A few weeks ago we finished a major event at ERLC for pastors and church leaders. We invited in the media to cover the event for a couple of reasons: a) the media were going to cover it anyways, so we wanted to allow them the most context to cover it fairly and well b) we want to establish good relationships with the media and giving them access to our events is one way to help them do their jobs and allow us to do ours.
In my few months in this communications roll, I’ve made some observations about the media that I thought might be helpful as Christians think through their attitudes about media and as organizations think through their strategies. I hope this is helpful to you.
We tend to look at “the media” as one amorphous whole. While mainstream news organizations can often be slanted one way or another, I’ve found that there is much diversity in media in terms of type, motivation, and tasks. Instead, we might break down media professionals into four categories:
1) News Journalists – These are straight-up journalists who will report what they see. It’s important to develop good relationships with key journalists and provide access to them when they need it, mainly so the story at least gets your point of view included. The thing you need to understand about journalists is that if there is a story, they will report it regardless of whether or not you talk to them. So if you’d like your perspective to get attention, it’s best to answer their questions. It’s also important to realize that journalists are not your advocates. It is not their job to speak for your organization or distribute your press releases. So expect from a journalist reporting, not advocacy, and you won’t be disappointed. If some key fact or perspective was excluded, it’s fair to bring this up with them in a good spirit of cooperation (instead of belligerence). The best journalists know how to cover a story fairly and accurately without betraying a particular slant. They don’t always get it right, but maintain a high batting average.
2) Favorable advocates – Advocates may do some journalistic work, but don’t pretend to call it “down the middle.” These types of media are a bit hard to pin down–they are often bloggers, activists, and sometimes advocacy journalists. I think it’s important to engage these types as well, so you can help push your message out to a wider audience. It’s important to “flood the zone” with positive information about your organization or effort. This often comes in the form of blogs, some opinion (but respectful) journalism, and social media reporting. It’s important to understand that advocates are not independent journalists.
3) Unfavorable advocates – Like the group above, with this type of media is no pretense of being unbiased. There are advocacy media types ideologically opposed to your worldview. Sometimes you will find fair-minded folks in this camp, who will occasionally offer an “I’m surprised at how ____ these guys were” type piece, but don’t count on it. It’s important to handle these types of media well by a) recognizing your inability to move them off of entrenched positions and b) treating them fairly and establishing a respectful relationship. It’s also very important to understand that this type of media is not interested in fairness, but in finding any advantage to advance their arguments and likely embarrass you. It’s important to do your homework here. Smart organizations learn who the main players are here and anticipate, as best they can, to avoid unforced errors that give those predisposed to not like you unnecessary wins. You should also expect opposition from this kind of media and not be surprised when it happens.
4) Ordinary citizen journalists – With the advent of social media platforms and smart phones, everyone today is a reporter. Live-tweeting events has become a regular habit, making attendees journalists. So people who attend your event for their own education or fulfillment will also let the world know of their experience. Of course untrained attendees can’t provide the nuance of a trained journalist, but their observations can shape the narrative of your organization, for good or for ill. It’s important to monitor the online conversation about your organizations, reward (with retweets, shares, and personal affirmation) those who positively report. It’s also good to gracefully clarify if any unintentionally misleading facts.