Building Relationships with the Media to Get Your Message Across

Do you want to increase positive coverage of kinship, foster, or adoptive families? Do you want to shape the public dialog about children who need families? Do you want to respond to negative stories? Working with the media requires careful attention to your message and your methods. Whether you want to do occasional responses to negative or misleading stories or you want to generate new stories that help accomplish your goals, understanding the media is a key place to start. The information that follows is designed to help you plan your strategy and make the best possible use of your media efforts. (You can read the Advocates for Families First Messaging Memo and Communications Tips to develop some of the most effective content to use in your media outreach. Before reading this fact sheet, you may also want to view Quick Tips for Working with the Media.)

This fact sheet includes several sections to help guide your media work:

Media Advocacy[1]

Everyone has seen organizations and agencies make a case for their cause on the television, newspaper, and radio. There are many ways you can use the media to the benefit of your cause. This section introduces you to working with the media.

What Are the Media and Media Advocacy?

Media, which is the plural form of medium, are the forms of communication — television and radio; newspapers, magazines, and written materials (or “print media”), and, more often now, the Internet and social media — used to spread or transmit information from a source to the general public.

Advocacy means openly supporting a certain viewpoint or group of people. If you are an advocate for a specific cause, you work to persuade local, state, or federal governments or other entities to grant specific rights, make policy changes, provide money, or create new laws for the good of your cause.

Media advocacy is the use of any form of media to help promote an organization’s or a company’s objectives or goals, which come from the group’s vision and mission. For example, suppose you’re a media advocate for a nonprofit agency working to improve the public perception of foster care. You would try to present key foster care issues and the changes you want to make in such a way that you:

  • Change the way community members look at children who need families and the people who take care of them. You might want to make it clear whom it affects and why, or why people become foster parents.
  • Create a reliable, consistent stream of publicity for your agency’s issues and activities, including articles and news items about the effects of trauma on children and how foster parents help; personal interest stories; success stories; interviews with agency staff and current and former youth who were in care, etc.
  • Motivate community members and policy makers to get involved. You probably have ideas about what could be done with public funding, or with government policies that addressed gang violence. You might have volunteer opportunities, or want to publicize a state-sponsored initiative that needs public input and support. Or perhaps you’re trying to raise money for your work. The media can help with all of these … if you know how to work with them.

Media advocates, or the people who work to attract publicity for organizations and causes, know that the media can get a public or social policy message across to the largest audience possible in the least amount of time.

As a media advocate, you can use the media to:

  • Inform the public about what really matters in child welfare, and educate them about how we can ensure children and youth have families, and families have support.
  • Recast problems such as child abuse and neglect as public health concerns that affect everyone, not just individuals. If you asked most people whether they wanted to ensure that children have families, they’d say yes. But they really don’t consider it their problem unless someone they know or are close to is involved. The media can help frame it as everyone’s problem, and children who need care as everyone’s children.
  • Encourage other professionals and community members to find out more about child welfare issues in general, and to get involved.

Why Should You Engage in Media Advocacy?

The media have been shown to be a primary source of information, but be careful! The media can be the best friend or worst enemy of advocates. Reporters’ backgrounds vary, and, as much as journalists try to be objective, they have biases like everyone else. In addition, they have to be quick studies: you may have 20 years of experience working with foster care, and they may have none, but they have to try to learn everything you know in a day or two. They have to depend on the information they find or are given, and they’re going to get some things wrong.

Journalists also try — rightly — to get all sides of the story. If you have opponents, they’re likely to speak to them as well as to you, and your opponents may be very persuasive. If you get on the wrong side of media people — treat them with disrespect, don’t tell them the truth, don’t keep appointments or return phone calls — they’ll probably be less sympathetic to you and your issue than if they like and respect you. Their stories will reflect that … or simply not appear at all.

Despite the pitfalls, getting involved with the media can yield great benefits. Newspapers, television, and radio have access to different kinds of people and audiences. Your voice, and the voices of those you’re concerned with, can be made many times louder and more convincing through media attention.

Some specific reasons for media advocacy are:

  • To inform the media — and through them the public — about who and what really matters in child welfare and why.
  • To use the media to pressure policy makers to change or institute policies that affect children, youth, and families involved in the child welfare system.
  • To influence the media to give your organization or coalition extensive coverage, allowing your members to tell their stories in their own words.
  • To give communities more control by letting residents who might not otherwise be heard have a stronger voice in the media. Shining the spotlight on a community can give its members the power and the desire to change the policies and situations that affect their lives.
  • To persuade the media to cover the kinds of stories that will light a fire under other community members, so that they get involved and contribute to community-based solutions.

When Should You Focus on the Media?

You should always focus on the media when you are ready. Media coverage can be a two-way street and while good coverage can help your organization, your group should be prepared if the coverage is not what you expected.

Good times to focus extra energy on the media include:

  • During the announcement of a new project. For example, you may want to recruit more funders to your organization, and publicity given to your agency’s new initiative to reduce the sale of cigarettes to teens is a good way to alert the public to your plans and needs.
  • When you have information that can be tied to community news. Perhaps your community has a shortage of foster or adoptive parents. You can tie your efforts to increase public support for kinship, foster, and adoptive families into the need for more families.
  • When using an opportunity for publicity could mean the difference between your meeting your goals or not.
  • When your issue has reached crisis proportions, but few people are aware of it. Youth may spend years in institutions or aging out of care without a family, but the situation can be invisible to most of the population unless the media reports it.
  • When a media opportunity makes the difference between the adoption or rejection of a law or regulation you support or disagree with.
  • When you’ve achieved something important. The media can help you let the community know about the great work you’re doing and how it benefits everyone.

What Does Media Advocacy Involve?

There are two ways to answer this question: one is by considering how you work with the media; the other is by examining what you might aim to accomplish through media advocacy.

Working with the Media

Establish personal relationships

As we’ve mentioned, the first step in working with the media (the first step in working with anyone, in fact) is to establish personal contact with at least one of the people at any media outlet you’ll need to deal with. Having a personal contact means that there’s a specific person to talk to whenever you call or e-mail, and that you can develop a relationship with that person.

Developing a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean starting a friendship — although that can happen — but rather establishing a working relationship that’s friendly and comfortable. That implies mutual respect and a willingness to help the other person. It also implies both the comfort to say “no” when you’re asked to do something that you can’t or that wouldn’t be appropriate for your organization, and the comfort to accept a “no” to your request without it damaging the relationship on either side. Having good working relationships with people in the media will make working with them easier and more pleasant for both of you.

Give and you shall receive

An important part of establishing and maintaining a relationship, and of working with the media in general, is giving media people what they need to do their jobs. That includes:

  • Be available when you’re needed. When your contacts in the media call, answer. If you can’t respond immediately, get back to them as soon as you can.
  • Be open. Be as open and generous as you can with information without getting yourself or your organization in trouble.
  • Be trustworthy. Always tell the truth to the media. If you can’t tell the truth — if it would cause a serious problem, or if the timing is wrong — then simply refuse to comment, but don’t lie.
  • Be accurate. Make sure you have the facts before you make a statement. If you don’t have the answer to a question, promise to get it and get back to the reporter with it — and do. If you quote statistics, make sure they’re from a reliable source, and unquestionable. If your information is consistently accurate, the media will turn to you as a source of information about your issue. You won’t have to call them — they’ll call you.
  • Alert the media to stories relating to your issue that they might be interested in. These might include human interest stories, awards or funding given to your organization, information about the issue itself (a national initiative relating to it, for example, or new statistics issued about it), or local or national events (an open house or fundraising concert, a national day devoted to the issue.)

Ask for what you want, within reason

If you have a good working relationship with the media, they’ll cover your stories, give you good publicity, and highlight your issue. If there’s a particular story you want written or aired, suggest it to your contacts and discuss it. Most media coverage is a win-win proposition: you and the media both gain. They’re looking for stories to present to the public, and you’re trying to get information out to the public. Your collaboration meets both your goals, and is good for the public as well, since it gives them information about an important community issue.

The media can help not only with stories. You might want to start a letter-to-the-editor campaign to draw attention to a particular aspect of your work, to pending legislation, or to the plight of your participants. You may be able to arrange with the local paper to publish a letter a day (written by participants, for the most part) for a certain period. That may be accompanied by a series of interviews on local TV, or by investigative reporting (“Families have to choose between staying warm and eating.”).

Sometimes reporters, or even whole media outlets, may take up your cause as their own. In that (ideal) case, they may come up with ideas for stories, promotions, fundraising, and publicity. Working with the media in that situation may be complicated, however, if some of their ideas are inappropriate or off the mark. Having good relationships with media people is crucial here, so that you can be honest about what you think will work or takes the right tone. (You probably don’t want to portray your participants as victims, for example, but rather as people struggling with difficult circumstances.)

If your media contacts turn down a request, be gracious. They may not be able or willing to do everything you ask, and that’s reasonable. If you’re really being ignored over a long period, however, it might be time to ask why, and to try to negotiate a way that you can both get what you need.

Quick Tips

·      Speak in sound bites — Keep your language simple and direct. If you’re responding to a question, include the question in your answer. For example, if you are asked why family care is better than group care, you might say: “Families can do things a group home never can. Children and youth of all ages fare better in families than they do in group care. Research shows that children in family care are far more likely to say they like where they live than children in group care. Children can age out of a group home but kids never age out of a family.”

·       Be prepared and strategic — Make a list of three points you want to cover. If a reporter doesn’t ask a question that leads to your points, make a transition to cover what you want to say. Repeat your key points in different ways.

Always be pleasant and respectful

You’re much more likely to be treated well and to get what you want if you treat everyone you deal with — not only media people–with respect and good humor. That doesn’t mean that you have to ignore abuse, but rather that you’re far less likely to experience any if you don’t offer any reason for it. It also means that people are much happier to hear from you and return your calls and messages if they know that they’ll be talking to someone who won’t be abusing them.

Goals for Working with the Media

Agenda setting

Agenda setting is what you accomplish when you influence what the media covers (media agenda), what people talk about (public agenda), and what policy makers do during legislative session or in committee (policy or political agenda).

To set an agenda:

  • Let the media and public know what your concerns are
  • Get the general public to acknowledge that your issues are important; that is, get them talking about what is important to you
This step may have several stages, depending on how much the public knows about your issue. You may have to start by persuading the media to cover the issue at all (that’s setting the media agenda). If they’re already doing so, the next stage is to draw the connection between the issue and what happens in your community. Often, people are aware of an issue, but assume that it only exists elsewhere. Once people understand that the issue is a local one that could affect themselves and their families and friends (setting the public agenda), it’s time to steer the media toward reporting on how it’s being addressed, and what kinds of solutions have worked elsewhere.

This whole process may take some time, but it will be worth it for several reasons: you will have educated the media about the issue (so they don’t approach it in a simplistic way) and convinced them that it is truly important. They will have, in turn, raised the consciousness of the public to the point where the community is ready to act.

 

  • Generate some sort of action. Create a policy change or new policy surrounding your issue or get more people involved.

The role of the media here is to both generate and reflect public opinion on the issue that will then influence policy makers to act appropriately. Government bodies, corporations, and other large entities are subject to inertia (the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest—for things to stay the same). They often need the push of a media campaign that tells them public opinion demands some action before they’ll move. Such a campaign can set (or reset) the political agenda in your favor.

Agenda setting helps you make connections with the media and the people who pay attention to them. It also sets the stage for your next trick, shaping the debate.

Shaping the debate

Shaping the debate is trying to change the way people talk about public health problems. Traditionally, the media tell an audience, “This is what the problem is”—informing the public about a problem — and “This is the solution” — usually summed up in a quick health message such as, “Just say no.”

The media’s habit of giving tidbits of information about problems and then providing quick-fix solutions (e.g., “This is your brain… this is your brain on drugs… Any questions?”) can reinforce the idea that if a person has a health problem or is poor, it’s her own fault. This kind of simplistic media picture often influences the general public to believe that complex problems have quick and easy solutions.

Once you gain greater control over the way child welfare issues are reported by the media, then the community can work for improvements.

Advancing a policy

Advancing a policy is a way to use the media to put pressure on policy makers. But media coverage created by media advocates has to be built and backed up in such a way that decision makers feel or anticipate pressure from the people who elected them. This pressure, then, motivates policy makers to take action.

Like setting a public agenda, this can take time. Just as with the public, you have to make sure that policy makers know the issue exists and understand its implications for them and their constituents. You also have to realize that the media alone won’t bring about policy change.

Media pressure has to be combined with messages from constituents — whether through direct contact (e-mail, phone calls, letters), or through demonstrations, petitions, and other public forms of direct action. The media can help to get those messages flowing, but it won’t happen overnight. And even once legislators or other policy makers have heard the messages, change may take a while. You have to keep the pressure on until it can’t be ignored, and then continue to keep it on even after policy change has occurred, to make sure there’s no backsliding.

Getting attention

The primary methods used to public eye include:

  • News media — television, newspaper, and radio journalists — provide the broadest and most in-depth coverage of your organization. Placing interviews and stories is free, and the news media are reasonably credible — people take seriously what they read in the papers, or hear and see on radio and television. Disadvantages are that the attention span of the media is short, and you have to compete with a huge amount of other information just to get your stories told. That’s why having good media connections is so important.
  • Public service announcements, or PSAs are similar to paid ads. However, PSAs are free because broadcasting stations use them to fulfill a regulation requiring them to “serve in the public interest.” While PSAs can help you keep your issue before the public, they give you very little control over when and how they will air, and the content is usually short (often 30 seconds) and bland. They also can’t address immediate news or needs.
  • Press releases are write-ups — usually one page — that inform the media about your organization’s news. Press releases let you control what you want to say and when, but media outlets may or may not use them, or may edit them down or change them. They may not always look the same when they go out to the public as they did when you turned them in.
  • Press conferences are media events in which you present a statement, usually about an achievement or newsworthy event relating to your organization or program, answer questions, or make announcements to a roomful of people who represent different media outlets. You can call a press conference, but the media may not come, or may not choose to report on it afterwards. In addition, they usually have to be organized quickly in order to be timely, and they take careful planning and a lot of legwork to make sure that media do come when you call.
  • Paid advertisements — Paid ads give you a great deal of creative and other control — you can choose your media outlets, the times and places that the ads run, the wording and the style of them, etc. The major drawback, of course, is that they can be expensive, especially on TV. An ad campaign requires resources, and you have to decide whether those resources can be better used in running your program and organization than in advertising.

So there are a lot of different ways to get the attention of the media and the general public. Which one is right for you? What you choose to use in your media campaign depends on what you want to say, who you want to say it, and who you want them to say it to.

How Do You Set Up a Media Campaign?

A media advocacy campaign is similar to a political campaign in that the people who run it need to plan it out; they need to have specific strategies, or plans and tools, in mind before they take any action. As you gear up for a media advocacy campaign, you’ll need to prepare yourself to do business with the media. It’s your job as a media advocate to understand your organization’s goals and to know how you want the media to help you advance those goals.

Prepare your organization

Designate a media coordinator or coordinating group. This person or group develops and implements media strategy, and acts as the bridge between the media and your organization or coalition. They should approve anything that’s destined for the media before it leaves the organization, to make sure that your message is consistent, and that no one is saying anything he (or the organization) will later regret.

The media coordinator or a member of the coordinating group should also act as spokesperson with the media for the organization. She should be articulate and politically savvy, able to think quickly, and equipped with all the facts, statistics, and other information available about your issue and your organization or coalition. She should have an open manner, come across well on radio and TV, and be able to establish friendly relationships with media people. (That’s why press secretaries to politicians are often former media people themselves.) She’ll also need to be prepared to speak with media representatives at any time, using extra caution with words and language that can be manipulated.

Be aware that the representatives of the media are human: they make mistakes, they have prejudices, and they want to present the best and most interesting story they can. In practice, that means that if you talk with the media regularly, your remarks will be misquoted and/or misinterpreted from time to time (usually unintentionally, but not always, depending on the character of the media outlet you’re dealing with), and you’ll have to learn how to repair the damage without sounding like a whining child.

You should also realize that there’s no such thing as “off the record” (meaning “I’ll tell you this if you promise not to print or broadcast it.”) Assume that anything you say will turn up in a media report, probably with your name attached to it. Don’t say anything to the media unless you’re willing to see it made public. All politicians know this, and you should, too.

 

Make sure that everyone in the organization understands both your media strategy and your message, so that if someone is approached unexpectedly by the media, he can answer questions consistently, and will know what he should say and what he shouldn’t.

Identify your objectives

Ask yourself why you need to set up a media campaign in the first place. What is your organization missing? Is an advocacy campaign the best way to get it? What are you going to use the media for? Do you only want to inform the public of important facts or do you want to get community members involved in your issues? Do you want to change policies or create new ones? Do you want to expose your opponents? Do you want to build support for your goals and objectives? Clarifying why you want to work with the media will clarify what they can do for you … and what you can do for them.

Select a target audience

Anyone who gets involved in child welfare issues can make a difference. But, because the people who live in one community can have many different opinions and preferences, you can’t reach everyone with just one message. You will need to narrow your audience and decide whom you want to target. Whom do you want to reach? The general public? Policy makers? People who are undecided about your issues? People who don’t know about your issues? People who are affected? Different populations respond to different kinds of messages — sometimes in subtle ways.

Make a plan

Because media advocacy activities can be time and money-consuming, it’s important to put your best foot forward when you begin a campaign. Carefully consider when you should start your campaign, whom you will contact first, what issues you will tackle, how you will present them. What forms of media would you like to use? Television, print media (magazines, newspapers, newsletters, press releases, etc.), websites, blogs, podcasts, e-mail, radio, billboards, public service announcements, news stories, feature stories?

Be flexible

Even though you put a lot of thought into your media advocacy plan, be prepared to change your plans and goals if necessary. Remember, the news in our world can change in the blink of an eye, and you need to be ready to react to an opportunity. When the political or financial climate shifts, are your goals still feasible for your organization? Do you want to continue to send the same media message, or will you reframe it? Should you use other media outlets, rather than those you’ve been using?

Keep your ear to the ground

What do people talk about these days, in your community and nation-wide? What can polls and surveys tell you about the hot topics they talk about? How much do people know about your issues? What kinds of misconceptions or prejudices can you find in public opinion? Knowing the answers to questions like these can tell you what your media campaign should focus on, and how you should frame your message to get the greatest impact.

Keep at it indefinitely

Media campaigns never really end. Once you’ve achieved your immediate goals, you have to maintain them, and you’ll have other goals to work toward as well. Sustaining your relationships with the media and continuing to get coverage of the issues you’re concerned with are necessary if you’re in this work for the long run.

 

Understanding Various Media Options

Knowing the advantages of particular media types can help you focus your energy to maximize your results. With each medium, you have different options for seeking media coverage.

Newspapers

From powerful institutions like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, to small weekly or monthly neighborhood publications, print and online newspapers reach millions of readers every day. In many cities, specialized newspapers serve African American, Latino, Native American, or Asian American constituents.

Your Options

  • Seek coverage of an event or story (most likely for larger newspapers)
  • Submit commentaries or op eds
  • Submit feature articles (most likely for smaller or community paper)
  • Respond to articles, stories, or commentaries
  • Meet with an editorial board to ask them to take a position through an editorial
  • Talk with columnists and ask them to write about kinship care, foster care, or adoption
  • Serve as a resource for local reporters

Television

Television presents infinite possibilities for raising awareness, especially during Adoption Month, Foster Care Month, and Grandparents Month. Besides the network affiliates, low- or no-cost cable access channels and public television stations are also excellent options. They have a smaller audience, but are actively seeking programming and may be happy to air your story. Television is best suited to events that include visual appeal.

Your Options

  • Host an event with visual appeal, such as a press conference or an event at the capitol with a symbolic representation of children in care or a performance by a child or children’s group
  • Make suggestions for news stories on nightly broadcast or morning or midday shows
  • Offer to do an expert interview for a news show
  • Solicit an in-depth story in a news magazine
  • Host a question-and-answer session on a public access station
  • Serve as a resource for local reporters

Blogs and Websites

Like newspaper, blogs and websites often offer you the opportunity to create and publish your own articles or commentaries.

Your Options

  • Write a guest blog post
  • Become an active commenter on big, related stories
  • Seek a commitment for an ongoing column
  • Build a relationship with influential bloggers, who have tremendous power to shape the conversation.

Radio

Radio is an often-overlooked media option, but it has a large audience, especially during drive time.

Your Options

  • Offer to be a guest on a talk radio show
  • Schedule a short radio call-in show or interview piece, a longer feature, or a series of feature stories on kinship care, foster care, or adoption.
  • Contact a station that conducts interviews and records features—public radio stations or those on the AM dial for instance—then offer several ideas; suggest that a series of several spots can be created from a single taped interview, and name yourself or your organization as a resource.
  • Ask music radio stations with morning talk shows if they will discuss child welfare issues

 Creating News Stories the Media Wants[2]

How many times have you heard a radio or TV reporter say something like “Next, we hear about a woman who started her own business while she was homeless”? How about a newspaper headline on the order of “Teens Take on Trash and Win”? The chances are you said to yourself, “That might be interesting,” and stayed tuned in or continued reading. Those stories might have come not from a reporter’s digging, but from an organization or initiative like yours.

Organizations involved in advocacy, whether that’s their primary purpose or simply a way of gaining support for the work they do, often pitch stories to the media. Placing news stories can be the cheapest and most effective means of getting your message to the public, and, through them, to policy makers and funders. This section provides some guidelines both for recognizing or creating news stories related to your work that appeal to the media and the public, and for persuading the media to publish or broadcast those stories.

What Is a News Story?

A news story is a written or recorded (or, occasionally, live) article or interview that informs the public about current events, concerns, or ideas. You don’t usually write the story — though sometimes local media will use exactly what words you give them — but you provide story ideas to journalists who then flesh out your idea to create the story as it appears.

A news story can be:

  • Long or short, depending on its newsworthiness (we’ll discuss this more later) or interest to people who watch TV, listen to the radio, or read the paper.
  • Written, recorded, live, or taped, depending on the medium you use and the timeliness of the story
  • Hard — full of important facts and news items, or soft — focusing on the personal, more human side of a news event or situation. An example of a hard news story is an article on the number of youth who age out of foster care without a family. A soft news, or feature, article would be a story about a young woman overcoming past trauma to go to college or start a local nonprofit.

What Are the Benefits of Using Television, Newspaper, and Radio Stories to Spread Your Message?

What are the benefits of using television, newspaper, and radio stories to spread your message?

  • They can provide cheap, immediate coverage of your issues.
  • They can connect you with the largest and most diverse audiences.
  • They give you the possibility of continuous, in-depth coverage of your issues as long as you provide stories that sell.
  • News stories add credibility to your work, since they’re much more widely believed than advertising.
  • They offer a wide variety of strategies to communicate your message.
  • They can provide a fairly comprehensive explanation of your issue or description of your organization and your work.
  • They’re free publicity.

Providing Newsworthy Stories

The fact is, most of today’s public health and community development concerns have been around for a long time. Though your issues are important, they may not seem “newsy.” One challenge that media advocates face is to promote issues from new angles so that journalists consider them fresh, current, and surprising — in other words newsworthy. If you’re trying to create newsworthy stories (that is, stories that are current, interesting to readers, or will impact readers’ lives), you’ve got to make your issues seem fresh and unique. Wallack, Dorfman, Jerniagan, and Themba suggest 10 kinds of news “angles,” or approaches, to a news event that catch a journalist’s eye:

  • An anniversary story: Can this story be associated with a local, national, or topical or historical event? A good example of this would be marking the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a story of how nuclear waste has affected the ground water in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the United States government tested its first atomic bomb. The anniversary in question might be one connected to your organization as well. It’s an important milestone when a community-based organization survives for 5 or 10 years, or even more.
  • A breakthrough: What is new or different about this story? One example would be a story on the isolation of a dangerous virus or a new treatment for a disease or birth defect.
  • A celebrity-supported story or event: Is there a famous or locally well-known person already with or willing to lend his or her name to the issue? Is a local celebrity a kinship care provider or foster or adoptive parent? Did a community leader spend time in foster care?
  • A controversial topic: Are there opposing sides or conflicts in this story? Are some people in the community promoting group care or orphanages for children?
  • An uncovered injustice: Are there basic inequalities or unfair circumstances to be reported? For example, are children of color over-represented in foster care in your community?
  • An ironic account: What is ironic, unusual, or inconsistent about this story? For example, how can alcohol manufacturers support a “Don’t drink and drive” campaign, yet refuse to change their advertisements that encourage people to drink alcoholic beverages?
  • A local interest: Why is this story important or meaningful to local residents? An example would be a story on drug dealing that goes on in a housing project but remains poorly investigated by police.
  • A milestone: Is this story an important historical event? Perhaps you can provide a story on a city’s first collaboration between the university, community, and local residents.

A local milestone could be specific to an organization. A high school equivalency graduation, the completion of a job training course, the successful finish of an initiative, the awarding of a major grant or contract — any of these could be the occasion of a news story of local interest.

  • A human interest story: This kind of story usually focuses on an individual or a family or group that has a story to tell that’s relevant to an issue of interest. It might feature one or more young people who were in foster care, detailing the struggles they’ve gone through to get to this point, and their hopes for the future. It could tell about a new program that’s making remarkable strides in helping parents raises children who have experienced trauma.
  • A seasonal story: Can this story idea be attached to a holiday or seasonal event? Perhaps you can talk about children who don’t have a family at Thanksgiving or young people who aged out of foster care who have no place to go when college is out for the summer.

In addition to these angles, news stories can be built around events or recruitment as well. An open house staged by your organization is a good excuse for a story on your work, or on how the organization was founded. The start of classes or training sessions, or a notice that a program is accepting volunteers or participants are also reasons for suggesting a story. If you want more than just a notice — and you do — you’ll need to come up with something to focus on. It could be an article about an interesting staff member, a youth leader or parent advocate, one about the issue itself, or a “where are they now?” take on what has happened to people as a result of their participation in your program (which can help to highlight organizational, as well as individual, successes).

When you make your pitch to the media, try using one or a combination of the above news angles as a frame for your story. It’s a good idea to have your news item already framed, or to fit it into one of these news angles when you contact a reporter; that way, journalists might be more likely to report the story your way. This is one reason press releases can be a good tool for spreading the word.

Choosing Good Media Opportunities

Media publicity is, in many ways, an opportunistic activity. Given the speed with which news events are reported these days, you’ve got to seize an opportunity for media attention whenever you can. Don’t wait around! At the same time, though, choose your battles. Most of us can’t respond to everything or jump on every news opportunity. (For example, you probably don’t have time to monitor online comments to a story and respond to every one — this could be a never-ending effort.) Plan in advance what you’ll respond to or what is most likely to generate coverage you’d like. When the right chances emerge, jump into action immediately.

Certain situations will make it easier to get media coverage because your work has greater news value, or interest, to the public. Some of these occasions include:

  • Local, regional, or national events that tie in well to your organization’s work. The opening day of a national conference on adoption, for example, is a good time to highlight your work on the same issue. Linking your story to a related story that is happening right now is called “piggybacking.”
  • Holidays and other special dates that provide a good backdrop to your viewpoint. A story about the value of kinship care could appear on National Grandparents’ Day in September.
  • In the event that you don’t have a breaking story to throw on the media’s plate, you have to make your own news. Use your imagination to give boring facts or figures and old news a facelift.

Some Guideline for Contacting the Media

(From the Dupont Circle PR website’s Creating News and Pitching Stories: How to Become a “Go-to” Organization for the Media.)

Do not call a reporter to pitch a story idea unless you are ready to provide everything she needs to write the story

This means:

  • Prepare a pitch script of what you will say on the phone or in the email. A phone pitch should be no longer than three sentences and the highlights of an email pitch should be in the first paragraph with more details below.
  • Have your background and one-page sheets that describe the problem — and the solution — ready to go. If publicizing comprehensive documents or reports, have a plain language executive summary and press release. Make sure your statistics and “social math” (for example, “That’s enough people to fill Shea Stadium”) are accurate. Make sure your research is fresh, thorough, and credible.
  • Have other interview subjects lined up (find someone who can tell a personal story, an unbiased expert such as an academic who can explain the law, or the researcher who analyzed the data).
  • Plan an action step that shows how you propose to solve the problem you’ve brought to light such as filing legislation, organizing communities, taking out TV and radio ads, electing or defeating slates of political candidates, submitting a new curriculum to the school board, etc.
  • Be able to answer: Why now? And, why is this important? Anticipate any other questions the reporter may ask.

Target reporters who will be interested in your news

Resources like The News Media Yellow Book (https://www.leadershipdirectories.com/Products/LeadershipPrintDirectories/Media/NewsMediaYellowBook) show which beats reporters cover and consultants can give you leads to friendly contacts. You should also read the papers that you would like to be in. Notice the bylines of the reporters who are writing articles of interest and target them for outreach. Remember that reporters are in the business of finding news. They will appreciate good story ideas, even if they can’t follow through that day or week.

If your initial contact is not interested, ask whether she can refer you to another reporter who is more appropriate. If you have no idea whom to contact first, try out your pitch on the news or general assignment editors. After all, the newspaper has many sections: a news reporter may not be interested in a story about foster parents, but the community or life reporter will be.

Recognize that you will be interrupting someone who is busy working

A few tips can make the call easier:

  • Do not call reporters late in the day when they are on deadline. The best hours are between 10 a.m. and about 2 p.m.
  • Keep your pitch brief. You only have a few moments to capture their interest.
  • Be relaxed and calm, but show enthusiasm when the news is good or outrage when the news is bad. The reporter will be taking cues from you.
  • If you get voicemail, leave a detailed message with a call back number.
  • Call at different times to try to get through, but don’t leave multiple messages.
  • Don’t call at the last minute, unless you have breaking news. Know when reporters’ deadlines are, and respect them. Give them plenty of time to do the best possible job on your story.

Become a “go to” organization for the media

Be a fast, reliable, and credible source for news.

  • Always be reachable — Give out your cell phone number and offer 24-hour availability.
  • Always have the answers for reporters’ questions and get back to them right away — Respect their deadlines and help them meet them. This may mean dropping everything and not finishing another task you planned for the day, but it is worth it. You are building relationships and a reputation that will encourage reporters to call you to find out what’s going on and help get their attention when you want to make a pitch.

Continue to work to maintain your relationships and credibility with the media, and continue to pitch stories to them

You might even set a goal of getting stories into print a specific number of times a year, or of contacting your friends in the media just to update them on what’s happening in your organization and with your issue. Stories may or may not come out of these contacts, but they will keep the media informed about you and your work, and will make them all the more ready to work on stories when they come up. Media advocacy is not a one-time effort: it’s a long-term endeavor, and it should go on as long as your organization needs support — indefinitely.

[1] The Media Advocacy section is adapted from The Community Toolbox, a service of the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas, accessed July 18, 2015 at http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/media-advocacy/working-with-media/main

[2] The Creating New Stories the Media Wants section is adapted from The Community Toolbox, a service of the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas, accessed July 18, 2005 at http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/media-advocacy/news-stories-media-wants/main

One thought on “Building Relationships with the Media to Get Your Message Across

  1. This is by far the best lead I have found into understanding solutions to mobilize the general public. Thank you for explaining the “how-to” side of it.

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