The nuts and bolts of media relations

Karla GowerAuthor William Wray Carney has produced a “highly readable, practical and scholarly” but at times “dated” text on media relations with In the News: The Practice of Media Relations in Canada. Reviewed by Karla K. Gower.

Media relations is an important aspect of communications practice, but it is also an area that is difficult to teach. Students tend not to think critically about the media, perhaps because the media are such a pervasive feature of their lives. They don’t really understand what news is or how the media operate. To compound the issue, few book-length treatments of the subject suitable for use as a textbook exist. Publications written by practitioners for practitioners are not very helpful for students. They either assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader or are too specific. But enter In the News.  

In the NewsWilliam Wray Carney, an adjunct professor at Concordia University College of Alberta, has taken his 30-plus years of experience in media, communications and teaching, and produced a highly readable, practical, and scholarly work on media relations—no mean feat.  

Carney divides the book into three sections, beginning with the basics, working through the nuts and bolts of media relations and ending with emerging trends in the field. In each section, the chapters contain practical information illustrated with real life examples, and the findings from scholarly research.  

In the News begins with a look at the theory and principles of media relations, starting with who the media are, what they do and why professional communicators use them. This section really sets the groundwork for the rest of the book. For many readers, it will be the first time they have thought critically about the news media. We tend to talk about the media as a single entity, but it is important for students to realize and understand the advantages and disadvantages of each medium in order to make strategic decisions about which to use.

The bulk of the book is the middle section in which Carney lays out the steps for developing a comprehensive media relations plan. What I appreciate in this section is the emphasis on planning and strategy. Too often in books on the subject, media relations is treated as an end unto itself rather than part of an overall communications and business strategy. Carney makes it clear for his readers that they need to know the why behind their actions and that the why is not just “to get media coverage,” but rather to further some organizational objective, be it increasing awareness, improving image or changing attitudes.  

From the media relations plan, Carney moves into specifics about reaching the media. Again, most readers will not have thought about where the media get their content. Carney goes into a detailed discussion about news releases, how to write them and how to distribute them. Other chapters in this section contain a laundry list of other approaches to the media, such as news conferences and media events and what Carney refers to as do-it-yourself media.  

I found the most valuable chapters in this section to be the two on interviews. Readers will find the examples of the kinds and format of questions reporters typically ask enlightening. After reading these chapters, it is hard not to think about them as you watch the evening news.  

However, as is often the case today with technology changing faster and faster, the book at times seems dated. Most of the references are from the 1990s. Even Carney’s use of the term “new media” in the final section on emerging trends seems out of touch. Do we really call it that anymore? Do we really talk about computer-assisted reporting “gaining in popularity as a research tool” today?

So while Carney does media relations as well as anyone, I would like to have seen some discussion of social media and the impact on media relations. Blogs, for example, are mentioned briefly in the chapter on other approaches to the media and then readdressed, again briefly, later in “Emerging Trends in Media Relations.”  In both cases, Carney approaches the subject with kind of a wait-and-see attitude. He acknowledges that there are “some early values of blogs as a communications tool and as a medium.” I would argue that we have moved beyond the “early value” stage with blogs. Bloggers can be extremely influential with the public, and organizations today ignore them at their peril. Just ask Target who took a “we don’t deal with bloggers” approach with a mommy-blogger to the company’s detriment.

Communicators need to understand how to develop relationships with those bloggers as much as they need to know how to reach journalists in the mainstream media.  

With that said, In the News makes a valuable contribution to the media relations textbook field. Beyond students, professional communicators will find it an excellent resource. And people just interested in the media and their role in our society will find the book enlightening.  

Karla K. Gower is an Associate Professor in the Advertising and Public Relations Department and Director of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  She is the author of Public Relations and the Press:  The Troubled Embrace.