Members of the traditional print media, including the digital/online operations of a print news publication, are extremely busy and constantly seeking “newsworthy” content to cover. There is both opportunity and potential disadvantage to intentionally bringing the media into the conversation around your issue.
Some things to remember when engaging journalists and/or developing a media strategy: members of the press are not, and do not view themselves, as allies for your cause, or beholden to helping fix your problem. They could even personally align with your views and values, but may or may not contextualize your work, the issue you are aiming to address, and the strategies and tactics of your group as you might prefer. Keep in mind that there is likely a significant difference in the way that journalists view their charge and the way that you may view their role in your advocacy. That said, with some knowledge of the process, the dynamics at particular publications, and the way in which the problem you seek to fix is framed to the media, your advocacy can be brought to new levels and reach exponentially more people with effective utilization of the media.
A. Press Releases and Media Advisories
Press releases and media advisories are two ways in which advocates can alert relevant members of the media to their core issue, public events, or significant happenings around their work. Media advisories are typically used to try and build attendance at a public announcement or event; press releases are typically used to announce newsworthy developments, such as the filing of a lawsuit, the formation of a formal group or a partnership with another group, etc.
Develop a standard format for press releases for your group that clearly identifies who you are; why your organization exists (possibly including a concise version of your mission statement); includes any logo or brand designs in the header; and provides appropriate contact information for interested journalists.
Tips for writing press releases:
- Include logo/brand design in header
- Craft a pithy, relatively short title that goes to the heart of the release; position the title in slightly larger font centered at the top
- Aim for one page in length, if possible
- Include contact information for your organization either at the top above the title or beneath the body of the press release
- Send press releases to journalists who cover environmental issues or a specific beat that includes your issue; if this can’t be found, most publications have a general news desk contact
- If possible, follow up with recipients with a phone call or email to confirm that the advisory or release was received
Be sure to provide resources for more research and more information about your group (such as a website with a mission statement, the name of a Facebook group that can be accessed by a reporter, etc.) somewhere on your press release or media advisory.
B. Tips when talking to reporters
Avoid being too abstract
- Speak in concrete, personal terms about what’s happening
- Illustrate your environmental issue in personal stories and examples
- Try to use visual details to bring your issue to life (even if your issue is technically “invisible” like air quality problems—show how people are affected through consequences and effects)
Describe how actual people’s health or financial security has been affected by the issue
When contacting a reporter directly, be sure to speak with authority on your issue
a) Imposter syndrome is a real concern, but you have done this much work to fix your problem so far, so try to avoid the impression that you might not fully understand the problem
b) If you are not the best representative of your group to engage the media, that’s ok—recognizing this is important, and finding someone who is affected by your concern, a part of that community, and can present your case to the media will ultimately strengthen your advocacy
Remember that reporters have editors, their editors have bosses, and all are accountable to the ownership, the shareholders, and the media company writ large
a) Editors by and large want engaging stories; newsworthy items that illustrate an issue of public concern with authentic, relatable characters at the center of it
Think of the “lede”
(lede: “the opening sentence or paragraph of a news article, summarizing the most important aspects of the story” [Lexico]) when pitching a story
a) What is the thrust of the story? The main takeaway?
b) How would a random reader or consumer of news understand your issue as you’ve described it?
c) How would you want to read the first two sentences of a reporter’s write up?
C. Traditional “press” and nontraditional media (podcasts, blogs, etc)
Do it all!
Different media require different approaches to messaging:
- Podcasts and blogs: go deep, come prepared for a longer and wide-ranging conversation
- News publications/press releases: short and sweet, clear, concise
- Radio: bring the passion to your points, be prepared for back and forth, be mindful of soundbites
D. Repetition is Key
Share any coverage you may get and repeat the message you want the public to see
If you get (favorable) coverage for your organization or if a highly relevant news story is published that could help spread your message and reach more people, be sure to share it widely.
Some methods for sharing coverage and promoting an organization’s message:
- Social media sharing—organic and paid ads/boosting posts on FB
- Letters to the Editor (LTE)
- Direct mailing that includes summary of recent media coverage (helpful for fundraising too)
E. Letters to the Editor (LTE)
Writing a Letter to the Editor (LTE) or organizing a LTE campaign for your supporters can be an effective way to spread the message you want about your issue or your group. Additionally, with passionate volunteers or group leaders, LTEs cost your organization nothing apart from the time and energy it takes to write.
LTEs direct a comment to a news publication in response to articles, editorials, videos and op-eds published there. If an article is even tangentially about your issue—let’s say it has to do with the actions of a city council, for example, or an environmental issue that is relevant to you but maybe not directly on point—a well-crafted LTE can introduce readers to your issue and invite them to think more deeply about what needs to be done.
Many community leaders and political and elected figures are known to monitor letters to the editor, and since each LTE is usually word-limited to somewhere between 150-250 words, they are easily digestible for readers and can reach a very broad section of the engaged public.
Tips for writing and submitting LTEs:
By Dan Sahr of Fired Up Campaigns with contributions from:
- Eli Chen—Recently affiliated with St. Louis Public Radio and now with National Geographic and St. Louis area producer for “The Story Collider” a nonprofit media organization dedicated to true, personal stories about science. Eli has expertise on how to communicate scientific/environmental information to the public. She can be reached through her website at www.elichen.com.
- Rebecca Rivas – staff reporter for The St. Louis American. She can be reached through her email, here.
- Andy Ostmeyer – editor at the Joplin Globe. He can be reached through his email, here.
- Bryce Gray— energy and environment reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He can be reached through his email here or (314) 340-8307.