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Let the World Know: A Beginner's Guide to Getting Media Coverage

By Jason Salzman

Flip through the news and you probably won't see or hear much about nonprofit organizations and activists. Why? Part of the answer is as simple as it is ironic: Most activists are too busy saving the world to tell journalists about it.

Nonprofit staffers are overloaded with-as one senior manager put it-the "real" work: volunteer recruitment, program operations and development, fundraising, lobbying, and so on. When it's time to prioritize scarce resources at nonprofit organizations, getting media coverage doesn't make the cut.

Unfortunately, this put-the-media-on-the-back-burner attitude leaves activists struggling to stay afloat in the dim light of obscurity and wondering why more people don't value their work. Even worse, it means they don't reap all the benefits that media attention can bring to the "real" work of nonprofit organizations (e.g., more money, more volunteers, easier staff recruitment, political victories, and so on).

But there's good news: It's easy to get a media program started at your organization, even if you've never done it before. Just make a long-term commitment to getting the word out and invest the time required to get the job done. Here's how you can begin:

Step One -- Observe what's newsworthy

Activists are often the types of people who hate the mainstream media, preferring the soothing voices on National Public Radio or the rational thinking of Noam Chomsky. If you're this type of person, get over it.

To understand what's newsworthy, you have to consume as much news as possible, including local TV news, talk radio, newspapers of all types, and more. Take in as much as you can, wherever you go. Over time, you will begin to recognize the kinds of stories that appear in, say, the business section of the newspaper or a particular daytime talk radio show. With this knowledge, it will be easier for you to "package" stories about your organization for specific media outlets whose audiences you want to reach.

Step Two -- Learn how to "pitch" stories to journalists

When you identify a newsworthy story about your organization, you need to tell journalists about it. The most common way to do this is by phone-with a follow-up e-mail. (A "press conference," where journalists gather to hear an announcement from a newsmaker, is seldom justified for a nonprofit organization.) If you're persistent, you can reach almost any journalist--at local or national news outlets--on the phone.

"Once you have a conversation, you've started a relationship," says John Allison, Op-ed Editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Once you've had a conversation with someone, the story becomes a bit more real."

The best time to call is early in the day and early in the week, but the reality is that journalists are-more often than not-extremely busy all the time, facing new deadlines every day.

"We're in an impatient business," said Porus Cooper, Assistant New Jersey Editor for the Philadelphia Enquirer. "We get lots of phone calls. In fact, there's a call pending right now as I'm speaking to you. I'm going to put you on hold. Hang on....To get the attention of a media person, you need to get to the news aspect fairly quickly."

It's up to you to respect journalists' time crunch and "pitch" your story to them as quickly as possible. Practice your pitch repeatedly before picking up the phone, making sure that you've got the strongest, most concise reasons why your story merits news coverage. Also, prior to calling, you should fax or mail journalists about two pages of written background material.

Here's a sample "pitch:"

You:

Hello, I'm with a national organization called Earth Force that's initiating a new program in Denver. Do you have a minute or two to hear about it?

Reporter:

Okay, go ahead.

You:

Surveys show that young people want to do something to protect the environment. But, the problem is, kids don't know what to do.

Earth Force has developed a pilot program to help get kids involved--and Denver is one of only four cities across the country to test it. If the program is successful in Denver and the other pilot cities, it could spread across the country.

Here's how it works: With the help of their teachers, the kids survey their communities for environmental problems-they actually take a walk around the neighborhood and look for environmental problems. Then they choose a specific problem to address, research it, and implement plans to solve it--for the long term.

Reporter:

Yup.

You:

Here in the metro area, we've teamed with educators in 15 schools from Boulder to Commerce City to Denver.

For example, in Commerce City at Adams City Middle School, students looked around their community and decided to address drainage, litter, and recreational deficiencies at a nearby park. At Place Middle School in Denver, students have a plan in place to erect environmental signs along a stretch of Cherry Creek near the school. At Cole Middle School in Denver, the kids will be surveying the Cole neighborhood Tuesday.

Earth Force--funded in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts--creates a structure to direct young people's concern about the environment into productive projects in the community.

Does this sound like a story that might interest you? If not, can you suggest someone else I should speak with?

Reporter:

This sounds interesting to me. Do you have written information about this?

You:

Sure. Yes, I'll e-mail you a packet of background information and a list of teachers involved.

Reporter:

Thank you.

If you're calling more than a couple journalists about a news story, you should prepare a "news release," which is a one-page explanation of your "news," prepared specifically for journalists. News releases are written like news in the newspaper or on TV, with short paragraphs and quotations.

Most of the time that you dedicate to writing a news release should be spent on the headline and first paragraph. The heart of your story-as well as any visual imagery for television-should be described in the headline. If appropriate, be creative and try to grab your readers. Always print a news release on your organization's letterhead.

"One page is more than enough," says Porus Cooper at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Give me the news right away. Give me the headline."

Here's a sample news release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE April 1
Contact: Jason Salzman
303-292-1524

Book Explains How Nonprofit Groups Can Get Media Attention
Author: Nonprofits Aren't Boring and Don't Have to Be Invisible

Is your pet issue or cause absent from the news? Well, stop complaining about the media and do something about it.

That's the gist of a new handbook written for citizens who want to shine the media spotlight on a cause or important issue. Based on interviews with working journalists across the country, Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits covers everything you need to know to get the word out.

The 300-page book contains concise information on how to contact reporters, create newsworthy imagery, book a guest on talk radio, write effective news releases, compile media lists, be a master interviewee, publish op-ed columns and letters-to-the-editor, pitch feature stories, lobby editorial writers, columnists, photographers, and much more. It also lists tips on how to develop credibility among journalists, respond to reporters in a crisis, and create a media strategy.

"Nonprofit organizations and activists can get more media attention by improving their media skills," says Jason Salzman, author of Making the News. "They need to offer journalists quality information--in the right packaging at the right time. Nonprofits aren't boring, and they don't have to be left out of the news."

Making the News was just published by Westview Press. It retails for $16.95. Check your bookstore or order directly by calling 1-800-386-5656.

"This book should be in the hands of every community group that wants to make a difference." -- Michael Moore, filmmaker and author of Stupid White Men

"A truly essential guide to making the most of organizing through the media. Every organization should have this in its tool kit." Harvey Wasserman, Greenpeace

Here is another sample news release:

Contact: Paul Klite
For Immediate Release 303-832-7558 Monday, February 16
Group Challenges Licenses of Denver TV Stations
Television News Harming Citizens

Denver, February 16 (RMMW) -- Rocky Mountain Media Watch called on the Federal Communications Commission today to revoke the licenses of four Denver TV stations, claiming they are broadcasting local news programs harmful to citizens.

RMMW asks the FCC, pursuant to its legal charge to regulate broadcasting "in the public interest," to protect the people.

The Petitions to Deny, based on a series of content analyses of local television news conducted by RMMW from 1994 to 1997, document that local newscasts on KWGN-TV, Channel 2, KCNC-TV, Channel 4, KMGH-TV, Channel 7, and KUSA-TV, Channel 9, are severely unbalanced, with excessive reporting of violent topics and trivial stories.

"We're fighting the onslaught of tabloid journalism," said Paul Klite, RMMW Executive Director. "Night after night audiences are terrified and titillated, aroused and manipulated, but not informed. Like an unbalanced diet, which gradually can lead to serious illness, the local TV news threatens the health of our community."

RMMW asks the FCC to require stations to improve their newscasts and to (1) air public service announcements alerting the public to TV news' potentially harmful side-effects, (2) broadcast educational media literacy programs in prime time for both children and adults, (3) require stations to develop a plan, and make it public, for improving their coverage of local elections.

"Distorted TV news has serious side-effects, like viewer alienation, cynicism, racial polarization, violent behavior including copy-cat crimes, intimidation, passivity, ignorance, and disempowerment," said Klite. "Together these constitute a toxic stew of negative influences in our community."

Rocky Mountain Media Watch is a Denver-based nonprofit organization founded in 1994 to challenge the news media, particularly local TV news, to resist tabloid coverage and air stories that inform citizens It's publications, including Baaad News: Local TV News in America, have received national acclaim.

The complete Petitions are on RMMW's web site: http://www.bigmedia.org/

Follow-up call

You could have the country's best event, the planet's best news release, the universe's most up-to-date media list, and be blessed in heaven--and all of it may not matter unless you make follow-up calls to make sure journalists know about your event.

Faxing, mailing, or e-mailing a release to a reporter does not guarantee that he or she will see it. Mail gets lost, chewed, ignored, or buried. At some outlets, the faxes pile up into oblivion unless a journalist makes a special effort to retrieve one.

"A follow-up call can make the difference in getting on the air," says Leonard Nelson, producer of KNBR radio's morning show in San Francisco. "If you're persistent, you stand a better chance." Few journalists have layers of secretaries. You can get through. Keep trying. Before you call, practice your lines.

Here is a sample follow-up call for a TV assignment editor or TV reporter:

              

YOU

Hello, I'm calling from People for a Liveable Downtown to make sure you received our news release about our plans to release giant balloons to show how ugly the new skyscraper will look downtown. Five neighborhood groups are opposing construction of the building.

ASSIGNMENT EDITOR

Let me check.... I don't see it.

YOU

We're releasing the balloons tomorrow to dramatize how massive the new skyscraper will be. I'll fax the release again right now.

ASSIGNMENT EDITOR

Thank you.

Comment: At least half the time, reporters will not be able to locate your faxed news release when you call. You should immediately fax it again and call again immediately after sending it to make sure it was received the second time. 

Step 3: Become a Master Interviewee

The key to successful interviews with journalists is to keep it simple and interesting. In most interviews, you should stick to one or two central messages, drawing on a couple supporting points for each message. You should repeat your messages for emphasis.

You should also develop a soundbite or two to communicate your simple messages. Soundbites are the type of speech commonly found in the news, especially TV news. They are defined by how long they take to deliver (five to 12 seconds) and the style of language the contain (action verbs). An effective way to write a soundbite is to begin with the phrase, "I'm here today...." (e.g., "Save Our Cities is here today to show that citizens care about preserving historic buildings across the state.") Often the most quotable soundbites are linked to imagery. For example, activists in New Mexico donned large Pinocchio noses to illustrate their opinion that officials were stretching the truth about the safety of a nuclear waste dump. Their soundbite: "The truth about the governor's position is as plain as the nose on my face."

Tips to Be a Master Interviewee

Practice answering questions in advance. (Have your friend play the role of reporter.)

Speak slowly and give brief answers to questions.

Pretend you're Henry David Thoreau: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Tell a reporter what you think is the most important point you've made.

Develop different styles of communicating for print, TV, and radio reporters.

Realize that it's okay to be nervous; anxiety can actually add vigor and clarity to your thoughts--and, besides, everybody gets nervous.

Refer to concrete examples, personal experience, and clear images.

Remember that reporters want stories, as well as data.

For television, look at the reporter or camera operator--not directly into camera.

Warm up your voice before your interview. (Sing to your dog or something.)

Never assume journalists agree with you though they will often act as if they do.

Eliminate insider jargon and acronyms from your speech.

Never say "no comment;" if you cannot talk about a topic, explain why.

If you don't want to answer a hypothetical question, simply say so.

Suggest questions that reporters should ask of your opponents or critics.

If you don't have an answer to a question, say so and try to track down an answer later.

Don't worry about being a "media personality." Be yourself.

Step 4: Create a media strategy for your organization

With today's intense analyses of "spin," leaks, and power news conferences, it's no wonder many people are daunted when they think of developing a media strategy. But for nonprofits, creating a media strategy isn't hard. You just have to take time to plan the purpose and timing of your efforts to make news.

If it contains nothing else, your media plan should state why you want media coverage. Once you've got a clear answer, you should identify the audience you want to reach and when you want to reach it. Then you should list media outlets that will reach your audience. Your final task in developing your media strategy is to figure out how to convince your target media outlets to cover you at a time that makes strategic sense for you.

For example, if you want media coverage to educate teenagers about the benefits of birth control, you won't want to focus on getting covered by local TV news. Teenagers don't watch it! Instead, you'd want to devise a media strategy focusing on pop radio or teen magazines--news outlets that reach your target audience (teenagers).

If you want to link your coverage to a lobbying campaign in the state legislature to pass a bill for the free distribution of condoms in public high schools, you'd aim for news coverage to appear at a strategic time as the bill is being considered. (You might even want to target media outlets that will reach the districts of swing voters in the Legislature.)

Your media strategy should be part of another, longer organizational document: your strategic communications plan. This should explain how you want your organization and your issue to be perceived by your community in the long-term. It should explain how all your organization's communications efforts-from lectures and newsletters to op-eds and annual reports-advance the long-term goals of your organization. Your strategic communications plan should explain how your entire public profile fits together to present your issues and organization to citizens.

Step 5: Compile a media list

The best way to begin to put together a media list is to call groups in your community that work on a similar cause and ask for their lists. Or call your state-wide association of nonprofit organizations, if your state has one. You can take what they've done and build on it; any media list can be improved. If you can't get help from a like-minded organization, check the library. Lots of reference books are available.

The more information your media list contains, the better off your organization will be--especially in the long-run when staff leave, taking everything that's hasn't been entered into the data base with them. So, while you can get by with a local list of about 12 major media outlets, names of a contact at each, and his or her phone and fax number, you should aim higher.

Create an exhaustive list that includes all the news outlets in your area, including all neighborhood publications, and even newsletters of community groups. For each, try to include: the name of the outlet, multiple contacts at each, phone and fax numbers, the street and e-mail address, call letters, channel, format (live, taped, talk show, etc.), deadlines, relevant comments, and a detailed history of interactions with your organization.

Below are four major types of news outlets and whom to contact at each. Again, your primary tools for reaching reporters are the phone and e-mail.

"A call doesn't bother me," says Cooper at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It doesn't bother me, either, to be asked what we'll do with [a story idea]."

Daily Newspapers. There are many different ways to get covered by large metropolitan dailies. Take advantage of as many as you can.

News. If you have hard news (e.g., a new report with statistics, a protest, a response to a national news story), contact the city desk or a reporter who covers your issue area. Also call the photo editor, if your organization is up to something that's visually interesting.

Features. Features are lengthy human interest stories that aren't necessarily connected to the "news" of the day. For example, you might see a feature on mushroom hunting, driving a taxi, or AIDS research. Unlike news stories--which are usually written on one day and published the next--features often take a couple weeks or more to develop and write. Contact the feature page or, preferably, specific feature writers with your ideas.

Letters-to-the-Editor. Write letters in response to news stories that affect your work. The letters page is one of the most widely read sections of the newspaper. Take a moment to write a 100 word letter, but don't bog down trying to make it perfect. Just get it done. (Most newspapers prefer to receive letters by e-mail.)

Guest Column. While the pundits whose work appears in the commentary section may not be read by the masses, you can be sure that most policy junkies make a point to read them. You can join them, if you publish a guest column. Such a column-often called an "op-ed"-gives you the chance to go into more depth (about 750 words) about your ideas, which often gain a measure of legitimacy after appearing in the newspaper. To submit a guest column, run your idea by the op-ed page editor first. "I like to talk to local people," says John Allison at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I can often steer the person in the most fruitful direction. I can say, 'Don't do this; do that instead.'"

Local TV News. More people get their news from local television programs than any other source. That's one reason why there's intense competition to land stories on these shows. Another reason is that only a small number of stories can be aired in the approximately 12 minutes that the average 35-minute local TV news shows reserve for actual "news." (The rest is commercials, sports, chit-chat, teasers, and weather.) To break into the local news your story has to have strong visual appeal and you have to be persistent. (Yes, you can get covered even if your story isn't about mayhem!.) Contact the assignment editors at your local TV stations. In your pitch, emphasize visuals.

News radio. Unfortunately, radio stations across the country are shutting down their news departments, leaving their disc jockeys (or "shock jocks") to read news tidbits and celebrity items from the local paper or from news services. This means that even large metropolitan areas may have only one commercial radio station--plus possibly a couple public radio stations--with staff reporters who might cover your story or event. Find out which stations have news departments and pitch your story to the news director or to specific reporters.

Talk radio. Talk radio can be a communications force. It attracts a devoted band of listeners, many of whom are active in the community. Identify the shows that make sense for you and call the producers or, in smaller markets, the host. One caveat: If you face a cranky host, have an adept spokesperson.

Other local media outlets. Here's a list of other local news outlets--along with (in parentheses) whom to contact at each: weekly newspapers (the editor or reporters), magazines (the editor or freelance writers), TV public affairs programs or TV talk shows (producers), news services (news editor), pop radio (disk jockeys). You should keep a list of national news outlets, too, for that Big Story that will come your way one day.

Step 6: Start publicizing your cause in the news

The key to getting news coverage of your organization is to take advantage of the full spectrum of news media outlets in your community. It's your job to identify, create, or tailor stories about your organization to suit the different needs of different journalists.

"People at nonprofit organizations see the news," said Elaine Effort, a reporter with KQV radio in Pittsburgh. "They see what's going on, and they know if a service they provide relates to it. For example, yesterday there was a big shooting at a school. Say there's a nonprofit that deals with grieving children. Here's their chance. Call before the story is old news."

Put your media list to work today. And don't give up. Just because you didn't get covered one day doesn't mean you won't make the news the next. On a slow news day, anything can be news. Also remember that, over time, your job will get easier as you develop relationships with journalists in your community.


Portions of this article are drawn from Jason Salzman's Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits (available on Amazon.com, at bookstores, or by calling Westview Press at 1-800-386-5656).

 


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