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Is Media Relations Dead on the Web?

With all of the recent hype in the world of online public relations (sometimes known as PR 2.0) about things like the social media news release (SMNR or SMR) and social media newsrooms (Disclaimer: I don’t personally advocate the use of the SMNR.), some members of the PR industry have hinted that media relations on the Web may be dead, or at least on its way out the door. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

What is Media Relations?

Surprising as it may be, no one seems to misrepresent media relations more than public relations folks. There’s a common misconception among some in the industry (as well as with plenty outside of the PR industry) that “media relations” and “public relations” are synonymous. They’re not.

Before we can tackle what media relations is, we need to understand what public relations is. Defining public relations has always been a challenge, so let’s tackle it. Public relations is a management function by which a company, government, organization, or individual creates, builds, and maintains a positive image with their publics (which could include customers, residents living in the neighborhood of a business, government officials, etc. – anyone that can influence or affect them).

Media relations, on the other hand, is a component of public relations rather than being its equivalent. You can look at the media as just one outreach tool for communicating with a key public or audience. You have to keep in mind that the media isn’t the only tool available to reach your publics. You can reach your target audience with your message through media coverage, but you can also reach them directly.

Why do people, even in the industry, get it wrong? Misinformation is everywhere, including in trusted sources. For example, if you’re a small business owner interested in learning about how you can use public relations, you would be misled by a generally trusted source in your niche in, which states:

Public Relations Definition: Using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products; cultivating a good relationship with local press representative” – Source

That definition completely limits public relations to media relations activities. So let’s make it even simpler. Media relations is how you handle your relationships with members of the media, and public relations is how you handle your relationships and image with members of the public directly (or any sub-group of the public). The media can help you to communicate with the public, but they’re not your exclusive means of doing so.

Media Relations on the Web

Traditional media relations is often called a “push” concept: you’re shoving your self-promotional messages in their face to put it bluntly, and members of the media rely on that to some degree to find news worth covering.

One of the big reasons some are touting things like social media as the killer of media relations is that we now have a “pull” model in place where journalists can find news on highly specific subjects on the Web, and will subscribe to things like RSS feeds if they’re interested in news from a specific organization. They essentially have a better ability to pursue the news (as in the base angle) rather than having it fed to them.

The primary tools in online media relations are online press releases, online newsrooms, and email. All are used to offer information members of the media may need when deciding what information to disseminate to their audience, such as bios, fact sheets, news, multimedia items, and more.

Media Relations v. Social Media: Round 1

It can be easy to assume that media relations will soon have no place on the Web because of advances in social media tools. The anti-media relations crowd seems to be repeatedly saying that public relations is now (or will soon be) about nothing but conversations; that companies, organizations, and individuals have to essentially give up their full control over their message and “engage” their publics through social media rather than “talking at them” through more traditional methods.

It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Yet, I’d argue that PR has always been about “conversations,” even if on a more subtle note than now. In PR you’ve always had to listen to your key publics to understand their wants, needs, and motivations. Without knowing those things, you can’t effectively create a message that would influence their views or actions. It’s research. We’ve always done it. Now we just get to do it in real time.

We’ve also always continued the conversation (at least in a well-planned campaign) by evaluating the success or failure, and why our messages did or didn’t reach our audiences and influence them as we expected. Again, now we simply get to do that in real time by reading comments and responses directly to our news releases, reading rants or praises on blogs, etc. None of this is new. New tools (and even new efficiency) don’t equal the death of media relations.

Media Relations v. Social Media: Round 2

Another common argument in the case against media relations on the Web is the fact that between search engines, blogs, social networks, social bookmarking, and the host of other tools at our finger tips today, we have no use for the traditional media. The thought is that we don’t need journalists anymore to get our message to our publics, because we can do it ourselves.

Yes, it’s fairly easy to post a press release to the Web, where your end target audience can find it through Google, other search engines, or news aggregators, or to publish your news to a company blog where your audience can directly interact with you.

What these would-be-media-relations-killers neglect to tell you is that

  1. It’s highly unlikely that the bulk of your audience is searching for their news through aggregators or reading your press releases directly. It just doesn’t work that way on a grand scale other than for a few highly specific niche groups. If you’re a social media company, it may work for you. If you’re a restaurant chain, it’s not going to happen in the same way (unless of course you’re facing a major crisis with your product, and people have already heard about it through the major media). That’s just one example. There are countless niches where the majority of your target audience simply aren’t embracing these technologies yet (and likely won’t before the “next big thing” in Web communication comes along).
  2. It can take a lot of time, and a lot of effort (not to mention money and marketing) to build the kind of authority for your company blog, press releases, etc. that traditional media outlets have. People have trusted sources of information. The company the information is about usually isn’t going to be one of those trusted sources.
  3. It’s often not as efficient. It’s a nice concept to believe that when you publish your information on the Web, you’ll reach a seemingly limitless audience. The problem is that the ease of it can make people jump into action without proper research in understanding their audience. Speaking of audience, let’s look at them for a minute. Is it really a bad thing to be picked up in the business section of a national newspaper, where you’ll reach a massive (yet highly targeted) audience? Do you think you’ll reach as many (again highly targeted) people using social media (and with the same kind of authority)? It’s unlikely, and it won’t happen for the vast majority of news put out this way. Banking on being the exception to the rule is bad business.

Remember, it’s easy for someone to talk about the “death” of media relations when they’re involved with social media and are riding their reputation on it. Being an online PR specialist myself, I’m certainly not suggesting that you completely ignore social media. Instead, I’d like to see more people ignoring the buzzwords and hype to focus on the amazing breadth of tools we now have before us to reach the people that influence how we do business. That includes traditional PR tools such as press releases (which are highly effective without the SMNR model as long as you learn to use them properly). Media relations isn’t dead or dying. It’s just changing.

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