Week 5: A Critique of Media Relations

The hegemony of lazy journalists, despite its pathetic nature, manages to be influential enough to reach the scholastic education of the academy. I jest. Media relations forms a key aspect of public relations, so much so that some consider media relations to be used interchangeably with public relations. Today I had a debate about the whether media relations should be the focus of most PR campaigns.

Just a bit of introduction, I would like to explore how academics define Public Relations. According to Google Scholar, the most cited definition of is by James G. Hutton, who, in his article
“The definition, dimensions, and domain of public relations ” in Public Relations Review journal, described it as “managing strategic relations”. Hutton’s view was later critiqued by Veri, van Ruler, Bütschi and Flodin (in their response published in the same journal) for being too American-centric. They proposed a Euro-centric definition which included the management of strategic relations with the “reflective paradigm”, an element in PR which serves to show the client how it appears to the public; a regulatory or introspective perspective used for purposes of self-correction.

I think I can accept both of these definitions. Although the broadness of “managing strategic relations” covers everything from international diplomacy to menial everyday banter which is indistinguishable from white noise, such overly broad definitions are a good starting ground. The problem with overly-specific definitions is that they lends themselves to narrow perspectives that fail to adapt to the dynamic communications environment of today. So for the moment I think we can accept Veri et. al’s definition of managing strategic relations with a reflective paradigm.

Which brings me to the next stepping stone: how to define media relations. The biggest problem is crafting a definition that embodies the spirit of public representation while discussing both new and old media. Definitions that imply good or open communications between media outlets, journalists and editors, and either PR firm or client, fail to take into account new media which do not depend on such editorial outlets. Examples of such bypassing include the consumer generated media present in social networking such as blogs, microblogs, the various platforms that host content. Media relations, by its representation of the firm across all media, including new media, thus must be defined in a way that encompasses all these dynamic forms. Thus an accurate definition would be communications to disseminate messages that promote a good relationship with a public/publics. This is a subset of “managing strategic relations” as not all strategic relations are affected by or reliant on public/publics having a good relationship.

Having set the ground by defining these two key terms, we can move on with the debate. The interesting bit about the debate was that both sides agreed that firms that relied on mass-appeal and were consumer-centric, e.g. Fast Food outlets, demanded high levels of media relations. However, I found that not all firms fell into such categories. Firms that produce capital goods, for example, often rely on direct correspondence to establish their “strategic relationships” and thus their PR efforts do not involve appeals to the masses. Firms that need to appeal to the masses thus need media relations, whereas firms that have few/one clients do not. This is best seen in the case study of a supplier. GM Nameplate is a manufacturer of aircraft graphics for Boeing, an aircraft manufacturer. GM Nameplate’s PR efforts are its business correspondence with Boeing and it’s reputation and namesake. Aside from Boeing, GM Nameplate does not have any other clients. The takeaway is that numerous back-room suppliers and manufacturers of capital goods do not actually need mass appeal. Thus for these firms, their PR efforts are rather invisible to the general public and do not manifest in the same way as consumer-centric firms.

A further example I would like to point out in which even for consumer centric firm and their PR campaigns, information gathering and corporate correspondence are just as important. As seen in Doodle 4 Google Australia Day, PR efforts are acting blindly without regard to reaction if insufficient information is gathered. If SpectrumLife had not used its correspondence to gather initial reactions before engaging in media dissemination, they would not have been able to optimise their messages’ penetration rate in their target audience.

Furthermore, to prescribe that the single most significant aspect of public relations campaigns is media relations would totally ignore the reflective paradigm that PR firms give to their clients. There are no published case studies on a PR firm ever successfully dissuading its client from pursuing a certain course of action, but it I do feel this subtle self-regulation cannot be ignored.

Tangential to this, are PR efforts to manage crises and damage control. While media relations are sometimes recommended as a form of damage control, the case study mentioned by Kayle showed that Nvidia’s so called “damage control” in a form of a press release over a late product actually led to even more bad press being created. On the other hand, their competitor AMD’s products were silently released, yet consumer generated media publicised the release due to its hidden features that had to be unlocked. These two case studies certainly turn the general belief that media relations is good, even necessary, on its head.

I also found that, very often, media relations tends to find itself in the moral quagmire of dubious practices. Astroturfing, Google Bombing and other CGM-linked “black-hat” practices often create bad press about a firm, more so than any good relations generated by the acts themselves. I will investigate more into this domain at a later stage.

In conclusion, the subset of media relations cannot overshadow public relations as a whole, with numerous other subsets taking the spotlight at various stages. Media relations themselves have dubious effects, some of which aren’t controllable. Thus I conclude that media relations is only an accessory to the entire PR effort, not an end in itself.

Note: I have largely looked at proactive media relations and perhaps not given enough thought to reactionary public relations. These will be investigated at a latter date.


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a public relations firm that specialises in helping independent media groups find an audience at modest compensation.

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