Media relations is thriving

Media relations is thriving

Media relations remains an important part of the execution of a public relations campaign alongside paid, shared and owned media.

Much of the modern public relations business grew up out of media relations and publicity, rooted in storytelling and editorial engagement. Indeed, many of the hottest public relations agencies such as Manifest and the Romans, and large international networks such as Golin, Ketchum, and Weber Shandwick, proudly lead with earned media.

The value of earned media lies in independent editorial published at scale. It’s a form of third party endorsement shared with the audience of a publication. If you read an article about an individual or organisation in your favourite magazine or newspaper you’re likely to view it far more favourably than if you heard the information direct.

In the shift to elevate its status the public relations business is frequently dismissive of earned media relations. It’s plain daft to deny the role that media relations play within public relations. But it’s also right that the profession recognises that it has a bigger opportunity to maximise campaign outcomes by working across all forms of media and engaging its audiences or publics in a two-way conversation.

"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. 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,” said Alex Singleton, author of The PR Masterclass.

Trust in the media

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer (opens as a PDF) puts the trust between the public and media at 41% worldwide. The number hasn’t moved in 12 months.

News brands that uphold high editorial standards such as The Associated Press, Reuters, and publications such as The Economist, and The Financial Times, thrive. There are examples offline and online in almost every market. Trust in journalists ranks at 89% indicating that we place a value in the individual source of news rather than the media brand.

Trust in the media is a complex issue related a variety of issues including bias, a decline in editorial standards and fake news but public relations too has a role in the debate. As we’ll learn research shows that up to half of the stories in the mainstream media are heavily influenced by public relations.

Top tip: Using earned media as part of a Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned (PESO) or Search campaign

Trust in earned media may be dented but it remains higher than other forms of media, notably paid such as advertising or promotional editorial. In an article about Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned (PESO) planning I explored how earned media, amplified by paid, or combined with social, can be a powerful and predictable means of engagement that optimises outcomes.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) has shifted towards the skillset of public relations in identifying and listening to audiences and creating content to earn attention. In this article I explore how smart public relations practitioners are putting search at the heart of their campaigns and seeking followed links from the media sites they pitch.

A brief history of publicity

In my view the public relations industry took a wrong turn in the 1950s. The leadership and vision provided by early public relations professionals was squandered. In Two-Way Street, a short book about public relations published in 1948, Eric Goldman describes the three stages of the development of corporate communication from 1900.

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

Shortly after the publication of his 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 and it enabled the business to operate at scale.

David Phillips, author with Philip Young of Online Public Relations, believes that he knows 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. At the same time, the ability to print fast and cheaply bought about 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,” said Phillips.

UK news brands

The story of mainstream UK news brands over the past two decades is one of internet driven transformation. Publishers have shifted from print to digital formats including apps and websites. They’ve also become social using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in a bid to directly engage with their readers. As a result print circulation has fallen dramatically.

In August 1994 The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, began putting news and sports articles online on its website. The Daily Telegraph was the first UK national newspaper to go online in November the same year.

Broadband internet access became a mainstream consumer proposition in 2000. Mobile broadband services such as WAP, 3G and 4G followed. The impact on the print circulation of UK news brands is well known but it’s brutal when you show in on a single chart. Data is sourced from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

UK national newspaper print circulation 2000 to 2018 (Source_ ABC).png

The London Evening Standard is the only publication that bucks a downward trend as a result of a switch from paid for newsstand sales to an ad funded free sheet. It is given away to London commuters on their way home from work. The pain that we continue to observe in traditional media is legacy media formats and business models adapting to the modern internet era. Advertising, production, and distribution have all fundamentally changed. Amazon, Google and Facebook created highly efficient digital advertising markets leaving media struggling to compete.

Rebuilding audiences and revenues via digital formats remains a work in progress. Trinity Mirror (The Daily Mirror) and News UK (The Sun and The Times) are the eighth and ninth most popular websites in the UK according to The Ofcom Communications Market Report 2018 (opens as a PDF). Google, Facebook and the BBC take the top three slots.

Engagement with news brands online is messy and tricky to measure. Reach, the analogue of circulation, is promoted over engagement. Readers are fragmented across apps and websites. Content is accessed on personal computers, mobile, tablet and home assistant devices. Social media platforms provide a means of both distribution and engagement.

This chart shows daily print circulation and daily multi-channel (apps and mobile websites accessed via personal computer, tablet and mobile phone) digital reach for each of the UK news brands that were formerly print led. Data is hard to come by and highly fragmented. Sources include individual publishers, Audit Bureau of Circulations and Newsworks, a marketing organisation for UK new brands.

UK news brands_ print circulation vs multi-platform reach, December 2018 (sources_ various).png

The challenge for publishers is persuading advertisers that the size of the audience reached by earned media has a value. Meanwhile Amazon, Facebook and Google focus on the action that a consumer takes in response to an advisement.

My view is that it’s a far more potent proposition; traditional media is fighting a losing battle. The value proposition of a media brands lies its ability to inform and engage a community in a conversation.

The story of UK news brands is one that’s repeated in almost every single media category as print has ceded to digital in all but a few resilient niches such as specialist news, gossip and lifestyle. The Internet isn’t all bad news for publishers. It has created an opportunity for new media organisations without legacy infrastructure.

There are more publications than ever before because the cost or publishing has never been so low. But modern media organisations operate on low overheads and slim margins, typically supported by other revenue streams such as awards and events. Public relations practitioners have more places to pitch stories but they’re likely to be working with journalists that are overstretched.

Pitch potential: up to half the stories in a national newspaper are driven by public relations

Research by 10Yetis, a public relations agency based in Gloucester published in November 2018, showed that up to half of the stories in a national newspaper are driven by public relations, and that two-fifths is typical.

The i Paper (49%), The Times (44%) and The Guardian (43%) have the most public relations generated content while The Daily Express (35%) and The Daily Star (32%) have the least.

The findings are consistent with data published by Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. He commissioned research at Cardiff University in 1998 that found that 80% of the stories in were not original and that only 12% were generated by journalists.

It’s clear that the public relations profession has a significant and growing influence on the media. Practitioners have a responsibility to work to ethical standards.

10Yetis found that the proportion of public relations-generated news stories increases gradually day-by-day from Monday to Sunday.

“Teams should organise their pitches to account for the fact that they might be more happily received towards the latter end of the week. Journalists don’t get many pitches earlier in the week, meaning there’s potentially more opportunity,” said Shannon Peerless, head of public relations, 10Yetis.

10Yetis scrutinised more than 60 newspapers during April and May 2018, reviewing 7,000 articles.

Modernising media and media relations

Media relations, like all good public relations activity, should start with listening. You need to understand the media in the market alighted to your product or service; the issues that drive the market; the format and makeup of a publication; and the types of stories that journalists write.

When I started out in a public relations agency 20 years ago, media planning involved using a directory to find the media that was relevant to a location or category. Not much has changed. Earned media planning remains an inexact science whereby the readership for a publication is matched with the audience or public that the organisation is seeking to influence or engage.

Today media databases such as Cision, Kantar Media, Meltwater and Vuelio enable a list of journalists and publications to be compiled based on variables such as circulation, location or keywords. Database tool may have taken the place of media directories but I’d urge you to start by doing your own desk research.

If you’re a freelance or specialist practitioner I’d urge you to consider investing in your own tool to record contact details and dialogue with journalists. HubSpot CRM is free marketing automation tool that provides a good start point while Prowly is a contact management and workflow tool that has been purpose-built for the public relations industry. These tools are the modern equivalent of the little black book.

The best way to understand how to pitch a story to a publication is buy a copy and read it or check it out online. Exploring the finished product will give you a window into the editorial processes and the type of stories that it publishes. It’ll give you an invaluable steer on how to pitch and which journalists to approach.

You can gain further insight by following the social media feeds of journalists as almost all journalists use Twitter as a source of stories. But they also use the platform to share their own content, and use it to research material. Journalists want to write stories that will engage their readers. In some newsrooms, particularly online publications, the personal performance of a journalist is measured by the views, shares and reaction of their editorial content.

Media database tools

Commercial media databases

Kantar Media

Building your own


What’s your story?

The press release remains the primary means of pitching a story to a journalist. It’s a format that more that is more 100 years old. Ivy Lee wrote a statement about a train derailment in in Atlantic City in 1906 on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad to ensure that journalists had accurate information. It was published verbatim by The New York Times. Despite the fragmentation of media, a shift to more personalised forms of communication, and the ability to create audio, text and video content, organisations remain fixated by this medium.

Progressive agencies and in-house teams push hard against the frequent call by organisations for a press release, making the case for alternative formats. The UK government’s executive communication director Alex Aiken has railed against sending out stuff for the sake of it, calling on press officers to become content producers.

“You should not start with three pages of A4, but a tweet, an infographic or a video. If you are writing more than 200 words on any subject, you’re probably in the wrong place,” said Aiken.

Short emails, phone calls with the offer of an interview, blog posts, and a tweet all work as ways of pitching depending on the topic and news value but the reason that press releases continue to be used despite a multitude of alternative formats is that they are well understood by organisations. It's a common format, created through a process of iteration and approval for communication with external publics. Everyone knows how they work. In many financial markets around the world, statements about public companies must be made on a wire service. The press release is a legal form of communication.

The fact is most press releases aren't written for the press. It’s a dirty secret of the public relations business, they’re not even written for bloggers or influencers. Most press releases are typically a general-purpose document mangled and posted on a corporate website as a political pacifier to a multitude of audiences. They frequently become victim to organisational politics. A lot of corporate communication and marketing teams take comfort from the notion that distributing a press release on a wire service will ensure that a story gets sprayed out to a multitude of websites. It has limited value.

Wire vendors such as Businesswire and PR Newswire don’t publish data about press release volumes but anecdotal evidence suggest that more press releases than ever are being pushed out onto the web. There’s a danger that our profession is filling the internet with lousy content that no one will read. What’s more, familiarity has bred contempt from journalists who regularly criticise this form of communication as spam.

More than ten years ago media and tech writer Tom Foremski wrote a polemic against the press release called Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die! He lamented the abuse of this generic document that has been mangled as a means of community engagement with a variety of marketing audiences or publics.

“Press releases are nearly useless. They contain pat-on-the-back phrases and meaningless quotes. Often, they will contain quotes from C-level executives praising their customer focus. [They are] created by committees, edited by lawyers, and then sent out at great expense through [wire services] to reach the digital and physical trash bins of tens of thousands of journalists,” said Foremski.

Formenski’s prediction has clearly failed to come to fruition. Indeed, analysis by Cision published in the 2018 State of the Media suggests that journalists view press releases as the most valuable and trusted form of content.

Smart vendors have spotted the opportunity to add a modern twist to the traditional press release format, giving rise to the social media press, and social media newsroom. They might have a new name but they look and smell very much like a press release with the addition of images, video and links. The press release is often reverse engineered into social forms of media. Headlines, summaries and quotes are cut up for tweets and websites. Inevitably no matter how hard you lobby for more suitable forms of communication you will be expected to draft a press releases throughout your career.

Top tip: write your press release for the press

If you want your press release to be read and used as the basis of a story you need to write in for the press. It an obvious point but one often forgotten by the public relations profession.

I’ve previously written about the structure of a press release and how to write a press release that will get attention rather than deleted.

Role of creativity in earned media

Aligning an organisation’s story with the agenda of a media organisation is the key to successful media relations. It’s this creative and editorial understanding that is at the heart of the public relations process. Editors and journalists seek noteworthy information that hasn’t previously been disclosed that will educate, inform or entertain readers. Your organisation’s story needs to be framed around a strong news angle. This is a creative process that seeks to match the needs of the organisation with the needs of the media. The table below sets out the topics that constitute a news story. It’s not an exhaustive list but it’s a good start point to test a story.

What’s in the news?

Data and information
Innovation: new stuff
Reality and human interest

Press releases are often assigned the status of a legal documents within organisations. In the case of financial information and appointments this is fit and proper. In almost every other situation a lesser status is appropriate.

The formality arises from the fact that press releases are viewed as an official communication from an organisation and therefore the approval process can be extensive. As a minimum each area of an organisation involved in the news event is likely to have a point of view. Legal and third parties can easily mean that half a dozen individuals are involved in an approval process.

There are two challenges: firstly, ensuring that the press release remains true to its original purpose; and secondly ensure that approvals happen in a timely manner so that the press release remains relevant.

How to pitch earned media: give good phone

The main weakness of earned media compared with other forms of media, most notably paid, is that the results are entirely unpredictable. There is no way of knowing with any degree of certainty how a story will and land and you’re competing against an unknown news agenda. A degree of flexibility and the smart use of media relations tactics will help hedge against uncertainty.

Wires services are an aspect of technology in modern media relations that I moan and bitch about in agencies. It’s the equivalent of direct marketing spam and a lousy way to pitch stories. There are always times when a story will warrant wire distribution each because of its significance, financial disclosure or a legal requirement but it not be the norm. Blanket email pitches are a close second to wire spam.

The best way to establish a relationship with a journalist, like anyone in life, is to meet them face-to-face. Picking up the phone is a good option but be respectful of schedules and deadlines. Personalised email pitches work but avoid the blanket approach.

Negotiating earned media coverage

A news story can be used as currency to negotiate favourable earned media coverage.

Exclusive - a journalist is given a story ahead of other journalists. It’s as close as possible to assuring coverage

Pre-briefing - used to pitch a story in advance. Sunday-for-Monday is a common approach

Background - a story is pitched weeks or months as it is being developed

Off the record - background information that is not attributable. Use with caution. In my experience nothing is ever off the record

Once you’ve got the attention of a journalist you need to deliver. Make sure you have someone available to provide comment and that you have supporting collateral such as photo and any source materials.

News isn’t the only way to earn media. Most publications will also publish feature stories or events. This content is typically pre-planned against a calendar of advertising. Access forward feature calendars for a publication or planning tools such as ResponseSource. Your annual public relations plan should contain a list of upcoming editorial opportunities relevant to your market Twitter is also a useful resource to spot journalists seeking comment. They are typically looking for information, case studies or comment.

Top tip: Hashtag journalism

Journalists seeking comment or information for articles post on Twitter using these hashtags.


Stop the press

Media relations used to a mainstay of public relations practice. Traditional media provided advocacy and a means of reaching large audiences. It’s still very much the case. Print is holding up in some niches and online publications have established themselves as sources of record. However the influence of traditional media has diminished and fragmented to become part of the media mix alongside paid, shared and owned.

Cision’s 2018 State of the Media Report summarised the expectation of journalist’s when working with public relations.

Building better relationships with the media

  1. Research and understanding my media outlet

  2. Provide me with data and expert sources when I need them

  3. Tailor the pitch to suit my market

  4. Stop spamming me

  5. Include multimedia assets with your pitch

Journalists complain about poor pitches and being spammed. In this sense much of the business has more in common with direct mail than public relations, based around databases and wire services. Don’t be that practitioner that pisses of a journalist. Take a pride in your work. Media relations is modernising like any other area of public relations. Technology such as customer relationship management systems and online newsrooms are enabling practitioners to work smarter and improve their relationships with the media. That’s got to be a good thing.

Further reading

  1. 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Executive Summary (January 2018) - opens as a PDF

  2. Ofcom Communications Market Report (August 2018) - opens as a PDF

  3. Online Public Relations: a practical guide to developing an online strategy in the world of social media, David Phillips and Philip Young (2009)

  4. The PR Masterclass: How to develop a public relations strategy that works, Alex Singleton (2014)

  5. Two-Way Street: the emergence of the public relations counsel, Bellman Publishing Co., Eric Goldman (1948)

  6. Flat Earth News: an award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media, Nick Davies (2009)

  7. Cision’s 2018 Global State of the Media Report (November 2018)

Leveson Inquiry archive important contribution to debate and education on media ethics

Leveson Inquiry archive important contribution to debate and education on media ethics