Media Relations

Media relations, according to American scholars Supa and Zoch, is defined as the systematic, planned, purposeful and mutually beneficial relationship between journalists in the mass media and public relations practitioners.[1] Media relations is one of the most common strategies and functions of public relations/communications with possible goals being to inform the public of an organization's mission, policies and practices in a positive, consistent and credible manner; to sway public opinion; to communicate information and key messages to specific target audiences; to create a positive profile of the organization/topic/cause; to mitigate negative perceptions and negative media coverage; to increase understanding; or to facilitate dialogue or public discourse about an issue.

Supa and Zoch state that agenda-setting and information subsidies are key concepts integral to understanding media relations. Agenda-setting describes the media’s impact and influence on the public while an information subsidy is ready-to-use newsworthy information that public relations and communications professionals supply to the news media as a means of gaining media time and space. Tactically, these information subsidies include press releases, story lines, story pitches, media events, editorial boards, letters to the editor and op-end pieces. Media relations tactics also include media monitoring and evaluation.

Media relations involves using information subsidies to aid in setting the media agenda, leading to the process of agenda-building. McCombs (2004) explains that agenda-building is important because “control of the media agenda implies significant influence on the public agenda” (p.104). The opportunity to influence the media agenda is the primary reason for the importance of media relations. The use of information subsidies is the foundation of the relationship between the practitioner and the journalist, who work together in the formation of news content. Fortunato (2000) explains the relationship: In this triangular relationship among public relations, mass media, and the audience, the mass media have power in two critical dimensions: (1) the power to potentially influence the public as studied in mass media effects research and (2) the power to perform a gate keeping function through processes of selecting and framing issues that will be exposed to an audience. The power of the journalists as gatekeepers of information is not lost on public relations practitioners.[2]

Media relations can be an effective communications strategy because editorial coverage tends to have more credibility with the public than paid advertising, a form of communication for marketing and used to encourage, persuade or manipulate an audience (viewers, readers or listeners; sometimes a specific group) to continue or take some new action. Most commonly, the desired result is to drive consumer behavior with respect to a commercial offering, although political and ideological advertising is also common.

History of Media Relations

At the beginning of the 20th century, journalists were challenging large organizations and the need for public information became obvious. Publicity and propaganda (press agentry) would no longer be enough and organizations started hiring journalists internally to create press information to communicate with the public. Lee is credited with writing the very first press release after a train belonging to one of his clients was involved in an accident that killed more than 50 people. Lee's skills are practiced today by public relations practitioners around the world and have set a precedent for others to follow. Also relevant to the history of media relations is Lee’s Declaration of Principles which in part reads:

"This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency. If you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most carefully in verifying directly any statement of fact. ... In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about."[3]

This principle, according to business writer Eric F. Goldman [4] “marks the emergence of a second stage of public relations. The public was no longer to be ignored, in the traditional manner of business, nor fooled in the continuing manner of the press agent. It was to be informed.” The concept of informing the public is a key component of the purpose of media relations strategy.

Over the years practitioners have been taught James Grunig’s four public relations models; press agentry, public information, two-way asymmetrical and two-way symmetrical public relations. These models are important foundations for ethical public relations practice, including media relations[5] with two-way symmetrical topping the list for preferred approaches due the engagement with the public.

Going back even further, one can consider Plato, Socrates and Artistotle’s work on rhetoric. The rhetorical tradition considers public relations practitioners as rhetors, delivering persuasive messaging to the media through discourse. Plato would say that there is no value to rhetoric as it is not the truth, and that we should strive for dialogue which pursues the truth. Aristotle disagreed and said that rhetoric allows for an exchange of ideas, and can be ethical and true[6]. This is what business associations are striving for with their codes of ethics, as well as public relations practitioners in practicing ethical media relations.

The Ethics of Journalism
Journalism ethics and standards comprise principles of ethics and of good practice as applicable to the specific challenges faced by journalists. Historically and currently, this subset of media ethics is widely known to journalists as their professional "code ethics" or the "canons of journalism".[7] According to The Canadian Association of Journalists, the ethics guidelines journalists must adhere to include accuracy, fairness, right to privacy, independence, conflict of interest, transparency, promises to sources, diversity, accountability, and special issues related to digital media.

Where media relations involves a symbiotic relationship between journalists and public relations/communications professionals, it is important that media relations practitioners know and understand the ethics guiding journalism.

Journalism Ethics and Media Relations
The ethics of journalism include principles which may at times be at odds with the media relations aspect of agenda-setting and information subsidies. Journalism seeks to produce unbiased, fair, balanced, transparent and objective news while the goal of media relations is to influence target audiences through the use of information subsidies or pre-packaged biased "news".

There are three recommended approaches to dealing with ethical dilemmas, all of which can work with media relations . The utilitarian approach focuses on what will be the best for the most number of people. They focus on consequences and the ends justifying the means. Another is the advocacy approach, or deontological, which is about rules and duties. When employing this approach, ask yourself what are your duties to your publics, your practice and your organization . The situational approach suggests that you look at each situation individually and do not paint them all with the same brush.

  1. Supa, D., & Zoch, L. (2009). Maximizing media relations through a better understanding of the public relations-journalist relationship: a quantitative analysis of changes over the past 23 years. Public Relations Journal, 3(4).
  2. Wilson, D. and Supa, D. (2013). Examining Modern Media Relations: An Exploratory Study of the Effect of Twitter on the Public Relations - Journalist Relationship. Public Relations Journal. Vol. 7, No. 3.
  3. Retrieved from
  4. Goldman, Eric F. (1948). Two-Way Street. The Emergence of the Public Relations Counsel. Boston: Bellman Publishing Co.
  5. ^ Grunig, J. (1992). Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. A digitized copy from:
  6. ^ Craig, R. & Muller, H. (2007). Theorizing communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  7. ^Canons of Journalism - as adopted by ASNE originally in 1923