Mastering Media Relations in the Digital Age — And Why it Still Matters (Part 1 of 2)

With perpetual hype surrounding the proliferation of social media, traditional media appears cast aside as the shunned stepchild in today’s fast evolving mobile, digital and virtual world of news consumption.

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 state/local news and hyper-localized news in smaller markets nationwide.

Thus, while it remains important to focus on maximizing social media, today’s public relations (PR) pros and professional communicators should also not forget about traditional news media (old media), which is still influential and plays a vital role in modern journalism.

Old-school news outlets, including network and cable TV and radio, continue to transition and transform by leveraging digital, mobile and social media platforms to compete.

Interestingly, many leading traditional newspapers, such as the New York Times, now have higher digital readerships compared to hard copy editions.

Many small to mid-sized print media outlets have been forced to close shop due to plummeting readership and revenue. Even influential national weekly magazines with once large circulations have made the leap to digital only, including Time, Newsweek and National Journal.

This is not just happening in the professional media world, but also trending on college campuses nationwide due to the ubiquitous digital presence of Millennials. My old college newspaper at the University of Maryland (The Diamondback), for instance, now only publishes a hard copy edition once a week. That’s compared to five days a week when I worked there as an undergrad some time ago.

All of the above is driven by how Millennials consume news today, with mobile being the medium of choice.

According to a comprehensive annual report from the Pew Research Center, State of the News Media:

“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 vs. Old Media

As the Pew report points out, citizens are increasingly consuming traditional media via popular social, mobile and digital platforms. For example, while I still receive a hard copy edition of the Washington Post delivered each morning — yes I’m a proud Gen Xer — I consume most of my news via Twitter and other social platforms that link to traditional media outlets.

Moreover, many social media platforms have signed up traditional media, such as the New York Times, to republish popular content. A good example of this trend is Facebook Instant Articles, not to mention LinkedIn, Snapchat and other platforms that are republishing everything from Business Insider to BuzzFeed.

Other old regional and local media, such as the once venerable New Orleans Times-Picayune, have transitioned to a 24/7 online presence only — shuttering the once Pulitzer Prize winning print edition.

Still, traditional media is not dead yet and still has an important role to play in the digital age of journalism.

In fact, as noted above, old media still accounts for a significant amount of news consumption by American and global audiences — especially in some less modern parts of the world which have not come full circle to the digital age.

With this big picture context in mind, it’s clear that traditional media still matters.

That’s why it’s important for today’s PR pros to remain mindful about the new rules of media relations to obtain favorable coverage. This is especially true for Millennials who are relative newbies to old-school media vs. new communications — 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 if you are a PR pro or professional communicator. Old and new media are not always mutually exclusive, and one should not be discarded for the other.

Befriending the ‘Beast’

Now that you know why traditional media still matters, you might be asking how one masters the art of media relations in today’s fast evolving Information Age? Any veteran communicator will admit that it’s not always easy to befriend the so-called “Media Beast” — much less tame it.

Moreover, as veteran PR pros know, it’s challenging to consistently obtain positive press coverage, even though some CEOs may assume it’s as easy as changing the channel. However, it’s usually more analogous to swimming against the tide with hungry sharks that smell blood.

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. Yet with the explosion of digital news and social media, this too often has become a forgotten tactic.

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

Professional journalists are more than merely TV “talking heads” or bylines on a page. They are real people who deserve sincere respect and recognition for a job well done (as appropriate). Likewise, it’s important for journalists to comprehend that many PR pros and professional communicators are more than just press flacks trying to spin a story and preach the corporate gospel.

Therefore, those seeking to ace media relations should start by asking themselves two basic, yet critically important, questions:

  1. How much do I know on a professional level — and personal level — about the most influential reporters/editors/producers/bloggers, etc., covering my organization or subject matter area of expertise?
  2. How do I make sure my organization’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, goodwill 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 organization.
  • Introduce them to the major players in the C-Suite.

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. That’s why it usually pays dividends to go the extra mile and learn some basic information which may lead to common ground and help build mutual trust. For example:

  • Where did the reporter go to college?
  • What’s their home town?
  • How did they first get into journalism and why?
  • How are their kids doing in school these days?
  • Did the dentist finally fix that troubling tooth ache?
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.

Also check out Part 2 of this post on Medium and LinkedIn. An excerpted version is also featured on Ragan’s PR Daily.

David B. Grinberg

NOTE: This blog post was first featured on LinkedIn Pulse (March 6, 2016). An excerpted version was subsequently featured on Ragan’s PR Daily.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I’m an independent writer and strategic communications advisor with over 20 years of experience in the public and private sectors, including work in the White House, Congress, national news media and elsewhere. Join me on Twitter, Medium, beBee and connect on LinkedIn. Other blog posts I’ve written for Pulse since 2014 are available here.

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