having such positive working relationships with the mass media is important to public relations people, they're not important as ends in themselves. They're a means to the broader end of building meaningful relationships with the organization's important publics who also happen to be part of the media's audiences. Those audience members are the ultimate focus of the organization's attention; the media are simply the means of reaching them.

Media relations need to be carefully focused.

As is the case with so many things they do, public relations practitioners' relationships with the media need to be based on and reflect the needs and the orientation of their organizations, not the practitioners' personal likes and dislikes, nor even their notions of journalistic excellence. The best media by journalistic standards, or even the most popular media, are not necessarily the best media for all public relations purposes or for all organizations' messages.

Nonetheless, the unfortunate reality is that an inordinate number of organizations direct their media relations efforts at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, major television networks, and a handful of other prestigious media even though these media have little or no audience among the publics that are most important to these organizations. A promotional brochure from Ruder-Finn Public Relations echoes this concerned by observing, "Too often, public relations efforts are concentrated exclusively on the major media centers; or a company's attention becomes too focused on the business media that reach executives, to the exclusion of the media that reach the customer." The simple fact is that The New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, and National Public Radio's All Things Considered are not ideal media for all purposes or for all organizations.

This should be self-evident, but it's often overlooked, especially by organizations that don't do a lot of media relations or that wait until a problem arises to hire a consultant to help them. Such organizations need to be more thoughtful and careful in making their decisions says Jon Boroshok, the president of TechMarcom, a Boston marketing communications consulting firm. In a recent issue of pr reporter (6/16/01), Boroshok cautioned organizations looking for media relations help to "watch the name dropping. PR firms love to drop names of media contacts, but these may not be the right reporters, editors and analysts."

While some practitioners may get a lot of repeat mileage out of a few high-profile media personalities with whom they've worked, Boroshok concluded, "Experienced pros develop new press relationships as needed." So, it's important that public relations practitioners keep track of their real goals and not fall victim -- as many practitioners have done -- to media snobbishness by striving to always get their stories in the elite media.

Despite the belief of many traditionalists that "print rules," newspapers are not the best way to reach all audiences.

At the same time, despite its large audience and high penetration of the population, television is a poor choice of medium for an art museum to use in appealing to high-roller patrons of the arts for large contributions. Carefully targeted direct mail, personal phone calls, or visits would be much more appropriate.

The key to media relations is to remember your organization's ultimate target audiences and select the media that provide the most effective ways of reaching them. They should be selected and relationships cultivated on the basis of their usefulness, not their reputation, not their journalistic excellence, not their state of the art technology, not their total circulation, and not even their responsiveness to public relations overtures.

How much media contact do most organizations have?

Practically speaking, many organizations do not have -- and are unlikely ever to have -- enough contact with the media to justify having a full-time employee to do media relations. They may go year after year with no media contact. But, that doesn't mean they should totally ignore media relations. Sooner or later something is going to happen that will require them to work with the media.

Unless the organization has somehow established honest and mutually beneficial relationships with the media before these circumstances develop, it will have a much more difficult time accomplishing whatever it wants to accomplish.

Small to medium-sized companies which deal in business staples or household goods or which provide routine home or business services will probably have very little contact with the news-side of the mass media.

Organizations like this usually do not make media relations a high priority. They tend to devote few of their resources and very little staff time to it. They may not totally ignore it, but media relations may just be one more, occasional duty that's listed in the public relations person's job description.

For other organizations, almost every action is newsworthy and their activities receive a lot of attention from the news media whether the organization wants it or not. Their accomplishments -- or shortcomings -- are reported as news and their executives are profiled in feature stories. They include high-tech companies, high risk ventures, companies which dominate their industries, and companies that emphasize innovative ideas, special events, or celebrity-oriented endeavors. Examples include Microsoft, IBM, Telecommunications Inc., General Electric, Disney, and the Fox Network.

Such organizations are likely to have large public relations operations and may have several people who are assigned full-time to nothing but media relations. Sometimes they're even more specialized than that. Some companies have one specialist assigned to national media relations and another one to local media relations, or they may have a broadcast media specialist and a print media specialist, or a trade media specialist and a consumer media specialist.

Many state and federal government agencies have more extensive and intensive media contact than businesses of comparable size. One reason is they have a legal mandate to inform the public of their actions. Another is that their decisions and actions -- e.g., new taxes, zoning laws, or traffic regulations -- directly affect the community in ways that make these actions inherently newsworthy; the news media want to, and need to, cover them.


Responding to inquiries is the most critical element in media relations.

At the most basic level, being able to respond to the media means having someone who is accessible to reporters in case they ever have questions about the organization or its activities. It also means that these accessible spokespersons have to be informed enough to be able to provide prompt, accurate information and explanations that will satisfactorily answer those questions.

There are some organizations which, because of the nature of their business or the environment in which they operate, need to have a public relations spokesperson on-call 24 hours per day, seven days a week. They include medical centers where lives are at risk, airports and/or places that deal with hazardous materials where an accident could have major consequences, and correctional institutions and law enforcement agencies.

In contrast, there are other organizations which may be called upon to respond to the media less than once a year and which have a very low probability of ever being called by the media. They include small manufacturers, distributors and retailers of non-dangerous, staple household and business products. For them, being accessible requires minimal preparation and effort, and the extent of their media relations activity may be as little as periodically reminding the media of their public relations person's name and phone number.

Most organizations fall somewhere in between. And, most organizations would prefer to have more extensive and more favorable media coverage -- if not full blown media relations -- than they now have. The first step should always be having well-prepared, knowledgeable people ready and able to respond when the media call.

Even organizations which choose to engage in no other media relations efforts should at least have someone designated to respond promptly to media inquiries to avoid the possibility of being portrayed as non-responsive or secretive by the media.


Use these four ways to build your media relationships.

There are countless approaches and techniques that public relations practitioners can use in working with the media. The four elements listed here are simply the most basic and widely used ways to organize, package, and disseminate information to the media for subsequent transmission to their audiences.

  • issuing media advisories and alerts;
  • visiting, networking, and schmoozing;
  • issuing news and feature story releases;
  • hosting news conferences and other media events.

  • When public relations practitioners remember to look at their goals and interests through the eyes of the media and the media's audiences, and when they use these insights to relate to the media people with whom they work, media relations is one of the most effective ways to enhance an organization's public relations. It's a cost-effective way of reaching large and varied audiences and, insofar as those audiences are relevant to the organization, it pays big dividends.

    "When reporters call, they want answers. Those who aren't around to answer and those who respond "no comment" are going to be portrayed and perceived differently than those who provide as much information as is feasible and appropriate."

    -- Brad Hughes, former public information officer
    Commonwealth of Kentucky

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    3 August 2018