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 1: 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 2: 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:"
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
Book Explains How Nonprofit Groups Can Get Media Attention
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
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: www.bigmedia.org
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:
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
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]."
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).