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3 Rules for Mastering Media Relations — And Why it Still Matters (Part I)

With all the perpetual hype surrounding the proliferation of social media it appears that traditional media are becoming the unwanted stepchildren in today’s fast evolving mobile, digital and virtual world.

Yet despite a conspicuous shift in the media landscape caused by the 21st century Information Age, tens of millions of Americans still consume news that is originally reported and produced by traditional media — including local news in markets nationwide.

Thus while it remains important to focus on maximizing social media, government communicators should also not forget about traditional news media (old media), which are still influential and play a vital role in journalism.

Old-school newspapers, in addition to TV and radio news, continue to transition and transform by leveraging digital, mobile and social media platforms to grow their audiences. According to a comprehensive report from the Pew Research Center, State of the News Media 2014:

  • “News is a part of the explosion of social media and mobile devices, and in a way that could offer opportunity to reach more people with news than ever before.”

New Media Versus Old Media

As the Pew report points out, citizens are increasingly consuming traditional media via popular social, mobile and digital platforms.

In short, traditional media are not dead and still account for a significant amount of news consumption by American and global audiences. With this big picture context in mind, it’s clear that traditional media still matter.

Thus it’s important for government communicators to remain mindful about the rules of media relations to obtain favorable coverage for their agencies. This is especially true for the Millennial generation who are relative newbies to government communication and might be obsessed by social media alone.

But regardless of your infatuation with social media, always strive to strike the appropriate balance between leveraging new media and old media. They are not mutually exclusive and one should not be discarded for the other.

Befriending the “Beast”

Any veteran government communicator will admit that it’s not always easy to befriend the so-called “Media Beast” – much less tame it. Moreover, it’s challenging to consistently obtain positive press coverage of the public sector, even though some agency heads may assume it’s as easy as changing a channel. However, sometimes it’s more like swimming with sharks.

So how do you master the art of media relations? Following is Rule #1:

  • Humanize It. Fostering positive human relations is a key factor to achieving successful media relations.

It’s important to recognize and remember that journalists are people too. In fact, despite the media’s consistently low public approval ratings, not all reporters are vicious pitbulls seeking to maul you and destroy your agency’s reputation.

Professional journalists are more than merely TV “talking heads” or bylines on a page. They are real people who deserve sincere respect and recognition when appropriate.

Likewise, it’s important for journalists to comprehend that many government communicators are more than just press flacks trying to spin a story and preach the agency gospel.

Therefore, those seeking to improve media relations for their agency should start by asking two basic questions:

  • First, how much do I know on a professional level — and personal level — about the most influential reporters/editors/producers/bloggers, etc., covering my agency or subject matter area of expertise?
  • Second, how do I ensure that my agency’s media relations efforts are non-adversarial and mutually beneficial, to the extent possible?

Getting to Know You

As noted, an important key of successful media relations is getting to know journalists on a basic human level. This goes a long way toward building mutual respect, good will and trust, which are all essential elements of any positive relationship.

  • Forget about the “us versus them” mentality. Rather, get out of your silo, leave the trenches and meet journalists one-on-one, face-to-face.

Meet for breakfast, coffee or lunch. Visit their newsrooms. Give them an informal “off-the-record” tour of your agency. Introduce them to the major players.

Remind yourself that a free press is critical to a well functioning democratic society. If you have trouble remembering this then keep a copy of the First Amendment on your desk.

Express Genuine Interest

Don’t forget that expressing genuine interest in a journalist can go a long way. Thus it pays dividends to find out some basic information which may lead to personal commonalities.

For example, where did the reporter go to college? What’s their home town? How did they first get into journalism and why?

  • Find the sweet spots of common ground and build upon them to humanize and forge positive working relationships.

Personalizing media relations allows each party to view the other as an individual rather than just part of a perceived adversarial institution. That’s why rule #1 for fostering successful media relations is humanizing it.

Stay tuned for rules #2 and #3.


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*** All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector or private sector employer, organization or political entity.

David Grinberg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Ryan Arba

David – I like how you emphasize “humanizing” the relationship with the media. Though I don’t work directly with the media, I try to take a similar approach in other aspects of my life and it works wonders.

You also mention that some may believe that social media will overtake traditional media, especially in the minds of millennials. I agree that they are not mutually exclusive, but instead, work in harmony. In fact, my wife and I were commenting the other day that our Facebook “feed” is now primarily ads, pictures of babies/dogs/cats, and news stories from our favorite outlets.

In addition, I believe that government agencies need to do their best to be proactive in their media relations than reactive. Of course, this is easier said than done. I’ve seen a need for messages to be controlled to the point where no one responds and it makes matters worse. However, an open communication strategy with the public (through traditional media) could be the best way to restore trust in government.

Sabrina H. DeLay

I have always thought we needed to have a better/ more humanized relationship with the media one of pro-action instead of re-action. Thanks for sharing!

David B. Grinberg

Ryan and Sabrina: thanks very much for taking the time to share your valuable feedback, which is appreciated.

Sabrina: you are spot on regarding gov being reactive with the media so often. I’ve experienced it up close and personal — and it’s super frustrating. Why wait for a negative story to find gov when gov should be proactively placing positive stories in the press about all the good it does for America. Moreover, some gov communicators treat reporters like dirt, especially at some prominent cabinet agencies. This only comes back to hurt agencies in the end. Gov needs to extend a helping hand to reporters rather than slapping them down as a knee-jerk reaction.

Ryan: you’re a wise man because — among other things — you fully understand that civil human relations is intrinsic to any positive relationship. You know that saying about catching more bees with honey, well it’s true most of the time.

Regarding old media versus new media, I think sometime people get lost in the fine distinction between the media and the medium. My concern about Millennial gov communicators is that some of them may be about all social media all the time. That’s okay if your job is social media only. If not, then it’s problematic.

You also hit on a potent point about needless bureaucracy getting in the way of proactive media outreach. Some bureaucrats in leadership just don’t get it that media work on tight deadlines — and new media have 24/7 rolling deadlines. Effective media relations means nipping a negative story in the bud before it goes viral, rather than waiting for some old-school bureaucrat to micromanage a process for which they don’t understand nor care to learn more about.

Again, many thanks to you both!