Make Understanding the Media Your First Priority

By Hume Johnson, PhD

I’ve had a longstanding disagreement with a colleague about whether media relations should be a mandatory aspect of the public relations curriculum at our University. She believes that it is a worthy subject matter knowing about it, but does not believe it needs to be mandatory  for public relations students graduating to take up jobs in the industry. For her, it should be optional.

Wow! Imagine my shock.  Little blood vessels begun bursting  – one by one – in my brain as I try to process this ridiculousness; how a public relations practitioner can operate in the workplace oblivious to the media, how it functions, the basic motivations of reporters, and especially what they consider ‘newsworthy’. The latter is especially significant given that it is at the media that PR practitioners thrust their gazillion media releases daily.

Understanding the Media Should be Your First Priority

This may come as a surprise to many people engaged in PR work or wish to, but understanding the media ought to be for first priority. First, though the media is market driven and needs to sell newspapers and make a profit (it is a business afterall), the media aren’t there to simply sell your products or services or just reprint your media release. They have a job to do. This job is to provide quality news to their publics. They want to grab their audience’s interest with good solid information. Yet they also wish to entertain. Many people underestimate the media’s desire to also entertain. So journalists are looking for both hard and soft stories.

Hard stories can range from stories of war and conflict (yes yes, the mantra is ‘if it bleeds, it leads’), to human interest stories – those that involve lots of people or impact lots of people; for example disasters, and other stories of human suffering as well as human triumph and kindness, to political news, matters of education, healthcare, employment and taxation. Soft stories are often of entertainment, an act of kindness, or something bizarre that occurred. Examples of soft stories are celebrity news, gossip, a cupcake sale for breast cancer, a walk-a-thon in your local city.

The Media Wants Newsworthy Stories

The media would need to consider your event ‘news worthy’ to be interested in providing coverage. The following are some of the criteria that editors and reporters have in mind when trying to determine whether they should expend resources to cover your event:

Timeliness: Is the story happening now, or over the last 24 hours? Journalists are not keen on stale news. Needs to be current, and if they can get an exclusive, meaning no other competitor carry the story, they they are ready to do cartwheels.

Significance/Relevance: Is the story significant or relevant. Opening of a new school is relevant to the local newspaper but may not be as relevant to national newspaper unless this is part of a larger development in education and this school is an example of such. Journalists like scale.

Proximity: Is the story happening nearby? If not, does it have local impact. An event happening in your neighbourhood may catch a journalist attention, but if its happening in Japan, it would need to have some relevance to America/Americans to be given the kind of attention as other stories happening at home.

Human Interest – Stories that involve or impact people tends to be considered newsworthy. The migrant crisis in Europe is a human interest story, largely, but so is a local school boy who won a gold medal at the Special Olympics.

Prominence – Prominent people make the news. Period. Celebrities, public figures, politicians, athletes etc, are very well known personalities and so their work, and sadly, personal lives capture the audience’s interest. Because of their popularity, they tend to ‘sell’ papers or increase viewership so they become ‘newsworthy’.

Bizarre – As I stated earlier, bizarre or strange occurrences tend to capture the public’s imagination to will get news coverage. If a dog bites a man, then clearly that is not as newsworthy as if the man were to retaliate and bite the dog.

To be successful at public relations, communicate about yourself to the media, or on behalf of an organisation, or person, it is crucial to understand how the media operates and what motivates journalists. I hope this piece was helpful. If it was, feel free to share with your followers using the links below or drop me a line!


Dr Hume Johnson is a media and communications consultant. She teaches Public Relations and Media Studies at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island.  She also coaches professionals and entrepreneurs on public speaking and media relations. She can be reached at

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