Maximize Media Coverage of Your Event
By Jason Salzman
Making an "event" of your cause is vital to garnering news coverage. The news media, particularly television, rarely cover ideas, isolated opinions or abstract views. But with some creativity, you can transform an idea or an opinion about a cause into an event-with a visual component-that can be covered.
Here are eleven key steps for organizing a media event.
STEP 1: REFINE YOUR MESSAGE
First, identify one simple message that you want to communicate. Your message should be one phrase (e.g. Don't drink and drive.) and you should build your media event-with images, slogans, soundbites, signs, location-around it. Remember the advice of Henry Thoreau: "Simplify, simplify, simplify." And remember also what politicians do: Check polling and focus group data to determine which words and phrases communicate best with your target audienc.
STEP 2: SELECT THE RIGHT MEDIA EVENT
Sometimes you know what the foundation of your event will be (e.g., You're releasing a major report.), and you need to embellish this event with appropriate visual imagery, location, and timing. In other cases, you'll have to create your own event or "stunt" to gain coverage.
In any case, creating strong visuals for the news media is critical. (See "Ideas for Creating Newsworthy Visual Events" below.)
STEP 3: SELECT THE RIGHT TIME
Reporters generally work regular hours. Both broadcast and print media pare down staffs on weekends and after deadlines on weekdays, leaving only a couple of reporters in the newsroom instead of dozens. It's best to stage your event Monday through Thursday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Plan an event with excellent visuals for 5 p.m. or 10 p.m., allowing local TV news to broadcast live at the scene. Staging an event on Friday is not a good idea because Saturday's paper usually has fewer pages of news. For weekends, try Sunday morning -- before professional sports games begin.
The news value of an image-based stunt-dressing in costume, holding a candlelight vigil-can be increased substantially by staging it when a major story breaks in the news media about your cause, and local news outlets are looking for "local angles" and local images.
STEP 4: FIND AN EFFECTIVE LOCATION
The location for a media event should maximize its chances of being covered and help communicate the message your are sending. For example, if you are promoting an after-school recreation program to counter gang violence, you could stage your event in a playground, with safe kids playing basketball in the background.
STEP 5: COMPILE A MEDIA LIST
Obtain a list of news media from the library or from a like-minded nonprofit organization. Be sure to take advantage of the diversity of the media. Although the most powerful news media are very similar (witness network television news), there are other outlets that specifically seek stories that the major media ignore or serve specific audiences that you may want to reach. Don't ignore wire services, neighborhood newspapers, alternative weeklies, community radio, and others.
STEP 6: WRITE A NEWS RELEASE
"I might have 30 seconds to spend on a news release," says Paul Day, a veteran reporter for Denver's CBS affiliate, adding that he has to be "hit over the head with ideas" and that the important information should "leap off the page."
Overall, keep a news release short and clear. It should explain your event in one page, emphasizing what's unique and visually interesting. Spend 75 percent of your time writing the headline and first paragraph.
Here's a sample news release:
Citizens Against Pepsi
February 4, 2003
Citizens Call on Denver School Board to "Dump Pepsi"
Activists to Pour Pepsi into Sewer Prior to Denver School Board Meeting on Thursday, February 6
Claiming that selling Pepsi in schools threatens children's health, activists will dramatically illustrate Thursday what the Denver School Board should do about sales of soft drinks in Denver schools: Dump Pepsi.
Prior to the School Board's February meeting, activists will dump the unhealthy beverage where in belongs-in the sewer.
The protest will take place Thursday, February 6, at 4:30 p.m. in front of the DPS administration building, 900 Grant Street.
"Our kids are far better off with Pepsi going down the sewer pipes than going down their throats," says Dr. Manny Salzman, who is leading the campaign against renewing the Pepsi contract. "If the School Board wants more overweight, diabetic kids with high blood pressure, it should allow Pepsi sales in our schools. Let's be clear: This is a public health issue."
The DPS' exclusive contract allowing Pepsi products to be sold in Denver schools is up for re-negotiation this year. The Denver Post recently editorialized in favor of the contract, but called on the School Board to enforce provisions-like keeping machines out of elementary school halls-that are being ignored.
Fifteen percent of kids are overweight, up from 5% in 1980. Junk foods, including soft drinks, contribute to making children overweight. Overweight children are more susceptible to diabetes-the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. Diabetic children are susceptible to high blood pressure and heart and kidney problems.
"Children are encouraged to buy soft drinks by accessible vending machines and by implied endorsement of soft drinks by school boards," adds Salzman.
Activists are encouraging citizens to offer their comments on the Pepsi contract at a School Board hearing Thurs., Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. The hearing follows the School Board meeting, which starts at 5 p.m. To speak at the hearing, citizens must call the school board at 303-764-3210. Organizers, who have formed "Citizens Against Pepsi," expect kids, teachers, parents, and grandparents of DPS kids-as well as concerned citizens-to attend their protest.
STEP 7: DISTRIBUTE THE RELEASE
Often you need not send a press release to all media outlets you've got on file. If your strategy dictates that you reach only a segment of your community, target specific media outlets that will reach your target group. For example, if you're trying to send a message about birth control to teenagers, you'd probably want to focus on pop radio-not the newspaper.
Who should receive the release? At newspapers, send it to a reporter who covers your issue. If the paper is too small to have specialized reporters (called "beat" reporters), send the release to the city editor or the editor. At television stations, assignment editors are the point of contact. Address releases to the news director at radio stations. Make sure your local Associated Press bureau gets your materials. If you've got a personal contact at any news outlet, use it. Send releases by fax, mail, or internet.
STEP 8: REACH OUT AND CALL A REPORTER
You could have the country's best event, the planet's best release, the universe's most up-to-date media list, 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. Call well before your event and, possibly, again on the morning of your event.
Don't be afraid. Although busy, most journalists are friendly people who want to hear from you. Be aggressive, persistent, and polite.
STEP 9: PRACTICE FOR INTERVIEWS
You goal in an interview is to stay "on message." This means that no matter what a reporter asks you, you answer the question in a way that highlights your central message. Say you are being interviewed about local TV news, and you want to express your belief that TV news broadcasts air too many crime stories. Here's how you might answer three questions during this interview.
Question: Don't you think TV stations air crime stories because that's what people want?
Answer: People want balanced news, not crime every day as the lead topic for most TV news programs.
Question: Are you going to eat rice for dinner?
Answer: Sometimes I'm so sick after watching all the crime on TV news-even though crime rates are falling-that I'm not able to eat anything for dinner.
Queston: You look like the type who enjoys aphrodisiacs?
Answer: I would enjoy seeing a balance of stories on local TV news, not just crime, crime, and mayhem-topped with a dose of fluff.
To pull this off you must practice ahead of time. Find a friend who will be the reporter and role play.
STEP 10: HOLD A PRESS CONFERENCE
Many community organizers think of "publicity" and "press conference" pops in their minds. In reality, a press conference is usually the wrong way to attract the media. It's often a better idea to stage an event and have a spokesperson available to give individual interviews as requested.
But a press conference is called for when you expect many news outlets to cover an event or an announcement. Under these circumstances, a press conference should last about 20 minutes, plus 10 minutes for questions, with a maximum of four speakers. Start on time and have a sign-in sheet for reporters. A moderator should cut off presenters who run on too long. Make sure your amplification system is adequate.
Practice the entire press conference in advance, including questions, and make sure your speakers have props to hold.
Even if you decide not to hold a formal press conference, you should distribute a folder of easy-to-read information at your event. Do not include more than 10 pages of material in this "press packet," including: your news release, brief biographies of speakers at your event, two recent articles about your cause, and one feature article about your cause, preferably from a national publication.
STEP 11: ASSESS YOUR MEDIA EVENT
Take time to evaluate your media event. Don't take it personally if you received scant coverage. It wasn't your fault that Mayor Blunder broke his leg tripping over a pothole, dominating the day's news. The best definition of news is "what's in the newspaper," and this changes each day with the competition.
Don't give up. But also remember that eight fleeting inches of ink in the daily newspaper can be next to worthless if it is not linked to a strategy for winning your campaign (e.g. reaching decision makers or a targeted audience).
Think strategy first, media second.
IDEAS FOR CREATING NEWSWORTHY VISUAL EVENTS
The keys to doing good media work are being creative and aggressive, but not stupid. This section focuses on one creative component-developing visual imagery. It contains categories of media events that generated news coverage. Under each category are examples of how citizens adapted it for their issue.
In most cases, the same idea has been used by nonprofit activists representing completely different causes.
Nonprofits in Action
Recognize when your organization is doing something visually interesting, and publicize it! Cleaning up a river, removing graffiti, helping a senior citizen find a lost cat-all of it can be newsworthy, especially if it happens to be a slow news day.
Police often generate coverage by asking reporters to ride with them in police cars, and teachers call the paper when their classes are up to something interesting and colorful, like creating a giant globe on Earthday. (Remember, the news media are always looking for new ways to cover annual holidays.)
Expose the Actual Problem
Disabled activists in Denver demonstrated the need for access to the Capitol by abandoning their wheelchairs and trying to crawl up the Capitol steps.
Display a piece of the actual problem-offering politicians water from a contaminated site, publicly exposing elements of poverty, and the like.
Making the Most of a Petition
Instead of quietly delivering petitions to politicians, pro-choice activists in Kansas City received substantial media coverage by simply draping taped petitions over the railings of the Capitol rotunda.
The AFL-CIO delivered a "petition carpet" of signatures on a 36-inch-wide roll of paper, which was unfurled on the U.S. Capitol steps in Washington, D.C.
Cameras Love Costumes
Activists in Boulder, Colorado, dressed in pig costumes to make the point that the Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant was a "pork-barrel waste of money."
Other activists have dressed as clowns (Stop clowning around in the legislature.), Santa Claus (Stop giving corporations all the gifts.) trees (Stop clear-cutting.), Sacred Cows (Cut expensive pet projects of politicians.), and almost anything else you can think of.
Create a Realistic Replica of the Threat
After viewing political artist Barbara Donachy's 34,000 miniature clay bombs and submarines representing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a teacher told the International Herald Tribune: "Wow, I thought we only had 100 bombs. It's good to have something like this so people know." The piece, which is now permanently displayed at the National Peace Museum in Nebraska, is called "Amber Waves of Grain."
Activists have made replicas of nuclear-waste transport casks, radioactive waste itself, and South African shanty towns.
After struggling to raise the profile of the fight against a waste dump on the Mississippi River, activists in Minnesota enlisted Bonnie Raitt to perform a benefit concert, generating intense print and broadcast coverage.
Portions of the following article are based on the book Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits. To order a copy, call Perseus Books at 1-800-386-5656 or visit Amazon.com.