Media relations, by definition, involves working with the media to inform the general public about an organisation’s activities, including its mission and vision in a positive, consistent and credible manner. Typically, this means that public relations (PR) professionals work directly with people responsible for producing the news in the media.
“This is because controversial stories – unfortunately – sell papers, not the positive ones.”
Before, it was easier for PR professionals to interact with reporters for the purpose of generating publicity in newspapers (print or online) or even to motivate for interviews on radio or TV for our clients. This we would do by merely sending an email to a journalist with a newsworthy story and follow up with a call to ensure that they received it and that they would consider publishing it. The difficult part was always to impress upon journalists that the story was newsworthy, and that the audience needed to hear about the developments of a particular company.
In the past, if a story was newsworthy and we, PR professionals, had good relationships with the journalist writing the story, it would make it into the newspaper. The story was, in the past, always published on merit, but it was always important for us to know that a newsworthy story had to have consequence and impact. Without that it did not make it into the news.
I was fortunate enough to be taught early on in my career by my mentors, whom I regard as PR/media gurus, Rams Mabote and Patrick Wadula, and I am forever grateful for the tough love and the coaching and mentorship.
These days, however, a lot of factors determine whether stories make it to news outlets or not and it is very important for young PR professionals to understand the new dynamics so that they can try and adapt to the new normal. These factors include:
▪ Newspapers have become even thinner because of the lack of advertising by private or public companies. This is due to the volatile economy brought on by Covid-19 and the lockdowns that affect business operations.
▪ The lack of advertising has affected the financial status of media houses to the extent that some of our media contacts have been retrenched, which has meant that we needed to form new relationships with the few who are left behind. Other media houses have, sadly, had to close down.
▪ The few journalists who are left have too much on their plates as they are taking on more assignments than they used to.
▪ The economic situation has caused a lot of media houses to be desperate for advertising to ensure survival. This has led to more controversial stories making headlines than positive ones. This is because controversial stories – unfortunately – sell papers, not the positive ones.
▪ Journalists who cover daily news used to have editorial or diary meetings in the mornings with their news editors to discuss stories to be prioritised for the day, but because people are now working from home this is close to impossible.
▪ Journalists now compile a list of stories they want to prioritise and email them to their news editors to consider publishing on that day and then wait to hear what the verdict is. Reporters now do not have the luxury of motivating why positive stories should be published.
Asking some journalists why good stories are not making it in the newspapers anymore a lot of them raised the issues I have mentioned above. However, they consistently stressed the fact that ongoing relationships with media and constant contact with them still helps to get the story of an organisation or client into the news.
So, to young PR professionals, if there is anything you take from this column it should be the importance of ongoing relationships with media so that you always know what makes a good story. This was hammered into us old school PR professionals early on in our careers and it seems nothing much has changed since then.
Miranda Lusiba is the founding director of Strangé Consulting – a boutique PR agency specialising in communications, freelance writing, media relations, reputation management and media training.