It is rare that major progressive legislation succeeds without a great deal of publicity. Plenty of special interest legislation passes in the dark, but our side needs the light. How do you get the media to shine a spotlight on your policies?
Persuade reporters, editors and opinion writers that your story is newsworthy.
News is about what is “new.” So, the pitch to reporters and opinion writers must explain why your story is new or timely. Then describe why they ought to cover your story according to the unwritten rules of journalism, and/or why they should want to cover it because readers/listeners/viewers will be especially interested in your topic.
A media outlet ought to cover a story because:
A reporter or opinion writer should want to cover it because:
And perhaps most important in today’s media market:
Obviously, your best chance to persuade reporters, editors and writers is when you show that your story is both important and interesting.
Have a focused message
It’s a myth that any news coverage is good “as long as they spell your name right.” Negative stories hurt. Yet, what’s most common is to get a story that does not really help you because it didn’t put forward a focused, persuasive message.
An advocacy campaign needs to craft a message, and then you need to structure your media events and quotes to deliver that message.
This overall message captures the most persuasive argument for your policy, framed to appeal to both lawmakers and average voters. If you’re trying to raise the state tobacco tax, the message might say that it will curtail teen smoking. If you’re trying to increase the use of renewable energy, it might focus on the jobs created. A successful campaign to increase the alcohol tax in Maryland was based on the message “Alcohol Taxes Save Lives,” a phrase that was repeated over and over by the media.
Whenever you talk to the media or attempt to generate a story, break your message down into talking points, each of which should illustrate part or all of your message. Work hard on these talking points! For each individual press opportunity, write a line that really grabs attention—one that’s a clever way to make your point. Reporters always love a good metaphor.
A TV soundbite is only about 10 seconds and newspapers won’t quote you for more than one or two sentences. So, it’s essential to make your point and don’t ramble on.
Use every opportunity to repeat the message
The legislative process is ideal for generating news. First, there are specific reporters who are assigned to this beat, and they’re looking for something to write. Second, there are many potential hard news hooks which enable you to talk about your policy, over and over.
For example, if you follow the long-term strategy previously discussed here, you can pitch stories:
Don’t spend a lot of time or money on a demonstration that’s not likely to generate press coverage. Sometimes marches, rallies and petition presentments are done mostly because they are traditional. But if some type of demonstration is done all the time, it is far less likely to be newsworthy.
Of course, your opponents will have media events of their own. Insist to reporters that they include your side’s comments in your opponents’ stories. Don’t take no for an answer. They ought to do this to be fair and balanced, and if you come up with a clever line, they will want to include it.
Make it easy for the media to cover you
The best way to get media coverage is to make it easy for them to cover you. Time your events in consideration of reporters’ deadlines. Locate your events, whenever possible, somewhere that’s easy for reporters to reach. Create materials that show reporters how to turn your event into a story. And always be a proactive, aggressive advocate.
It is essential to learn reporters’ deadlines, especially those who are most likely to cover your story. Newspaper reporters often have to turn in their work at 4-5 PM. That means press events should usually be scheduled between 9 AM and 1 PM, avoiding as many conflicting events as possible. Friday is usually not the best press day because fewer people watch/listen to/read the news on Friday night and Saturday. (That’s why bad news is traditionally released on Friday afternoon.)
This depends on your own jurisdiction, of course. But if you’re putting on a common press conference, do not hesitate to book the room that’s near the press room and normally used for press events because that’s probably the easiest place for them. If you expect television cameras or news photographers, create a good visual. This is usually done by having volunteers hold up signs and banners that should, absolutely, include your message. Sometimes the visual alone makes the story. If there are good reasons to hold your press event somewhere that is not so convenient to reporters, stream it live in a webinar format and encourage reporters to watch and ask questions from their own desks.
Unless you have a rushed impromptu press conference—like in the hallway after a vote—always use a press advisory. This is essentially an invitation to the event, explaining who, what, when, where and why. Then at the event, distribute a press release. This should be written like a short news story. The purpose is to show how a reporter can turn your content into an article. By example, the press release argues that the event is newsworthy as well as important and/or interesting.
Distribute paper copies of press advisories and releases directly to reporters’ desks whenever that is possible. If you see reporters, tell them about the news event in person as well.
When you distribute a press advisory or release by email, journalists generally prefer that you deliver it in the text of the email, not in an attachment. Similarly, if you want to draw attention to a report, photo or video, they often prefer that it be on a website with a hyperlink to that site rather than providing these as attachments. (Though, by all means, provide an attachment if the reporter prefers it that way.)
When you’re responding quickly to an event or statement from your opposition, put that in writing whenever possible. Be clever and keep it short.
Finally, if there is an argument over facts, provide documentary evidence of your point or give the reporter contact information for an expert who can support your side.
When you have anything newsworthy, don’t wait for the media to contact you. Reach out to them. When you have a press advisory or release, follow up by phone or in person. When you don’t have a formal event, conversationally pitch story ideas to the media.
After something significant happens and reporters have already talked to you, and you know they are writing stories, don’t hesitate to check back about 30 minutes before the reporters’ deadlines to make sure they have everything they need. See if a reporter will tell you what the other side has said and provide a good response. If possible, email proof that you’re right and they’re wrong, or provide a source who can back you up.
It is rather common for people in politics to be jealous of lawmakers and advocates who frequently make it into the news. If people start calling you a “media hound,” take it as a compliment. That’s a mark of success.