Working with the media is tough, but ignoring it is tougher. In the end, it's also a losing strategy. Ease the way by planning ahead: know what you want to say, why you want to say it, who to say it to, and how to phrase it — and you're practically there.
Next to asking for money, talking to reporters can be one of the most difficult, even unnerving, aspects of an organizer's work. But it's every bit as important. Whether you're trying to shine the light on stealth candidates or keep books in your local library, the media can play a critical role in how your story ends.
Before you can begin telling your story, you have to know what your story is. That means being able to talk easily and succinctly about who you are, why you formed your organization, and what you hope to accomplish. One way to make sure you can do this is to formulate a mission statement. Even if it's seldom used, the process of writing your mission statement helps hammer out these and other answers. Be able to answer these questions: Why are you doing this? Who are you? Why should anyone care about this issue?
Next, think about why you want to tell this story. Do you want to influence policy makers? Increase awareness among voters? Increase membership?
Have your materials prepared before you approach the press. Your general information piece should include: a standard one- or two-sentence paragraph explaining your organization, the names and affiliations of the people involved in your organization, an address and working phone number. That means a number that doesn't go unanswered and isn't busy 23 hours a day.
Don't let a small budget hold you back. Your material doesn't have to be glossy and expensive — just neat, well-written, and typo-free. Now you're ready to begin identifying the media in your area. Start a list of daily and weekly newspapers, radio and television stations, the Associated Press bureau that serves your area, and college papers that cover off-campus news.
Monitor media coverage regularly to find out who is most likely to cover you. Smaller outlets, particularly television and radio stations, are more likely to staff general-assignment reporters who cover dozens of different stories every week. This means that it may take more time to develop relationships with certain journalists. Be prepared to go over background more than once.
It is critical to be aware of media deadlines. Remember that not only do different outlets have different deadlines, the same outlet may have different deadlines depending on the day of the week and the subject matter.
Finally, compile a list of alternative media sources, including radio and TV talk shows and newspaper op-ed pages. Again, assemble the names and numbers of those in charge.
The media can be approached in a number of different ways:
Press release. Ideally, a one-page, double-spaced news announcement about an action taken, a position staked out, people appointed to positions, suits filed. Releases can be used alone or in addition to a press conference.
Press conference. While print reporters are able to work from releases, television needs visuals. Press conferences allow you to use props to make a point. (Talking about censorship surrounded by stacks of books that someone is trying to ban, for example.) Of course, holding a conference is more complicated and risky than sending out a release. You have to find a good location accessible to reporters, at a time that makes it easy for them to meet their deadlines. And you have to have a reason. A release that doesn't grab anyone's attention will just get tossed in the trash, but a news conference without news can generate hostile attention.
Editorial boards. These scheduled meetings are on- or off-the-record conversations with a paper's editorial staff, taken to introduce an issue or organization, scheduled at your or the paper's suggestion. They may result in editorials and they may not. Reporters may or may not sit in. They are useful, but be careful not to assume that discussions with editorial staff are the same as discussions with reporters.
Just as there are different ways to approach the media, there are different reasons. These may be broken down into two categories: proactive and reactive.
Provocative means taking the initiative, ranging from announcing the formation of your organization to coming out in support of proposed legislation. Proactive means you are seeking out reporters, which means you have the task of convincing them that something is newsworthy. Getting your story told on talk shows and in the op-ed pages is part of being proactive. Don't wait for talk show producers to call you. Let them know you're available and why. Don't wait for newspapers to call, either. If you have an idea for an opinion piece, call the paper's editorial page and find out how to submit an idea.
Reactive involves responding to actions or comments by opponents. Part of your media work is to make sure reporters know you're there so you will hear from them when your issue is the topic of a news story. But you don't always have to wait for a call, either. For example, if you know that a local antigay group is holding a news conference on Tuesday at 1 p.m., call the reporters ahead of time to make sure they know you'll have a response. If you've just settled in for the evening news and see something that warrants a response, don't wait until the next day. Call the paper and see who is working on that story. Call the TV station and see if they're planning to rerun the story.
These suggestions will help you get started. Remember, there are always people out there who have done it before and would be more than happy to help. If you're not sure how to approach the media, call a national organization's press office. Talk to someone locally who has spent a lot of time with the media. The most important point to keep in mind: you have something newsworthy to say. Say it.
Pat Lewis is with the Interfaith Alliance based in Washington, DC.