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making friends with the media

A lot of recent studies have shown that the media matters to organizational outcomes, including Mark Kennedy’s research showing that media coverage helps establish nascent market categories by making links between new firms or my own work that demonstrates that the threat of anti-corporate activism is mediated by media coverage.  Firms and activists both need the media on their side as they try to manage public and investor opinion. You can’t get what you want unless people know who you are and what your message is. Effective impression management relies on the media as the main conduit for messages and claims.

Despite the importance of media coverage to activist and organizational outcomes, we still don’t have much research looking at the relationships between the media and those they’re covering. Two new papers address this problem by examining methods of interpersonal influence with journalists.  Anyone interested in media and organizations should read these papers. The first paper, written by Jim Westphal and David Deephouse, appears in a recent issue of Organization Science. They look at how CEOs’ relationships with journalists affect their ability to avoid bad press when disclosing low earnings. CEOs try to control media coverage of earnings in two ways. First, they ingratiate themselves with reporters, encouraging them to put a positive spin on the relatively low earnings. If they don’t get that coverage CEOs limit journalists’ access to future information and interactions with the company. Westphal and Deephouse provide some evidence that these interpersonal influence tactics actually work. Ingratiation makes journalists feel personally indebted to the firm, which predisposes them to report favorably even when earnings are low, and retaliation seems to prevent journalists from engaging in negative coverage in the future.

In a paper published in Social Problems, Sarah Sobieraj looks at activists’ attempts to influence media coverage. She finds that activsts, recognizing their dependence on media coverage, have learned the rules of media coverage as experienced in the corporate world, and like their CEO counterparts, have sought to build positive relationships and “bend over backwards to be media-friendly.” Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t seem to work for them. The more professional they’ve become in managing media relations, the less successful they are at generating it. The reason for this, Sobieraj argues, is that journalists hold activists accountable to a different set of rules. Rather than responding to professionalism and well-honed messages, journalists respond to activists when they perceive their actions are authentic and spontaneous. Her analysis, then, suggests that political outsiders have to play by a different set of rules than elite insiders, like CEOs or politicians.  Becoming too polished is a detriment to getting covered.

Taken together the studies show that how you get helpful media coverage depends greatly on your social position. Influence tactics will vary in their effectiveness depending on how much power you have and on your position in society.

Written by brayden king

August 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm

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  1. I noticed the same lack of research about relations between organizations and the media while working on my research on Burning Man. By chance, I ended up volunteering in the “public relations” group and used those participant observation for part of chapter 6 in my book Enabling Creative Chaos. What I learned is that the best reporters are like good researchers – they are willing to follow up leads despite initial misconceptions. However, because of deadlines, many reporters will be underprepared and perhaps even overwhelmed (i.e., like some students, they will not prepare beforehand by reading up on available materials), will get about 50% of the facts incorrect, or will rehash the same frames to satisfy editors’ demands or media tropes. Based on those experiences, I have since learned to more skeptical of some reporters’ claims (and by extension, depending on the research question, the copious research using media reports). My chapter’s endnotes includes references for past research (Tuchman, Fishman, etc.) on how the media works, which will be of interest to those who want to know how media is produced.

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    KatherineKChen

    August 29, 2011 at 7:18 pm

  2. […] but I know others do (particularly those with media-like jobs). So I figured I’d like to Making Friends With the Media from orgtheory and “Corporate Media” Theory from Tim Groseclose guest-blogging at the […]

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