Why it’s called media ‘relations’

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By Dennis Nealon

And resisting duck and hide even when you’re told to duck and hide

There is a good reason why they call it “media relations.”

This specialization in the communications arena requires that practitioners establish symbiotic, lasting relationships with journalists that are built on trust and honesty but also, just as importantly, on accessibility – even in the worst of times. Duck and hide is never a good default strategy unless the goal is to get reporters to stop listening to your pitches and ideas when you want them to cover your “good” stories.

When the “relationship” part of this media equation is functioning, reporters will be willing to listen to your story ideas and you will step up and engage them when the stuff hits the fan on your end and you feel like you want to run away.

This means that the media relations professional has to make himself or herself available even when the natural tendency is to avoid or obfuscate when trouble or controversy arises. The reality is this: success in media relations, in building lasting relationships that will serve both the practitioner and the journalist, is predicated on the practitioner’s being present when the media needs a comment, reaction or statement. As the practitioners, we cannot bombard reporters with pitches for the stories we want to tell and then suddenly disappear when a CEO misbehaves or some financial debacle occurs, or an accusation flies. None of this is easy.

During the course of my career in the field of media relations I often have found myself trying to explain this accessibility model to my direct reports or to chief executives and senior administrators in higher education and public policy. There is a natural tendency among those at the top of the communications food chain to view real accessibility and transparency as something that is best avoided. Many of the senior administrators that I served under mistakenly believed that the media could be used as a bulletin board – whether in the cyberspace or old school, print context — to post only the stories that they wanted to tell; to promote the organization’s good news, the kind that would support a mission or fundraising or trumpet a new program or initiative. But as anyone who follows the media knows, puff pieces are rare. The news isn’t built on feel-good fodder, and, let’s face it, none of us really wishes that it were.

During the course of my career in media relations I have had to contend with all manner of “bad” stories, from crises dealing with the sudden death of students, to questions about financial compensation, to politically charged issues fueled by malicious comments and allegations tossed by individual staff members.

As these problems arose I almost always had to contend with a senior executive’s flip dismissal of media inquires. Inevitably I would show up in the boss’s office, hat in hand, and announce that we had to comment on something or other that I knew he or she would never want to discuss with the media. Some of the common reactions I encountered were, “Don’t tell the media anything,” or “We’re not talking about that,” or, “Just say no comment.” I would often press them to come up with something to offer, some sort of response that was real and genuine, and not a flat “ no comment.” I almost always came out of these meetings with little or nothing to say, and I would find myself back at my desk fretting over what to tell a reporter who wanted some reaction or comment. And it was always the case that the reporter who wanted something from me was someone whom I had been working with on a regular basis, someone whom I often had pushed to pursue a “good” story that I was shopping around, or someone that I hoped to build a relationship with.

Were there times that we just couldn’t or wouldn’t say much of anything? Yes, of course. I am not suggesting that you switch roles entirely and turn on your own company or risk your job to cooperate with the media. Your position requires that you first and foremost advance your institution’s goals and mission; that you preserve and protect its integrity and reputation. The trick is to remain loyal to your boss and your organization while staying steady in your obligation to communicate with the journalists that you have relationships with. And yes, this is going to mean you will sometimes have to gingerly ignore flip and uninformed directives from inside your company on how to handle media inquiries.

I remember in particular a bizarre case in which a suicide had occurred and was under investigation by a local district attorney’s office. Some reporters expected me to fill them in on details about the investigation and, while I had been briefed on the case and had knowledge of some of the gruesome particulars, I kept those to myself and deferred to the authorities, politely telling the media that I was not the police; that they would need to work with law enforcement directly to get the answers they were seeking.

There are times when you can’t provide much. But these instances must not be taken as an excuse to vanish. As a media relations practitioner you can’t be best buds with the journalists you interact with. You certainly shouldn’t (as one organization’s president once suggested I do) offer to buy them lunch or treat them to a round of golf. You can’t just hang out and shoot the breeze with reporters about private or legal issues at your company. And if you want to keep your job you won’t want to turn over all of your company’s financial records or dish about the latest harassment case in your firm’s human resources shop.

The best media relations professionals in the business know how to navigate the space between giving away everything and saying absolutely nothing. They know how to deal openly with reporters and are wise enough to always return calls and e-mails. They are up front about what information they don’t have, and they take the time to explain what their limitations are. They realize that reporters themselves are not going to divulge all of the secrets or details about their employers, even as they insist that you are supposed to.

Importantly, the best practitioners are adept at buying time with the media. Reporters need information to do their jobs, and waiting around isn’t part of their DNA. But you can’t always give them what they need on their timetable. Tell them you need some time to get the information they seek; that you require a little space to gather accurate data before you can discuss the issue with them. Your task is to work with the media under all circumstances, good and bad. This requires strong mediation skills. You are going to have to take the admonishments from your bosses not to say anything at all or ignore the inquiries. And you may have to weather a scolding from a reporter when you don’t have the information they want.

If you really want to succeed you have to stay in the discussion even when it means taking some punches or occasionally having to play the monkey in the middle of the circle, getting shoved from side to side, over and again.