Media relations is still at the heart of good PR. Erica Iacono speaks to the corporate pros who live and die by the power of their press relationships
If there's one phrase that annoys Ray Kerins it's "just media relations." As executive director of media relations at Merck and in his previous post as head of media relations for GCI Group, much of his attention has focused on that segment of PR. But a few years ago, as PR pros strived to become strategic counselors to their clients and companies, the phrase began to pop up to describe what's often perceived as the less strategic part of PR.
No one can argue the fact that the PR industry has made major strides within the past few years. Yet in PR pros' haste to classify themselves as counselors and partners to companies and clients, rather than mere "flacks," it became easy to forget that the media is at the heart of the industry.
Now, several factors within the industry and in the media itself have sparked a renewed emphasis on and respect for media relations as a key part of the PR function.
"The importance that companies put on media relations... has never been stronger, but it's never waned," Kerins says, adding that his own team at Merck includes several senior-level media relations professionals.
"Media relations is the crux of all PR," he stresses. "It is about getting your clients in - and keeping your clients out of - the press."
He adds that it's important for media relations pros to be students of the media. Kerins himself reads four newspapers in the morning before his short commute to work and has two televisions in his office to keep abreast of the day's news. "Media relations professionals must be news junkies," he says.
And with the advertising industry struggling to effectively reach an audience that is increasingly aware of marketing tactics, editorial coverage becomes even more important.
"The credibility version of any program comes from the media relations portion," Kerins says.
Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter, chief of media relations for the US Coast Guard, considers media relations to be an integral part of his department's work.
"That's not to say that other aspects of PR are less important, it's just the front line where the battles are fought on a daily basis [is media relations]," he says. "I just think that's a part of PR that is the nitty-gritty of what we do."
For the Coast Guard in particular, which has a small public affairs department, putting an emphasis on media relations has proven to be a wise choice, Carter says.
"We find that's where we get the bang for the buck," he adds. "If we can do good media relations... that helps us influence the community relations, the internal affairs." He also notes that media relations also helps internal communications, as many people within the Coast Guard find out about the work that it does through media reports.
The media's power
Another contributing factor to the importance of media relations, Kerins says, is the fact that the media is more powerful than it has ever been. Media conglomerates and partnership deals ensure that content often has an extended life. Such factors give the media "the power to make or break a corporation," he says.
The changing media landscape, including the proliferation of online news outlets and blogs, has only intensified the need for good media relations.
"In many respects, the technology has changed the business," says Tom Jurkowsky, VP of media relations for Lockheed Martin. "There is no real news cycle now; it's constant."
Considering the life cycle of a story these days, Jurkowsky notes that communicating a story correctly to the media initially is more important than ever.
"Once you get a story out there, it's out there forever," he says. "Once a story is out, it's tough to get it corrected."
Such a media environment makes the basic rules of good media relations that much more relevant. "One of the fundamental tenets is those relationships you form with members of the news media," Jurkowsky says. "They're important. They were then, and they're ever so important today."
Jon Harris, VP of media development and communications for Sara Lee, agrees that the different segments of, and opportunities available in, the media make forming strong relationships all the more important.
"It becomes more and more critical that we become partners with our media contacts," he says. "As communications pros, we need to consistently and constantly work toward really understanding their needs, their goals, and objectives, and how we can best serve them. They are a critical audience and a critical partner for us in good times and bad."
And those relationships don't always have to result in a front-page story on your company. Harris says that being a source for the media, even on stories that may not directly benefit your company, will help out in the long run.
"The time to make friends is not when you need them," he says. "The time to do so is always."
HOW MERCK VALUES STRATEGIC MEDIA RELATIONS
For media relations to be a strategic partner, it must take on public-facing responsibilities. Merck's senior media relations staff is more than a conduit between management and the media. Instead, media counselors act as spokespeople, in addition to senior management. Kerins offers his views on why that's important.
"What [Merck's approach] offers to the internal corporate executives is free time, the ability to focus their attention on the business they're supposed to be doing."
"There are so many instances in corporate America where media relations only acts as a go-between [for] reporters and executives."
"To me, that offers insight into how Merck perceives the value of media relations. Very seldom have I come across a situation where so much trust and respect is put in the hands of media relations executives."