How To Use The Media
by Rochelle Lefkowitz
and Bob Schaeffer
When did your organization last appear on page one or on the evening news? Did your recent demonstration draw hundreds of marchers and no reporters? Is your group
Since few of us can afford to be adversaries, we must compete with the 200 press releases that cross the news desk of the average media outlet each day. Given those odds, how can we hope to get a camera crew to an anti-nuke rally, or expose an inner-city arson ring? On a given day, how can we get coverage of the need for shelters for battered women, or a new, non-profit energy-audit project?
The media will only run a story if it fits into the available space and meets their definition of news. Unless your group includes an Ayatollah or a Kennedy, you must speak the media's language and meet their requirements if you want a shot at the evening news or even a shot in your local weekly.
For TV, "newsworthiness" involves having a visual component for your story. People sitting behind a table lecturing the camera are referred to in the trade as "talking heads." Such stories will be scrapped for more visually exciting events. For radio, you need good sound, preferably what are called "actualities," live, on-the-spot voices and background noise. Newspapers have their own conventions too. No daily runs a ten page position paper-except as a paid advertisement.
None of these formats requires years of journalism school to master. To learn the rules, spend a week analyzing your local media. Read your hometown paper. listen to the all-news radio station in your town. Tune in to the weekend public affairs show and the noon-time call-in hour. watch the TV evening news. Pay attention to how stories are covered. Then, rework your stories to fit these standard formats. You'll find that many of your group's activities and issues could make the morning paper or the evening news if you cast them properly.
Make It Easy
The goal of most of our organizations is to publicize an issue-and recruit new members and supporters. The goal of the media is to fill the news holes between paid ads with interesting material with as little effort as possible.
Most media outlets aren't crawling with budding Woodwards and Bernsteins. In our experience, many reporters are lazy; stupid and vain. Before the reporters among you call your lawyers, we mean that most reporters are human beings who have more stories to cover than time to do a perfect job. So the lazy folks choose the neatly typed, one page press release with the snappy quotes that can run with a few minor changes. The ten-page, smeared position paper gets discarded, without so much as a glance through its well-documented case.
Even the newest member in your group knows more about your issue than all but the most seasoned reporter. But even the most novice journalist is sure he or she's about to win a Pulitzer-or in the case of TV reporters, an Emmy. You have to convince editors and reporters to choose your story from the pile by making their work easier and meeting their needs.
Make sure your group's release gets plucked from the pile by making it look like a typical news story and by highlighting the elements that will most appeal to them. It's the surest route to the print or broadcast spot you want.
Like any other work your organization takes on, good press work demands you learn the rules. You wouldn't organize a tenant union or plan a sit in at the power plant without knowing your goals, your group's resources, planning tactics and alternative strategies. Make sure you do the same for your press work. To land that front page story your organization must mesh its media strategy with its overall political goals.
Before you pick up the phone to call in a story, set your goal, and decide on an audience. Then, and only then, are you ready to learn to use the tools of the trade.
Communicating with journalists
The Tools of the Trade
For all your press work, you'll need to contact the media quickly and efficiently. Whether you're milling a news release or calling a reporter with a fast-breaking story, you'll need an up-to-date media list.
Here's how to start a master list. Type onto index cards the basic data about each media outlet you want to reach for your most comprehensive press efforts. include the following for each listing: the name of the outlet, the address and phone number, its deadlines, any mechanical requirements, the names of the assignment editor or news director, and any individual reporters, columnists or feature writers you might 'want to contact. Be sure to include wire services that feed stories to several outlets.
Much of this information may be found in reference hooks, such as Editor & publisher Yearbook, to be found in your local library.
Remember, media people change jobs even more often than activists. Update your list every three or four months. An intern or volunteer can easily do this well in advance of your mailing. You're much more likely to have the correct names and zip codes if you do list maintenance at leisure instead of frantically typing envelopes at 2:00 A.M.
Once you increase your media work, you'll probably find that one media list just isn't enough. Many groups have several, divided by personnel category or type of outlet, for targeted mailings or calls. Among the most useful will be lists of editorial writers, public affairs directors and talk show producers, as well as weeklies, campus media and monthly publications.
Type your regular media list onto envelopes (or onto Xerox label masters) so you'll always be ready for an emergency mailing. For quick reactions, type on one page the names and phone numbers of outlets you contact most frequently. Keep that right by your telephone. Include the names of day and evening staff if they differ.
If you're like most groups, you'll mostly use your lists to distribute news releases. News releases are the cornerstone of press work They are frequently your organization's first and most regular contact with the media.
In our experience, most groups do news releases poorly. The best way to get your story into print or on the air is to understand what makes good releases and learn how to produce them.
A news release tells a story-before or after the fact. It's most often written to go directly into print or on the air. Hundreds of releases cross the average news desk each day. To be used, yours must grab the attention of the first reader: the editor or reporter.
Make your news release stand out from the sea of black on white by using colored paper, an attractive logo or colored ink in your letter head. Then, reproduce it clearly so your message may be read.
Once an editor or reporter scans your release it's most likely to be used if it requires little editing. If you follow these rules, you stand a good chance of getting your story reproduced.
First, read the newspaper and listen to the radio or TV. Use actual stories as your guide. Make sure your release is news, the kind of thing the media outlets you are aiming at usually cover. Then make sure your release looks like news.
Stick to journalistic conventions. write short, declarative sentences in the third person. Use action verbs when possible. Try to think like a journalist. Keep to the facts. Don't be flowery rhetorical or dramatic. Use quotes for all subjective material, value judgments, allegations or conclusions.
Never save the juicy stuff for last. Build your story like a reporter-inverted pyramid style. Include the five W's- who, what, when, where, why- near the begining. Both print and broadcast editors cut from the bottom.
For the best results, type your news release double spaced on one side of a page with 1½ inch margins. Edit it to no more than two pages for even the most exciting, complex story. Anything longer is a prime candidate for the trashbasket. If there is crucial background material, attach it to the release or add a note telling reporters where it is available. Put the release date on the top left of the first sheet. Include the name of a person to contact. Add a home phone number if the person is often not at the office. If you don't have a letterhead, type your organization's name, address and phone number on top-and get a letterhead printed soon.
Lead off with a snappy title that captures the reader's attention in ten words or less. Write as if it is going to be the headline in a newspaper; if it's good, it will be. Then, draw the reader into your story with a strong lead sentence. Try to use a colorful, active verb.
Spend at least a third of your writing time on the headline and the lead. That's a lot of time. But many editors and reporters scan only the headline and the first sentence to decide what releases to reject. Audience's belhave in the same way. Most people decide what to read, watch or listen to based on the first few words.
Next, cram your best information into the remainder of the first paragraph. Include a pitchy quote as soon as possible. Use the next few paragraphs to tell the rest of the story.
Newspapers are moving toward one sentence paragraphs, which broadcasters already use. Write, re-write and edit again to toss out all but the essentials.
If your release runs onto a second page, signal the reader by using the word "more" at the bottom of the first page. At the top of the second page, type a phrase that identifies your group and story. This is needed because staples often come undone in newsrooms.
Finish by telling interested reporters how to get more information. The end of your release is the place to indicate where the full position paper or statistics are available.
By all means toot your own horn. Spend a short final paragraph promoting your issue or describing your group's history.
Let the reporter know the story is over by using the symbol "#" or "-30-". Then give the release to someone else in your group to proofread. Keep several copies to use when the phone starts to ring, and put several in your files to monitor your coverage.
EDITORIALS AND COLUMNS: Writing a news release isn't the only way to get your story covered. The editorial page and the leading "op ed" page of most papers also offer opportunities for you to get into print.
Editorial writers often are looking for interesting topics to help fill their assigned space. Suggest your issue by sending a brief cover letter with a few pages of backup material. Then wait a few days and telephone. Ask to speak to the person who writes editorials.
The pay off from a favorable reaction can be tremendous. Opinion leaders study editorials carefully. The support of the local paper can give your position legitimacy and clout.
Many columnists are also open to suggestions. Their signed stories, which may express opinions, appear on a fixed schedule across from the editorial page or in other standard locations. By regularly reading the columns, it's easy to figure out which writer is most likely to be receptive to your cause. Again, a brief letter followed up by a phone call is the best approach.
If you disagree with an editorial or column, your group may be able to respond with an "op ed" piece. Though under no legal obligation, many papers have opened their editorial pages to well written oppposing viewpoints. To gain access, call the person responsible for the editorial page and explain what you'd like to write. Then, submit a draft about the same length as the piece to which you are responding. The paper always retains control over content and placement. But a fairminded editor will often let you tell your side of the story if you don't overreact.
Don't overlook the letters-to-the-editor column. It's a perfect place to respond to criticism or to elaborate on a news story. Follow the rules for press releases in drafting your letter: be topical, lively, factual, and concise. Many small papers will run virtually every letter they receive. Surveys show letters are among the most heavily read parts of the paper.
Finally; many outlets run regular "Community Calendar" colurnns which list upcoming events. Find out the deadlines, which may be several months in advance.
Many of the tools for dealing with newspapers also apply to the electronic media. The basic rules are simllar.
A few adjustments must be made to cope with the special nature of broadcasting, however. Access to the airwaves is tough. Time allotted to news and public affairs is brief. A typical five minute radio news show will include only five to seven stories. The evening TV news will cover no more than a dozen items since so much time is devoted to sports, weather and other features. Understanding the needs of broadcasters can pay off by increasing your abillty to reach the majority of the public that now depends primarily on the electronic media fbr their daily news.
Radio, for example, is based on the spoken, not the written, word. Radio news editors like short stories that lead into "actualities," such as a tape of a speech or the sounds of a demonstration. Many radio stations target relatively narrow audiences. An item that is not of broad public concern may be perfect for the unique constituency served by a Third World, youth, or community oriented station.
Television, on the other hand, reaches a diverse audience via a visual medium. General interest stories that feature action, charts or scenic backgrounds are more likely to hold the attention of viewers (and editors) than simple "talking heads."
Plan your events to meet the needs of all electronic journalists by providing good microphone placement, forceful clear speakers and a lively visual component. Statements in news releases aimed speciflcally at radio and TV should be written less formally, typed triple-spaced and read out loud for word flow. Try to keep them brief; the typical broadcast story runs only about 30 seconds.
Editorials and Op-Eds
Commercial radio and TV outlets use editorials to state the opinions of station management. Just as with newspapers, you can call or visit to suggest that your topic be covered. Always provide fact sheets and offer to do whatever additional research may be necessary.
Because the airwaves are publicly controlled, federal law requires stations to broadcast reactions to editorials by "responsible spokesmen with opposing points of view." (This provision is currently under attack in a Congressional bill to deregulate radio and television.) To respond, contact the Editorial Director and ask for rebuttal time. Remember to find out technical requirements such as maximum reading length, avalability of studios for taping and broadcast schedules.
Prepare your best public speaker with a lively, carefully honed text. Then rehearse until the words come naturally.
You need not stay glued to your TV or radio to hear editorials that require your response. Most stations will send transcripts to interested groups. Call or write to get on the mailing list.
Some outlets also offer 'Access" spots that allow groups to offer opinions on current issues. Public Affairs Directors will tell you the policies for local stations.
Public Service Announcements
Public service announcements are the equivalent of advertising for low-budget organizations. They can be used to publicize your group, promote your events and sometimes even to sell your services. Best of all, PSAs are free. The only disadvantage is that you cannot determine how often and when your spot will be broadcast.
To improve your chances for alrplay, find out each station's requirements well in advance by calling the Public Service Director. Be sure to check on submission deadlines (frequently two weeks or more before air date), broadcast length (20, 30 and 60 seconds are most common), and content restrictions.
Composing an effective PSA is hard work- All the basic information (Who, What, When and Where) must be crammed into one brief parrgraph. That means writing, reading aloud, and revising until the sound is right.
Get the listener's attention right away with a provocative question or a bold statement. Then describe your group, publication or event in vivid, informal language. Since there isn't time to go into all the details, touch only on one or two persuasive points. Finally give your address or phone number. Then repeat the information so it can be written down or committed to memory.
Some journallstic conventions apply to PSAS. Use your letterhead. Always include a contact name and phone number. Indicate when the PSA is to be used and its reading length. Type your message in capital letters, double or triple-spaced for easy reading. Make sure you send a legible reproduction. (Remember to keep a copy for your group's files.) Use the symbol "-30-" or "-#-" to indicate the end of your spot.
For television use, find out if the station will run a slide or picture of your choice while your PSA is read. Again, contact the Public Service Director to determine technical requirements.
Before you mail or deliver your PSA, make sure your timing is accurate. A useful rule of thumb is two and a half words per second. That means a 20 second announcement can include no more than 50 words; 75 words is the limit for a half minute spot. Each digit in a phone number or address counts as a spoken word.
Address your announcements to the Public Service Director by name so your PSA won't get lost in the incoming mail. A personal note or even an advance phone call explaining why your spot should run may help. Call or visit a week or so after your submission to check on the status. It's harder to reject a request for time in person.
If no one you know heard your PSA, you can go back to the station and check its log book to see when it was aired.
Interview programs are always in need of articulate guests.
Your media survey should list all area outlets for live and taped talk format broadcasts. When you have an issue or event that would benefit from this type of exposure, send a letter to program producers offering to supply a guest. If you don't hear in ten days, call. Be ready to explain why the shows audience would be interested in your speaker.
Once you land an appearance, make sure you learn all the details of time, place and format. Don't automatically accept every opportunity. Sometimes a debate with a particularly effective opponent or an inteview by a hostile "talk-master" can be worse than no coverage.
Next find an appropriate spokesperson. Remember that voice quality, speaking style and appearance (for TV) are as important as knoledge of your issues. Prepare your speaker by composing a brief outline of the main points that should be covered. It's easy to get sidetracked. Also; try some roleplaying so the prospective guest is prepared to handle tough situations. It will also help smooth your way to send the show host background literature, biographical sketches and sample questions.
If the program allows phone-ins, notify your staff and supporters so they can participate. Nothing makes a guest more at ease than handling a few easy calls from friends.
Some shows are recorded well in advance, so be sure the station tells you the date and time it will be on the air. When the program is broadcast, tape it so your spokesperson can get feedback. Many communities have organizations that lend out video-taping equipment at modest cost. Sound tape recorders, of course, are easy to obtain.
Follow up every appearance by writing to thank the producer and host for their help. Simple courtesies may pay off in future invitations.
Increasingly both rural and metropolitan areas are being wired for cable television. Subscribers receive many more channels than they could with conventional antennas. Current government regulations require every cable system to include at least one channel for locally produced shows.
If there's cable in your area, contact the system manager to determine how you can get access. In many cases, local groups can teach you how to design programs, use station equipment and promote your show. It's also possible to air videotapes produced by national groups with which you are associated.
With cable you can totally control your message, but the audience may be limited. Before you start, make sure the likely payoff is large enough to justify your investment.
Strategy Is the Key to an Effective Campaign
The techniques we have reviewed so far are the building blocks of effective media work. If you apply them carefully you'll be on the road to improved coverage. But mastering the nuts and bolts alone is not enough. To succeed, your media campaign must reflect a well-crafted strategy.
Too often, groups issue a news release or hold a press conference before they think through what they want to accomplish. And the results of the last minute press conference or poorly distributed release make for even more cynicism about the use of media. When it comes to a successful campaign, like all other aspects of political work, two key questions must be answered: What's your goal, who is your audience?
Your media efforts can have a variety of purposes. Perhaps you simply want to let the public know your group exists. Maybe you want to direct attention to a particular problem in your community Or you may want to do several of these things simultaneously. But you do have to be clear on exactly what you want to accomplish. The first step then is to set priorities.
Once you set your goals, you're ready to decide who you want to reach. Your first thought may be to try to get your message out to the general public. But, more often you really need to reach only one or more specific groups. In that case, a rifle-shot rather than a shotgun approach may be best.
Why waste effort courting the major TV stations if you can reach your target group directly through a specialized newspaper or radio station?
Think about your intended audience in terms of such demographics as age, sex, geography and lifestyle. Then, choose the mix of media outlets that will reach them. For example, a secretary may never tune in to a noon TV talk show. And chances are, a senior citizen won't hear your public service announcement on Top 40 radio.
Developing a Plan
A good media campaign shouldn't happen in isolation. It must be integrated into your local organizational and political strategy.
There are usually several ways to achieve your goals and reach your target audiences. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. For instance, a press release that your daily paper runs may reach many people. But the coverage may not he in-depth. Radio talk shows, on the other hand, give you more exposure. Yet they reach fewer people and leave you vulnerable to an unfriendly host or caller. And afterwards, there's no clipping for your files.
Compare the likely payoffs from all available media channels before you make a choice.
A successful plan must also take into account your groups strengths and weaknesses. To choose the best approach for you, ask yourself:
What are your resources?
What are the obstades to your success?
Does the media campaign reinforce the rest of your group's agenda?
Are you really reaching your target audience?
You can reasonably expect your media strategy to he effective only if you address issues like these. The planning process need not take forever. But you need to think before you act. Time spent brainstorming and analyzing options with others in your group should result in less work during the heat of the catnpaign-as well as in more coverage.
Write It Down
Once you've thought through your situation carelully, put your plan in writiting. An idea that seems good in theory may not hold together when you put the words on paper.
Always consult a calendar to be sure your media schedule takes into account events like holidays, vacations and other activities of your group and its allies.
Start your written plan by working backwards from the day of your event. Be sure to note all external constraints. There's nothing more frustrating than missing a key media outlet because you overlooked a deadline. A written plan will help you avoid such setbacks.
Writing it all out helps cut the risk of forgetting details. It also gives you an overview of all the tasks you need to accomplish before you actually set your plan in motion. In addition to your calendar, keep a written record of all your contacts with the media during your campaign to help you remember who promised you what coverage. It will also remind you of your commitments to make follow up phone calls or send background information.
Expecting the Unexpected
No matter how well you stay on schedule, unexpected events will occur. While you're planning your event, you maybe called on to respond to some related but unforeseen event.
Whatever happens, stay calm. if there's no time to write and deliver a news release, take a few minutes to get your thoughts together. Many reporters will take brief statements over the phone. Be sure to rehearse so you make your key points most effectively. Then, call the key news outlets. Try to speak to the reporter you've dealt with before, or to the news editor if your regular contact is unavailable.
Too often, time pressures leave you few opportunities to think about how effective your actions have been. But the way you appear in the media is a major way others learn about your group and judge its actions. So make sure your timetable has some way to measure your effectiveness.
If your goal is recruiting members, include benchmarks to assess your progress-like 25 new members in a two months period. That way you'll be prepared to redirect your campaign midstream if necessary.
To evaluate your media campaign, monitor your coverage. Did it deliver the message you wanted-or were there consistent patterns in the coverage that differed from your goals? Always think about what you might change to avoid simiar problems in the lature. And don't forget to get copies of stories about your group or issue to members-and funders. Then, put copies of the clips into your press packet for your next media campaign.
Ask people outside your organization to evaluate your publicity too. Have they gotten the image you meant them to have of your members and their activities? Look back at your goals and benchmarks to see where you fell short. And learn from your mistakes.
No one has all the answers about effective media work. But if you follow these hints, you'll be on the right track.
Media Dos and Don'ts
1. ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.
It's often easy to stretch, shade or sidestep the truth. But resist the temptation-you're only a good source as long as you're reliable. Know your facts and check details before you talk to reporters or issue a release. If you don't know something, admit it, don't fudge. Then, find out and phone in the facts.
2. BE ACCESSIBLE.
Reporters have deadlines. Return their calls promptly. Offer your home phone number. And volunteer story leads.
3. KNOW THE RULES.
Get to know the conventions, requirements, and deadlines of your local outlets. Make sure you understand terms like "off the record" and "not for attribution." if you don't recognize these phrases, ask a friendly reporter
4. BE AGGRESSIVE.
This is no time to be polite. Don't sit by your phone-call in your group's response to important events. Issue timely releases: a late story is no story. And contact reporters to point out inaccuracies-or to praise a job well done.
5. THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK.
The media have their agenda. Be sure yours is equally well defined. Before you mail a press release or call reporters, have a plan. You can't stop the presses. Plot your campaign carefully, assess your options and make sure your media strategy reflects your group's priorities and resources.
6. DON'T CRY WOLF.
We've said it before, but it's worth repeating. Don't exaggerate-and that means don't create a crisis or inflate a victory
7. DON'T ASSUME REPORTERS UNDERSTAND YOUR ISSUE.
Even if your group was just in the news, there's no guarantee the reporter will even remember your name. Never count on reporters to know your history, agenda or point of view-not even the ones who cover your issue regularly. Always say what you represent.
8. DON'T JUST CRITICIZE.
Everyone adores praise. Let reporters-and their bosses-know when you liked a story. Then, watch what happens next time you call.
9. DON'T LET THE MEDIA INTIMIDATE YOU.
It's easy to panic at bright lights and cameras. But don't let the press push you around
10. DON'T GIVE UP.
Reporters get nearly 200 press releases a day. Even the slickest PR firm sends many releases that end up in the trashbasket. A plane crash can always preempt the press conference you planned for weeks. Don't despair if you don't get coverage. Ask reporters for pointers. Then, try again-and again.
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