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Please stop denying media relations is public relations 

It’s foolish to deny the role that media relations plays within public relations but the profession must recognise that it has a higher calling.

The public relations industry took a wrong turn in the 1950s.

The leadership and vision provided by early public relations professionals was squandered. We’re only just recovering.

Back to the future of public relations

In Two-Way Street, an excellent book about public relations published in 1948, Eric Goldman describes the three stages of the development of corporate communication from 1900.

He plots the development of the profession from spin in the early-1900s to education, including public education during the war, and latterly two-way engagement.

It’s uncanny how these same stages can just as easily be applied to the public relations industry in the last 60 years.

Shortly after the publication of Goldman’s book, the public relations profession spotted the opportunity to communicate with publics at scale via the media rather than direct public engagement.

The rise of mass media, namely print newspapers, magazines, radio and television, provided a shortcut to large audiences. It enabled the business to operate on a much wider level.

Laura Sutherland, managing director, Aura PR, spotlights the issue.

laura-sutherland“Media relations focuses the media first and foremost, and not the reader [or publics].”

We got lazy

I interviewed public relations thinker David Phillips when I was researching Brand Anarchy. He identified the exact moment when this shift occurred in the UK.

“In 1962 the Pilkington Report recommended a second BBC channel, a separate service for Wales, and the restructuring of ITV. Transatlantic television became possible.”

david-phillips“At the same time, the ability to print fast and cheaply brought a concurrent revolution.”

“Public relations had to change and the easy, but not nearly as effective, form of public relations was to use the fast growing media. It was a communication revolution. By 1980 it was dead easy.”

Communication teams and public relations jumped on the opportunity to build the reputation of organisations via the mainstream media.

In this way media relations and public relations became synonymous but it has always been a tense relationship.

Characteristics of media relations and public relations

pr

There is no barrier to entry for media relations. Sloppy practice is commonplace as a result. Journalists frequently complain about being spammed.

Much of the business has more in common with direct mail than public relations, based around databases and wire services.

[bctt tweet=”But denying the relationship between media relations and public relations is intellectual snobbery.”]

Media relations frequently focuses on the media rather than the public as Phillips and Sutherland spotlight, but it needn’t be this way.

“Effective media relations should consider that media outlet’s audience – the journalist is the means of reaching that audience. It’s why good media relations is about careful targeting and not spray and pray,” said Carol Arthur, independent public relations consultant and charity trustee.

The role of media relations within public relations

Like many public relations practitioners my roots in the profession lie in media relations. It has served me well.

Public relations should be a two-way conversation, to use modern speak, between an organisation and its publics with the goal of building trust and reputation.

liz-davies“Media relations is also about building relationships and trust and reputation. We spend lots of time investing in our media relationships and briefing correspondents on what’s occurring in the NHS and within our own organisation,” said Liz Davies, marketing and communications manager, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

“It helps build trust and they know we’ll be honest whatever the issue or story.”

This was the subject of a paper I wrote about how practice has been modernising, which helped me achieve Chartered Practitioner status. However I’ve yet to work with an organisation where this is truly the case.

Now print media is in decline and technology has enabled communication with publics directly, the public relations industry is attempting to modernise itself into a form of two-way engagement that Eric Goldman would recognise.

Media relations should be two-way

alex-singletonAccording to Alex Singleton, author, The PR Masterclass and head of media relations at London First, broadcasting messages to media outlets used to work because:

  1. Issuing press releases used to cost money (stamps, motorcycle couriers etc.) so there was less competition
  2. There was so much money sloshing around in publishing that journalists had more time to read stuff and work out if there might be a story
  3. Print publications sometimes had so much advertising coming in that they also had huge amounts of editorial space to fill.

“In 2015 media relations needs to be two-way. Good media relations people do what all good influencer relations people are doing which is to engage in dialogue,” said Singleton.

“There shouldn’t be a barrier between the press office and the digital team – media relations people should be running blogs and engaging with journalists via social forms of media such as Twitter,” he added.

We need to modernise media relations teams.

In sessions at the World PR Forum in Madrid and the PRSA International Conference in Washington last year I plotted four steps on the evolutionary path for and agency or communication team.

#1 Modern media relations

Media relations programmes are modernising as media fragment.

This doesn’t require radical change to the workflow, systems or processes within an agency or communication team. Instead technology is used to enable practitioners to work smarter and offer new services.

[bctt tweet=”Organisations need to breakdown media relations workflow and consider how each area can be modernised.”]

Use search tools for basic research, Twitter for journalist research, optimise press releases for search and social sharing, use new forms of media and networks to create content and pitch journalists, and analytics to track results.

#2 Influencer relations

Media relations is a form of influencer relations whereby we persuade journalists to write favourable articles about our clients and organisations. The output is third party validation via the journalist’s media outlet. The intended outcome is to influence a far greater audience than we are able to alone.

[bctt tweet=”Influencers aren’t just journalists. They can be anyone with a network or community of their own.”]

Organisations seek to engage with these new influencers and secure their third-party endorsement and the reach of their network. The content and channel may be new but an influencer relations campaign is effectively media relations for the modern age.

#3 Community

In my view the development of communities around an organisation in a two-way form of engagement is the most significant opportunity for modern public relations practice that we’ve had in more than a generation.

In this way an organisation seeks to build reputation and engagement not only through third-party influence but also directly via its own media and social forms of media.

[bctt tweet=”This shift to participating in a community is the biggest communication change that organisations face.”]

It’s an issue that will be played out in the coming decade as organisations seek to modernise their communication teams and engagement with public relations agencies.

It requires teams to be reorganised and aligned with the planning efforts, and demands new skills are added to existing teams.

#4 Social business

Whenever an organisation creates a new channel it will very quickly be discovered by publics or audiences as a means to engage with the organisation.

Promotional social channels very quickly become hijacked by customers wanting to call out customer service woe. Any gap between the expectation of a product or service, and the reality, will generate a conversation on the social web.

[bctt tweet=”Organisations are moving beyond the tactical use of social media to embed it into their business.”]

This is open business and it is impacting every area of organisational design. It’s the future of public relations.

It enable communication, collaboration and insight into customer, employee, supplier and partner behaviour.

It’s that ole devil called confidence again

The future of the public relations lies in developing beyond media relations. However we need to recognise the opportunity to work with earned media as part of an integrated campaign to help build influence, relationships and trust between an organisation and its publics.

mike-loveMike Love, chairman, Burson-Marsteller UK returns to the issue of confidence in public relations. It’s a topic frequently debated on this blog.

“There cannot be another business which delights so much in splitting hairs over the explanation of what it does and why it does it as the the business which dare not speak its name,” said Love.

“We can’t even agree which label to stick on the thing we do. Is it communications, public relations or even reputation management?

“Is there a difference between public relations and relations with media, government, analysts, employees? We even manage come up with alternative labels for people. Are they stakeholders, audience, targets, channels?”

“As people who are in the business of creating clarity, telling stories, and of influence and persuasion, we seem surprisingly unable to explain ourselves. These are all just tools in the toolbox of the influence business.”

Thank you

Thanks to the following people for sharing their thoughts with me on this issue via social media: Carol Arthur, Tom Berry, Liz Bridgen, Tony Byng, Ged Carroll, Liz Davies, David Edmundson-Bird, Richard Glynn, Michelle Goodall , Bill Jones, Mike Love, Becky McMichael, Craig McGill, Mario Morello, Laura Sutherland, Paul Sutton, and Claire Thompson.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

75 Comments

  1. Great piece, Wadds. Do you also think that measurement plays its part in the media relations centric approach? Many agencies are terrified of justifying their existence, many client side too. While outdated and ultimately ineffective, evaluating media coverage gives a ROI hook to hang retainer/investment on. Or so they believe.

  2. Hi Meg – I think that we’re in furious agreement. Apologies for my baiting on Facebook. Bad practice occurs in every business but we seem to get particularly hung up. The solution of poor practice lies in driving up professional standards. All the best, Stephen

  3. I totally agree with Alex Singleton about media relations requiring a two-way conversation. I have seen too many organisations blast out press releases because they want to be seen to be doing and saying something rather than because they have something useful and relevant to say. To run successful PR campaigns you need to listen as much as talk. You need to understand what journalists want and what they feel about a client and its issues. It is absolutely a two-way street.

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