I have worked, as they say, both sides of the fence – as a journalist and editor, and as an in-house communications person handling PR and media relations. At my time doing the latter, the organization I worked for (Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar) was featured prominently by media – in Qatar and the region – on a regular basis.

I was always asked how VCUQatar used to get so much coverage in the media. It is because I treated the media as friends, and their platforms as conduits to carry VCUQatar’s message to the broader public – the university’s partners and collaborators; students and their families; potential students; artists and designers; as well as potential sponsors and patrons. They helped VCUQatar’s target audience become aware of VCUQatar’s expertise and everything the university had to offer.

Later, when I was editor-in-chief (I launched and ran seven magazines, from business to lifestyle), I noticed my team faced challenges getting organizations to respond when they were working on articles. It confounded them because organizations were saying no to opportunities – all free even – to reach out to their target audience. While that was a loss for the article in some ways – because less experts were featured – it was a far greater loss for said organizations for certain.

I know this because this is how VCUQatar gained its advantage. None of the other educational institutions spoke to the media as much as we did – we never said no to them, not ever, not even when we felt the request was insignificant and would take up a lot of our time. The same is true for how I managed media relations for other clients as well. We made time for media and in return, they supported us with the same fervour.

I also know this because, as editor, I never let stories suffer for lack of expert quotes. Every article featured the requisite number of experts even if it meant having to change story angles last minute to create strong content, and me personally calling people my journalists couldn’t reach.

What ended up happening most often was said organizations or their PR agencies saw their competitors featured in the article, and would call back or respond after the fact. That was unfortunate for them because a credible magazine is not going to cover the same topic any time soon unless something news breaking happens. And in Qatar that is rarely the case. These organizations had lost a good opportunity.

Every question is an opportunity

The media will have questions for companies, some may even seem critical or like the media are asking for information your organization considers sensitive. These are not reasons to boycott or ignore the media. On the contrary, by exploring the questions and presenting supporting facts and data, your organization can use this opportunity to set the record straight and silence any rumours that may be floating around.

Media don’t expect every single question to be answered; they are happy that companies or their public relations agencies respond at all. And if your organization gives them a piece of information that is new or useful to their story, they are already appreciative.

Remember to respond to emails from media, promptly if you can or within 24 hours at the latest. Every query is also a potential opportunity.

Respond to media queries

This does not mean just sending them press releases or inviting them to press conferences. These are great ways to network and reach out to all media outlets at once. But each newspaper or magazine is also looking for their own “exclusive” angle, one that will set their article apart.

Maybe a smaller newspaper with a smaller readership approaches you with a good story idea. Don’t take it and turn it into a press release that you distribute to everybody, which seems to be the default suggestion from PR agencies in Qatar. That is offensive, and while it may not seem unethical because you were going to do a press release about it anyway, it is not going to win you any friends. Give this small newspaper their story; ensure they get a good one even, because if it is good and it is online (as they tend to be in Qatar), it will reach your target audience.

Build one-on-one relationships with the media

Press conferences, Iftars and Suhours are a good way to network and thank the media, as typically happens in Qatar. But, trust me, reporters and journalists would be happier to meet with a company spokesperson one-on-one a few times a year. Besides wanting to write about your organization, this connection with your company can help them when they are in a tight spot – looking for a last-minute expert quote, which your organization could provide them, even if you are a small firm.

Don’t let your ego get in the way. Maybe the media outlet didn’t approach you in the beginning when they were working on their article. It’s possible they were working on a story idea that wasn’t best suited for your organization. But stories change based on responses, and this can present an opportunity for your company, as an expert, to step in with a quote. If your company spokesperson can respond, do.

I have had story angles change because of responses all the time and the organizations, communications or PR agencies that responded last minute to help a story and my journalist out, I always had time for. Always. On weekends and at 3am even.

Talk up your organisation’s expertise

Create a database of journalists and reporters that cover your industry, and let them know where your organization’s expertise lies. Let them know company spokespeople are available for longer interviews on specific topics, and even available for “one sentence expert quotes”.

Do your homework. Don’t approach a media outlet with a story idea you sold to another news outlet that they already featured. Nobody wants to carry a “done” story when there are opportunities for “exclusives”. Get your communications/PR teams/agencies to think beyond the obvious.

Don’t waste the media’s time

I found nothing more annoying than lazy PR agencies who would approach me with the same old ideas and stories that had been done to death. I made it a point to respond on the spot with 10 different ideas they never thought of. If you are calling the editor, make sure you have an incredible (read ‘never been done before’) story idea, or few, lined up.

Reporters and journalists in Qatar are already busy because media outlets are short-staffed and have tight deadlines to work around. So if you are going to take up their time, ensure it is worth their while. They will make it worth your company’s while too.

Media in Qatar is essentially a load of PR

That media coverage in Qatar is nothing but regurgitated press releases is, unfortunately, true to a very large extent for a multitude of reasons. Magazines are required to be approved by the Ministry of Culture’s censors department before each issue goes to press. Newspapers don’t face the same restriction but they do get a call from the Amiri Diwan asking what is going to be in the newspapers the following day.

Media outlets also need to keep a guarantee of QAR 1 million when they are granted a media licence. They lose this, and/or the editor-in-chief can face jail time if they have gone “overboard” with content. This has made many editors, especially, wary of covering stuff that may be deemed controversial. After all, nobody wants to keep printing retractions, or lose 1 million, or go to jail.

There is a list of “items” media are aware cannot be touched. Self-censorship needn’t go beyond that. I know. BQ magazine was probably asked to delete one sentence in the three years I ran the magazine. The article was written by me, and I reiterated the plight of migrants workers once too often I presume. BQ magazine, under me, was unafraid to look into the challenges businesses in Qatar faced. Some other media outlets called us controversial. But, when you have run businesses in the country, and then do a business magazine, you are best suited to understand the problems businesses face. And I was. (Still am.)

I don’t recall censoring any articles my journalists did; they were aware of what was considered “sensitive”, and they stuck with it, many a time also writing for the reader to read in between the lines. English media in Qatar need to keep self-censorship to the minimum for sure. Very possibly will if enough organizations – businesses who face challenges – are willing to talk about them. I did have many managers, over the 12 years I was editor, ask why we didn’t cover certain topics. I asked if they’d be willing to speak about them. They rarely said yes. Those that did, gave us incredible articles, and not one of them was censored even if they bordered on what was presumed to be “controversial”.

This is also what makes the Arabic media more credible. They are more vocal with voicing concerns and challenges that businesses and the general public face. And they have not been censured.

There is no need to fear the media in Qatar

Your organization needs to keep this in mind and make sure your public relations consultants or agency does as well. In Qatar, there are no tabloids; and libel and slander laws protect organizations as well as individuals (which is a challenge for the media more often than for a company).

While the internet is today seen as the voice of the people, it still has potential to carry “fake news” because anybody can upload content to the internet, and if it is sensational, it will go viral. Some of it can also be damaging to an organization, when, social media is done badly for instance. This is why organizations need to know they can rely on good journalists to carry their point of view. And they should push media as well by being more open about challenges they face.

Qatar is an incredible place to maintain good relations with the media because the country has processes in place for you, as an organization, to already feel safe and use to your advantage.

Priya DSouza Consultancy offers media relations and related services. For more information see the Consultancy page or email us at contact@priyadsouza.com.