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Learn how to use different media to reach different audiences, and how to form relationships with media representatives to promote your efforts.


  • What is making friends with the media?

  • Why should you make friends with the media?

  • How do you make friends with the media?

What is making friends with the media?

How many times have you heard the adage "The pen is mightier than the sword.”? Although this phrase, in its current form, was coined in 1839 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, it still holds true in the 21st century: newspaper, TV, and radio journalists, editors, publishers, and station owners command an enormous amount of power in the U.S. and in your community. In recent years, they’ve been joined by bloggers, webmasters, and others who’ve mastered the potential of the Internet to spread information – or misinformation – to a greater number of people around the world than Bulwer-Lytton ever dreamed of.

After all, these are the people who exposed the Watergate cover-up and forced the resignation of a U.S. President, who send images of the Iraq war around the world, and who can generate support for or opposition to political campaigns just by reporting candidates’ statements. Obviously, it's a good idea to make friends with media people. Although that might seem a scary thought, remember that what may seem like a daunting and powerful system is made up, locally, of people like you who live and work in your community. Like you, they are concerned with having a healthy community.

There are a number of things you and your group will need to know in order to build a friendship with the media.

What does it take to build a relationship with the media?

Before you can "work the media", you need to understand them, get their attention, and gain their trust. There are really two kinds of relationships you need to build with the media: individual relationships with media people; and general relationships with media outlets – newspapers, TV and radio stations (including community-access cable channels), magazines, and e-zines (Internet-based publications).

As in so much of life, establishing a good relationship with the media is essentially personal. “The media” consist of people – reporters, editorial writers, editors, bloggers, photographers, producers – who respond to the same things you do. They’re drawn to people who are interested in them and their families, who share their concerns and passions, and who like them for who they are, rather than for what they can provide.

Media employees know the power they have, and understand that many people want to cultivate relationships with them in order to get a share of that power. As a result, they are often cautious – both because of professional ethics and because of not wanting to be used – about getting close to those they encounter in their work.

Relationships have to be approached one at a time. Some media folks will be people you have a lot in common with, and with whom you can easily find yourself on a friendly footing. Others may never be more than people with whom you have a functional working relationship...and that’s just fine.

In some ways, it can be better not to become close friends with media representatives.  They can be accused of unfairly favoring your point of view because of your personal relationship, and that relationship can be affected by what you do and don’t tell them and what they do and don’t report.  A good working relationship is ideal: they’ll return your phone calls and include your perspective in stories about your issue, and you’ll alert them when interesting stories come up, or when there’s something you think should be reported.  That kind of relationship is uncomplicated and benefits both of you.

Relationships develop over time, not in an instant. You don’t have to become close friends with media people in order to develop good working relationships and have them pay attention to you and your issues. You do have to establish yourself as someone that can be trusted to know what you’re talking about, to represent situations and facts accurately and fairly, to stand behind what you say, and to let your media contacts know – when you can, without compromising yourself or your organization – about stories they might find interesting.

Why should you make friends with the media?

There are a number of reasons why making friends with the media can be beneficial to your group.

For example:

  • The media can increase the public's awareness of your group
  • The media can help recruit members to your group
  • The media can inform the community of what you are doing and what you have done
  • The media can raise public awareness about various issues
  • The media can portray your group and the issues you are standing for in a positive light to the public, or, conversely, the media can portray your opponents in a negative light.

How do you make friends with the media?

Make personal contact

The first step is to make a personal contact at each of the media outlets you plan to be using. That job should fall to your media coordinator, the person or group in your organization that has responsibility for dealing with the media. The ideal is to get an introduction or referral to a particular person by a mutual friend or acquaintance. If that’s not possible, you can start by asking (by name) for a reporter who writes or broadcasts about issues related to your work.

It’s important to have a name.  If you ask for “the environmental reporter” or “the education person,” the reporter immediately knows two things about you:

  • You’re a “cold call,” someone who’s calling without any connection to her or the media outlet, hoping to get something out of her;
  • You haven’t bothered to do any research to find out who the environmental reporter or the education person is, which is similar to sending a formal letter without bothering to check the spelling or get the correct address of the person you’re sending it to.

As a result, the reporter is much less likely to want to enter into any kind of relationship with you, or to take you seriously.  You can get the name you want by paying attention to the bylines of reporters who write stories related to your interests, by doing research (you can probably find it on the media outlet’s website), or by asking people you know who might have that information. These pieces of advice aren’t just common sense – they come from a prominent journalist, one who often receives cold calls, and has found that most of them aren’t worth the time they take.

Your contact doesn’t have to be a reporter. She could be an editor, a producer or director, or even a researcher or clerical person who works at the media outlet. That person will probably be able to introduce you to the specific people you want to work with.

Establish trust

Media representatives have to believe that what you tell them is true, or at least the truth as far as you know it. They can’t stake their reputations on stories that aren’t accurate, or on facts that haven’t been checked carefully. By the same token, you have to feel secure that what you tell them will be interpreted correctly, and that you will be quoted accurately and in the proper context.

Some basic guidelines to establish this kind of trust are:

  • Be available when you’re needed. When your contacts in the media call, answer. If you can’t respond immediately, get back to them as soon as you can.
  • Be open. Be as open and generous as you can with information without getting yourself or your organization in trouble.
  • Be trustworthy. Always tell the truth to the media. If you can’t tell the truth – if it would cause a serious problem, or if the timing is wrong – then simply refuse to comment, but don’t lie.  If you lie, you are likely to get yourself in two kinds of difficulties: first, the truth will eventually come out, and you’ll look much worse than if you’d been honest in the first place; and second, you’ll have violated your relationship with your media contact, who will feel she can no longer trust you...and she’ll be right.

Refusing to comment is a time-honored way of avoiding a lie to the media.  It’s best to be polite about it, and to imply that you’ll talk about the subject when you can. (“I’m sorry, but I can’t comment on that right now.”)

  • Be accurate. Make sure you have the facts before you make a statement. If you don’t have the answer to a question, promise to get it and get back to the reporter with it – and do. If you quote statistics, make sure they’re from a reliable source, and unquestionable. If your information is consistently accurate, the media will turn to you as a source of information about your issue. You won’t have to call them – they’ll call you. If you make a mistake, correct it as quickly as possible. Otherwise, either the media or your opposition (if you have any) or both will jump on it and make you look bad.

Here’s where having a friend in the media can pay off.  A well-known advocate issued a statement on economic issues to a major newspaper. A short time later, he got a call from a reporter at the paper whom he’d known in college, informing him that the facts behind the statement were wrong.  He checked, and found, to his embarrassment, that the reporter was right.  As a result of the call, he was able to correct the statement before it was issued. Without the intervention of his friend in the media, he’d have ended up not only wrong, but looking like he’d lied to make a political point.

  • Alert the media to stories relating to your issue that they might be interested in. These might include human interest stories, awards or funding given to your organization, information about the issue itself (a national initiative relating to it, for example, or new statistics issued about it), or local or national events (an open house or fundraising concert, a national day devoted to the issue.)

Give the media what they need

Cultivating good relations with news people is vital to a successful media advocacy campaign. If reporters and editors know that you are a good, reliable source of information (i.e., someone who makes their jobs easier), your chances of gaining favorable, well-placed coverage will improve. Here are hints to help you become a reliable source:

  • Be informed. Read the newspapers, watch the TV news, listen to radio broadcasts. Stay up-to-date on current events that affect your organization. Make sure your sources are reliable, and have as many facts and figures as you can at your fingertips. If you’re asked a question by the media that you can’t answer, offer to find out the answer...and then do.  Don’t exaggerate or make things up – to be a reliable source, you need to be accurate all the time.

If you’re speculating, say so, but be careful about doing it – people don’t always hear the disclaimers you place on what you say.  It’s better to say nothing than to see your vague guesses quoted as truth in the morning paper, and then being attacked by people who know better.

  • Make the most of your information. Use the information you've collected on local media to tailor your stories to each outlet's style and needs.
  • Assemble press kits. A press kit contains background information on your organization, its accomplishments, and current projects. This information can be sent out in a hurry to keep up with today's fast paced media coverage.
  • Send out information packets to local media. When you have a story you want covered, send out press kits to local journalists. Make sure to footnote all the facts you include in such a package.
  • Follow up with a phone call. After you send out press kits, telephone your chosen media contacts to emphasize your story's importance, such as by highlighting how many people are affected by this issue or by illustrating the future consequences of the situation. Offer to answer any questions that might come up.

Understand whom you’re working with

It’s important to think about which media outlets you want to contact, when you should contact them, and you both can do for each other. You have to know what each outlet does, and who their intended audience is.

  • Study the media and analyze their content. Which reporters and which media outlets pay attention to your field of interest? Consider keeping a chart or record that shows who gives the best coverage. Notice the kinds of articles covered by local media. Who gives good coverage on the issues that are important to you? On which journalists should you focus your energy? What, if any, are the biases of each source? Though the media are supposedly bias-free in their news coverage (that is, they don't "take sides"), reporters, publishers, editors, or program directors do have political opinions. These opinions may affect what is covered, how much attention is paid, and how the story is portrayed.
  • Pay attention to advertisers. Find out which businesses advertise with a particular media outlet. You gain insight into how wide or narrow a media outlet's audience is when you know who advertises there.

Understand what makes a story important to readers, listeners, or viewers

To get support from the media, you've got to convince them that their customers want to hear what you have to say. This is not an easy thing to do! Readers will judge a piece of news by its factual nature, its interest, and its overall importance, all based on the following criteria:

  • The believability or social or professional status of a reporter's source of information
  • How well readers can relate personally to a particular story
  • How well the information in a story agrees with other sources that report on the same issue
  • How important readers decide a particular issue is to them

The strength of each of these criteria helps determine for how long an issue stays in the news and how much media attention it gets. Of course, news stories sometimes die a natural death because people don't take interest in them.

There are things that make stories compelling or interesting to readers.  Stories that relate the experiences of real people – that actually tell a story – keep readers reading or create radio “driveway moments,” when people sit in their driveways at home, unwilling to turn off their car radios until the story they’re listening to is over.  These kinds of stories often work because readers, listeners, or viewers identify with the people they concern.  Audience members can imagine themselves or members of their families in the same situation, so the stories hit home.

Interesting pictures, music (on radio, TV, and the Internet), or graphics (colors, motion, animation, etc.) can also grab readers’, listeners’, or viewers’ attention. Most newspapers also maintain an online publication in addition to their print version, their websites enable the addition of videos, slide shows, photo galleries, and audio to the standard newspaper stories.  If you can come up with any of these, you may be able to help your media partners present your story in a way that serves both you and them well.

Always be pleasant and respectful

Remember that you’re dealing with people. They respond to the same things you do – being treated well, kind words, thank-you’s, and praise for good work. They have good and bad days, just as you do, depending on what’s going on in their lives. The chances are that if you’re unfailingly pleasant, they’ll be glad to see you and go out of their way to be helpful.  In addition, they’ll be pleasant to you, and you’ll be glad to see and work with them as well. If you make an effort to treat your media contacts the way you’d wish to be treated if you were in their position, you might be surprised by the returns you get.

Work to maintain relationships indefinitely

Just like plants that need regular watering, relationships have to be nurtured or they’ll die. You may cultivate a relationship with a reporter for a specific purpose – a one-time initiative or a funding appeal. When that’s over, however, don’t let that relationship wither. You might need each other again. You can remain an information source, and the reporter can continue to keep abreast of the activities of your organization, so that when there’s something newsworthy happening, he’ll know.

In addition, life is much richer and more enjoyable when it includes a wide variety of people. Media folks have interesting jobs and have great stories. Maintaining relationships with them can only improve not only your work life, but your personal life as well.

Aimee Whitman

Online Resources

Building Media Relations is an article about becoming a valuable resource to the media provided by the Public Relations Society of America.

Building Strong Relationships is a site created by The Center for Media Justice, and it has links to information on writing press releases and developing press kits.

How to Build Relationships with the Media is an article published on July 26, 2007by Aileen Pincus in Business Week.

Media Advocacy Guide is a guide provided by the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists.  

Media Advocacy Manual. This manual provided by the American Public Health Association offers information on connecting with the media through newspapers, internet, radio, television, and magazines.

PTA - Working with the Media is a comprehensive resource and downloadable PDF with information about building and maintaining relationships with the media. 

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J.  (1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Goldman, K., & Zasloff, K. (1994, December). Tools of the trade: Media do's and don'ts. SOPHE News & Views, 6-7.

National Cancer Institute. (1988). Media strategies for smoking control: Guidelines. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Pertschuk, M., & Wilbur, P. (1991). Media advocacy: Reframing public debate. Washington, DC: The Benton Foundation.

Wallack, L., Dorfman, L., Jerniagan, D., & Themba, M. (1993). Media advocacy and public health: Power for prevention. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.