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Your media relations should have a strategic purpose

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

Media relations is the term for activities that involve liaising directly with the people responsible for producing the news and features in the mass media. The goal of media relations is to maximize positive coverage in the mass media without paying for it directly through advertising.

The challenges of liaising with the media are in knowing what the media want, and in helping them to present images, ideas and information accurately and fairly. The news media can't be controlled - they have the ultimate control over whether the news angle you put to them is of interest to them, and in turn, to their audience.

The two main advantages of news coverage over advertising are:

  1. There is more credibility in positive news coverage than with paid advertising due to the implied third-party endorsement of the journalist or quoted person.

  2. The cost of coverage in the news media is substantially lower than the cost of advertising

The media are fundamentally in the business of sales. They sell their audiences to their advertisers and program sponsors as potential buyers of their products and services.

Newspapers package the news into the blank spaces that are left after the advertisements have been placed. They want the news material you supply them to be sufficiently interesting to help them increase their circulation. They stand to gain financially from the price paid by the people who buy their newspaper as well as from the advertisers who have bought space.

Television, radio and the Internet-based media use news as a drawcard to attract a bigger audience. In turn, this makes them more attractive to potential advertisers and program sponsors than alternatives.

Obtaining news media coverage is not easy. There is a lot of competition for the media’s limited space and air time. Therefore, your media relations role is to make the task of covering your issues and your organization as easy and attractive for the media as possible. It is a percentage game: you do the things to maximize the possibility of creating news interest in your issue or organization.

The aim of publicity is to make something or somebody known through the media. Publicity is a strong but not overwhelming influence – it doesn’t sell products, raise funds or win elections. But it can convey ideas and information that can shade people’s interpretation of what they see, read or hear – and therefore it can influence opinions.

More often, publicity can set an agenda of issues for discussion rather than change attitudes or behaviorbecause people don’t change easily from their existing attitudes and behavior.

Positive publicity, through the implied third-party endorsement of the journalist or a quoted source, can strengthen the credibility of your organization. The credibility-building role of publicity helps your organization to strengthen its customer and employee relationships.

In an era of increased accountability, more managers are beginning to understand the interrelationship between effective media relations, good corporate reputation and sales performance. They recognize that good media relations activity can get your target audience to accurately perceive your organization’s policy or performance.

Media activity should be part of a larger business plan, with every communication directed at a specific audience. This, of course, requires a clear understanding of your organization’s mission, including its sales and marketing objectives. The following factors also shape the media relations function:

  • type of organization

  • whether the organization is from the public or the private sector

  • potential media interest in your products and services

  • potential media and investor interest in your corporate performance

  • your senior management’s expectations of the media relations role

Best practice guidelines

Too often, communicators try to create good news coverage for the sake of creating good news coverage without any real thought about the strategic potential of the news coverage. Instead, best-practice media relations activity involves a clear, strategic link to your organizational mission and goals. Key elements of strategically based media relations are:
  • Your media strategy is documented and implemented according to principles agreed between public affairs and senior management.

  • A media policy is drawn up with responsibilities, profiles and positioning as defined and agreed between public affairs and senior management.

  • Media activity is planned to reach target audiences in direct support of your organizational mission and goals.

  • Media contact is broadly divided into proactive (planned) and reactive (opportunistic and defensive) activities.

  • Systematic use of consistent messages is made (eg. about organizational performance, issues, use of new technologies and corporate behavior including environmental policy, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility);

  • Spokespersons’ roles are documented, communicated and supported (training, advice, background information).

  • There are clear triggers for engagement as part of the issues management/stakeholder relations process.

  • Decisions are agreed beforehand on the follow-up activities after media coverage (interview, survey, discussions with key opinion leaders).

Selective engagement

Selective engagement is a communication strategy advocated by US consultant, Jim Lukaszewski, which basically involves engaging on your own terms – you choose when and with whom you communicate. It applies mostly to media, either directly or indirectly, and particularly in crises.

Selective engagement means you don’t necessarily respond every time your organization’s name is raised in the media or in other forums or when a journalist contacts you. Many media officers try to excel at their job by obligingly responding as fast as possible to media contact or by hastening to respond to comments in the media by others about their organization.

However, it is more valuable to think strategically about whether to respond, and if so, when the best time may be to respond. Selective engagement can be far more effective than knee-jerk responses:
  1. Always focus on your communication goals.
    Write them down and get the organizational spokespersons to use them as guidelines.

  2. Keep messages focused and consistent.
    The more focused your organization’s messages, the more focused the debate will be. Don’t allow your messages to be hijacked into non-productive areas. Solid information simply presented is a key ingredient for success. Most news items during high-profile incidents are repetitive and trivial only if they are allowed to be.

  3. Concentrate preparation only on the toughest questions.
    In any situation, there will be only a limited number of core questions. The process of developing answers to those responses will help your spokesperson to handle virtually all other questions. Trying to learn all responses under pressure will be too difficult and will divert from the main issues.

    Critics, victims, media and others tend to focus on the inconsistencies. The result is unnecessary questions and a perception of untrustworthiness. So, stick to the script – a plain language explanation supported by two or three relevant stories and examples. Avoid negative words and phrases (eg. “No.”, “That’s not right.”, “We didn’t do that.”, “I didn’t say that.”). Such words and phrases tend to legitimize the question and become the headline and the focus of the story: “The company today denied …” and “Today the Minister refused to rule out…” Positive language is the most powerful relationship-managing tool.

  4. Communicate directly to stakeholders, not through the media.
    Talk to people directly rather than indirectly through the media, if given a choice. News media are appropriate only when it is difficult to reach stakeholders directly. This was the policy of the most admired business leader in the world, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, who believed it was more valuable to spend time with employees than with reporters and financial analysts.

  5. Always let opponents and critics speak for themselves.
    Critics need aggressive responses to generate the energy necessary to keep their ideas in the news. There is no obligation to respond to what they say. Letting them speak for themselves usually becomes repetitious and boring to the media and the public. And they will often show themselves up as being unworthy to be listened to.

  6. Doing nothing can be a powerful force.
    A delay in response can occur for various unintentional reasons, but can often be the best response to help diffuse the initial media and critic interest. You should mention the strategic option of delay or doing nothing and should explore the benefits of doing so. If you don’t, someone else invariably will.

  7. Respond to media enquiries only when the needs of those directly affected have been attended to.
    Fundamentally, other stakeholders are usually more important than media. It is not a crime to attend to the stakeholders first. If the needs of stakeholders are attended to, especially in an emergency, there is less for the media to seize upon.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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