Do unto others: The importance of respect in Media Relations

By Mike Doyle

They say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and this colorful aphorism couldn’t be any truer when it comes to media relations. This is a field built on collegial working relationships–not just relationships with reporters, but also with the organizations and officials that at various times we consider to be our allies or our opponents.

Yet, time and again, neophyte communicators and organizations unfamiliar with this deeply personal aspect of media relations disseminate messages and launch campaigns seemingly designed to make enemies out of potential allies. Newbies to our kind of communications work sometimes expect instant favorable coverage for their cause, or see nothing wrong with ad hominem criticisms of people on the other side of the debate.

Seasoned media professionals know that patience is a virtue in this business. You’re guaranteed to encounter the same people in differing roles over and over, throughout your career. Those who take the time to carefully steward positive relationships with reporters, allies, and opponents-of-the-moment, reap the best results as that lazy Susan of morphing relationships ever turns.

It’s a commonsense question of respect. If you want others to honor your point of view, you need to show them you honor theirs, as well. After all, the vast majority of nonprofit media work is aimed at trying to get your opponents to agree with you. Hands up those of you who think beating your enemies over the head with bombast and criticism is a constructive way to turn them into allies?

Those of you with your hands in the air may want to consider another line of work. For the rest of you, I have one message: let respect be the basis of your professionalism in media relations and, in the long run, you and your organizations will develop a rich network of friends and supporters helping you achieve your goals.

Nobody’s perfect, of course. You may not be able to maintain absolute awareness of your thoughts, words, and actions when you’re writing a press release about some social injustice that makes your blood boil. But all you need to do is try. A little forethought goes a long way.

Striving to maintain a respectful attitude in five key areas can transform your ability to get press, to get heard, to gain allies, and ultimately, to win. So before you write a word, here are some things to consider first:

1. The Media
You may think this morning’s press conference deserves to be described in glowing terms on page A1 of the Chicago Tribune, in three columns and above the fold, if you please. There will be times, however, when despite your best efforts, your pickup arrives a week later on page Z99, in a half-column piece full of quotes from the other side panning your cause. In these instances, I urge you to take a deep breath and repeat after me, “The press is not out to get me.”

In this country, we aim for free, fair, and informative news media. We expect the media to identify the relevant issues of the day, ask hard questions about them, and present to us both sides of any debate. For the most part, that’s exactly what happens. Some days your message does merit page one. Some days, other pressing issues intervene. And on no days should you expect the media to refrain from interviewing and presenting the views of those on the other side of the debate from you.

More to the point, the media are your main conduit to getting your message heard. If you have a problem with a story, it is perfectly acceptable to have a friendly conversation with a reporter about the parts of the story you think they may have missed. However, it can be highly damaging to your ability to make news in the future if you unleash your anger on a reporter, call their professionalism into question, or go over their head to complain to their editor.

I assure you, they know their job and most likely they’re doing it to the best of their ability. Better luck next time for page one. Use your time until then wisely: work more closely with the reporters you pitch on a regular basis and help them to fully understand your side of the story. Give in to the urge to shoot your mouth off, however, and there may not be a next time. Whether you like it or not, the media decide for themselves what to report on. And if you make yourself unlikable, they may decide to no longer report on you.

2. Public Officials
Elected and appointed public officials have a tough job. They’re often expected to be all things to all people. And like you, they also bring with them their own motives for choosing to support specific causes. Trying to balance all of this can make any public official’s stance on the issues a bit volatile. This month, your organization may be in good stead with Alderman X or Department Head Y. Next month, however, heat from competing political pressures may cause your official support to evaporate.

Over time, it’s not uncommon for the same public official to go from ally to opponent back to ally again. At those moments when you are ready to go toe-to-toe with a public official who is making it hard for your particular vision of social justice to be realized, it’s important to remember that this, too, will pass. Nothing last forever, least of all a seal of approval or disapproval from a governmental representative. You will–I repeat, will–end up on the same side of the table, again. And when that happens, you want them to remember the respect and dignity you showed them while you were agreeing to disagree.

Again, don’t give in to your lower urges. It might be delicious to lay into that enemy public official now. But beware the heartburn you may be setting yourself up for tomorrow.

3. Organizational Leaders
Organizational leaders are often under the same competing pressures as public officials. Coalitions come and go, partnerships ebb and flow, and just when you think you have no use for the stodgy old executive director of that argumentative community development organization, suddenly you need their support like nobody’s business. If you’ve made an effort to be collegial towards them instead of reactionary, you stand a much better chance of getting the support that you need.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: hold your tongue. In print, online, on Chicago Tonight, it doesn’t matter where. Don’t make gratuitous fodder of others simply because they believe differently than you do. In this business what goes around, comes around, and fast.

4. Organizational Staffers
Just because someone’s spokesperson downplayed your cause on the evening news doesn’t mean you should criticize them by name in your next press release. Publicly calling out the staff of an opposing organization or public official is more than bad form–it’s downright dangerous. People change jobs all the time in the modern world. You never know where that staff person on whom you yearn to unleash an ad hominem attack may show up tomorrow.

The next time you meet them; they may be standing at the helm of a potential organizational ally or sitting behind an anchor desk. If you’ve treated them unkindly in the past, what do you suppose they’ll be thinking today as you shake their hand and ask for their support? The wise communicator refrains from personal attacks and sticks to the merits of the issue at hand.

5. Supporters of Other Causes
This is a tricky one, but it ties together everything we’ve already discussed, so follow along. When it comes to pass that you don’t get the media coverage, or political or organization support that you desire, it’s often because someone else’s cause has taken precedence. That’s natural–on the days when your message is getting all the attention, someone else’s message is waiting impatiently in the wings, too.

Your first impulse might be to stomp your foot, wring your hands, and have a public tantrum because you think your cause is the more important one. Fight the urge. The same members of John Q. Public who support the cause that is currently eclipsing your own may very well be open to supporting yours, too. In fact, they may already be allies.

If you lay into the day’s cause celebre for not being as relevant as your own, you automatically imply that anyone who supports that cause has made an uninformed or injudicious decision. Which means, in laymen’s terms, you’re calling your potential allies stupid. Of course, by now, they’re former potential allies, so it doesn’t matter anymore, anyway.

Better to try and piggyback on the press the other cause is receiving by looking for a point of agreement or similarity with your own that you can use to celebrate both messages. Make friends with other causes and you make friends with other allies. It’s the basis of coalitional organizing. And it’s far more constructive than complaining.

A career mired in anger and opposition or uplifted by respect and compassion is up to you. In the media relations arena more than most, what you dish out to others is what you and, by extension, your organization will get back–now, and maybe for years to come.

So choose the future you want and start creating it now. Treat others with the respect and dignity you deserve to receive and you can’t go wrong. As grassroots communicators, we can have no higher aim than to generate justice in this world where equity is so often lacking. Your career can be a thoughtful embodiment of the principles, which got you into this business in the first place.

May that be the future you choose. And may you have a wonderful media-relations career.

Mike Doyle is a freelance communications strategist and scribe of the blog, CHICAGO CARLESS ( Since 2005, Mike’s words have been featured by the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out Chicago, the Detroit News, Centerstage Chicago, Gapers Block, and Huffington Post Chicago. A former New Yorker, Mike has happily called the Windy City home since 2003 and is a member of the Chicago Bloggers collective. Mike is also a charter member of GLYNY Again, the newly formed alumni association of America’s oldest gay-youth support group, Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York. A committed transit rider in any town, Mike has refused to learn to drive for 38 years. And counting.

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