Media relations like it’s 1999

Media relations is the bread and butter of public relations. 70% respondents in the 2014 #StateOfPR survey said they spent most of their time on it, and whilst it isn’t the be all and end all of PR, dealing with journalists remains an important skill.

And media relations has recently been in the news itself –not in a good way.

Last week the Financial Conduct Authority’s “strategy” to leak details of one of its upcoming projects to a national newspaper – the mismanagement of which sparked huge falls in the share prices of several major life insurance companies – was deemed “high risk, poorly supervised and inadequately controlled”, according to the Davis Review.

The result is damage to their repuMediaRelationstation for competence.

What this story highlights is the need to maintain a strong focus on the technical skills required for effective media relations, which need to be kept up to date. Are “off the record” briefings, or other examples of questionable practice such as the use of “stats” to build a story, and bulk distribution of embargoed press notices, now made obsolete by the increased emphasis on transparency and the democratisation of the media? Probably.

How many practitioners still mistake output (coverage) for an outcome for our clients or employers? Media relations, as a part of a high level of technical communication ability, is a critical part of public relations, but the purpose of its deployment is to build and maintain relationships which enable the delivery of wider strategic objectives. This needs to be audience- and outcome-focused, planned, consistent and sustained activity carried out by accountable professionals.

The British Medical Journal also published a study last week that found that 40% of the press releases they examined contained exaggerated health science advice. In science communication, public relations professionals, tasked with communicating complicated, highly important and sensitive research, often face a great deal of pressure to produce eye-catching coverage for organisations that depend on profile to attract funding.

To tackle this, a greater degree of ethical competence needs to be built into our understanding of media relations. This means applying the CIPR code of conduct in all and any circumstances. Professionals think carefully about what (and how) they communicate through media channels. They should make the time to understand to the best of their ability the detail and meaning of their messages and to consider all possible outcomes. They should give clear and honest advice to their clients and employers and they should not participate in activity which might create misleading coverage. Questioning and, if necessary, pushing back on instructions from employers or clients, are professional behaviours.

At a roundtable event we hosted as part of Ethics Month in the autumn, the overwhelming view among the twenty professionals in the room was that media relations can often give rise to situations in which honesty, client confidentiality, and duty of care to your profession, are in conflict.

In 2015 we’ll be looking to work and developing guiding principles on media relations best practice, beyond the skills guidance we already provide. If you have an opinion, and I’m sure there are many, I’d love to hear your views.

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