Friend or Foe: Choosing the Best Strategy for Working with the Press

In the few years that have passed since I taught public relations at the college level, the business has changed significantly, largely due to the continued growth of the internet and social networks. However, the greatest change in the industry may not have been a technological one but a fundamental shift in the relationship between the news media and the people and organizations they cover.

As a public relations instructor, I stressed the value of building a strong, working relationship with the press. Whether it was writing press releases, planning news conferences or answering questions from reporters, I taught my students that the best way to garner positive coverage for their clients was to be honest, accessible and cooperative.

Lately, however, I sense that the dynamic has changed.

On the national level, Sarah Palin rarely gets through a speech or an interview without chastising the media – and she’s drawing record crowds to her public appearances while her book is on top of the best seller lists. And it’s not just conservatives who have been taking aim at the Fourth Estate. The Obama Administration has been extremely vocal in its criticism of Fox News and has even boycotted the network at times in an effort to alter the tone of the coverage and fire up the President’s supporters.

So would national figures such as Barack Obama and Sarah Palin receive failing marks were they to take my Public Relations 101 course? Poor grades might have been justified four or five years ago, but I have to admit treating the press with disdain has its advantages today.

For starters, public opinion of the news media is at a low point. According to the PEW Project for Excellence in Journalism, public opinion on accuracy, morality, professionalism and bias in the press is lower today than it was a generation ago. And an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this year found that only eight percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in national news media — and 18 percent have no confidence at all.

Secondly, since public opinion of the media is so poor, the press makes a perfect scapegoat for politicians who are unable or unwilling to address the many serious and complex problems confronting our nation, our states and our communities today. Why not blame the press for fueling partisanship and polarization — or for focusing on motor vehicle infractions, infidelity and other transgressions instead of substantive issues (even when it often is politicians and their campaigns – not the media – driving these stories)?

Lastly, why should public figures bother to court the press and build relationships today when it is so easy to bypass traditional media outlets and deliver information directly to the public through the internet and social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube? Their messages can arrive in the inboxes of constituents just as they intended it – without the editing and scrutiny of the press.

This trend in media and government relations comes to mind as a new gubernatorial administration is preparing to take office in New Jersey. Governor-elect Chris Christie and his transition team have begun the process of building their administration, and much time will be spent on structuring the executive branch. For the new Governor’s press office, this means making decisions such as who will serve as the chief executive’s spokesperson, who will write his speeches, and how many deputy and assistant press secretaries will be needed.

But a more important decision may be what type of attitude the new Governor and his administration take toward the media. Is it still important to build a strong, cooperative relationship with the press? Or do the advantages of using the press as a foil outweigh the benefits of developing a good rapport with the media?

The answer is not as simple as it was a few years ago, but New Jersey’s recently completed gubernatorial election suggests that taking on the media can be an effective strategy. During the campaign, Christie showed that he wasn’t shy about criticizing reporters and news organizations when he felt he was being treated unfairly – and now he’s the one preparing to move into the State House.

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