Grassroots media relations

A short introduction to media relations strategies for activist groups


By Ulli Diemer



This guide was written for organizations who use the SOURCES service (Sources.com) as a part of their media relations strategy. Most of it should be relevant for any organization looking to get a higher public profile for what they do and the causes they work for.


What are the media?

Dictionary Definitions:

media n.

  1. an agency or means of doing something, a means of communication
  2. an intermediate layer
  3. mass media (TV, radio, newspapers)

Keep in mind:

  • Individually and collectively, we are all walking, talking, media who communicate with other people. Much good organizing – probably most good organizing – is done by talking to other people: political work doesn’t necessarily require using the mass media.
  • Before we think about how to seek media coverage for what we are doing, we need to consider whether seeking media coverage is a good idea in a particular situation.
  • We also have access to ‘do-it-yourself media’ which we can use without having to go through the gatekeepers of the mass media, such as: posters, leaflets, buttons, newsletters, videos (Vimeo, YouTube, etc.), podcasts, email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • There are alternative media which take a progressive approach to issues. They typically don’t reach the numbers of people that the dominant corporate or state-owned media do, but they are valuable means for disseminating our messages. They are more likely to actually report on our issues – and their reports are more likely to be free of the ideological blinders that distort and constrain the reporting of the mainstream media. Alternative media are more likely to view issues from the point of view of those resisting oppression than from the point of view of the oppressor. Here is a selective list of alternative media. You can find more alternative media, websites, and campaigning organizations in the Connexions Directory.
  • Your own initiatives may attract media attention, positive or negative, even if you aren’t looking for it. The media are always looking for interesting stories, so they may find you, or call you, even if you haven’t approached them. This is especially true if you hold public events (e.g. talks, protests), or if you maintain an online media page on Sources or another site which serves journalists looking for experts, sources, and story ideas. It therefore makes sense to have a plan, and perhaps designated media spokespersons, for what to do and what to say when you are approached by the media.

Gatekeepers

What defines “the media” in the sense of the mass media (mainstream newspapers, TV, radio, etc.) is that we have to go through intermediaries or gatekeepers if we want our stories to be covered.

Someone else – an editor, a producer, a journalist – decides whether a story is ‘newsworthy’. They decide if a story gets covered, they decide how it gets covered, and they decide what points of view are represented in the story, and which are excluded.

When you seek media coverage for your issue or event, you are trying to persuade or entice media gatekeepers to cover your story or point of view. And you’re doing it in competition with countless other organizations, businesses, and individuals also looking for media attention.

Who are the media?

There has been massive corporate consolidation in the mass media in recent decades. For example, whereas it used to be common for cities to have a number of daily newspapers, now it is typical to have only one or two, which may both be owned by the same company. Most newspapers, and TV and radio stations and networks, are now owned by huge corporations which define the parameters of editorial policy. Nevertheless, there are still a large number of media organizations, all of whom are looking for stories to fill their pages or their airtime. In Canada, there are more than 6,000 media outlets, including:


TV networks and channels (180) Cable TV stations (300+)
TV stations (150) Radio stations (700+)
News services including Canadian Press (CP) Campus radio stations (70)
Daily newspapers (120) Church papers
Weekly community papers (1300+) Consumer & trade magazines (2700+)
Campus papers (200+) Ethnic papers (c. 600)
Labour papers Newsletters
Online publications (e.g. rabble, Ricochet) Parliamentary Press Galleries (in Ottawa and in each province)

Canada’s media publish or broadcast in more than 50 languages.

American and other international media also reach Canadian audiences via broadcast or Internet. Placing a story in a foreign outlet can also be a way to reach a Canadian (or international) audience.

Some media are key media drivers. In Canada: these are CP (Canadian Press), the CBC, and the Globe & Mail. These are the media other media turn to find important national stories. Getting a story carried by CP vastly increases its chances of being carried by newspapers and stations across the country.

Who are the people who work for the media?

There are thousands of professional (employed) journalists in Canada, and thousands of full-time or part-time freelancers. Many are members of one or more of:

Canadian Association of Journalists Professional Writers Association of Canada
Editors Association of Canada Canadian Association of Broadcasters
Canadian Ethnic Media Association Canadian Ethnic Press and Media Council
Canadian Authors Association Radio-Television News Directors Association
Canadian Science Writers Associations Native American Journalists Association
Canadian Church Press Canadian Association of Labour Media
Canadian Association of Black Journalists Canadian Automobile Journalists Association
Writers Guild of Canada  Fédération Professionelle des Journalistes du Québec

The news media have undergone huge cutbacks over recent decades. In Canada, thousands of jobs have been cut, local TV stations have closed or cut back, local radio news other than CBC has virtually disappeared.

An American example illustrates the trend: At the time of Watergate (Woodward & Bernstein), the Washington Post employed 300 reporters. Today, it employs 60.

These changes have enormously impacted the workload of journalists, and how journalism is practised. The days of specialized beat reporters with in-depth knowledge of a particular area and time to dig for a story are almost gone. A typical reporter may work on three unrelated stories a day: the time pressure they work under is tremendous. Display a little courtesy and understanding of journalists’ time pressures when you interact with them.

A related change is that many stories are now written by freelancers rather than staff reporters. In some cases, the freelancers are assigned stories by an editor; in many other cases, freelancers pitch a story idea to an editor. Freelancers are therefore constantly on the lookout for new story ideas they can pitch. This can also create opportunities for groups looking for ways to get their stories told.

Who decides whether a story get covered?

Producers, editors, columnists, commentators, hosts, reporters, and freelancers are all involved in deciding what to cover and how to cover it but editors and producers have the final say.

Freelancers typically have to pitch story ideas to an editor and get them accepted; the editor decides whether to accept the story idea.

While reporters may suggest stories, ultimately it is an editor or producer who decides whether it gets covered and how it will be slanted. Even after a story is written or filmed, an editor or producer may decide to kill the story or to change it substantially.

Editors are hired and promoted because the publisher or owner believes they have good editorial judgement. One important element of good judgement is not running stories the publisher would disapprove of. Every editor knows that, and every journalist who hopes to keep his or her job or get promoted knows that.

What makes a story ‘newsworthy’?

A story is newsworthy if an editor or other gatekeeper decides it is.

Judgements of newsworthiness depend in part on the mandate or target audience, e.g.:

  • Local community papers typically only cover news that takes place in their community or directly affects their community.
  • Specialized papers and magazines cover news related to their field, e.g.:
    • The Western Producer covers news related to farmers and agriculture;
    • The Medical Post covers news related to doctors and health care;
    • Chatelaine and Châtelaine cover issues and ideas that are important to women.
    • Fifty-Five Plus features stories relevant to seniors;
    • The Afghan Post covers news about Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora in Canada.
Some criteria of newsworthiness:

  • Is it timely?
  • Is it interesting?
  • Is it local or does it have a local angle?
  • Is there conflict?
  • Does it have drama, emotion, human interest?
  • Is it relevant to our readers/audience?
  • Is it important?
  • The media are more interested in the specific than the general.
  • The media want stories, not information or analysis. Ask: what is the story?

The influence of advertising on media formats

Advertising influences not only the content but the form of the news media, particularly the broadcast media. Modern advertising consists of brief messages with the simplest of content. In fact, almost all advertising contains the same essential message in slight variations.

The message is “Buy this”

Typical variants are:

  • Buy this and you will be attractive.
  • Buy this and you will be cool.
  • Buy this and you will be successful.
  • Buy this and your children will be happy and successful.
  • Buy this and your dog will be healthy and happy.

These messages are ideally suited to the ‘soundbite’ structure of modern electronic media. The broadcast media use the soundbite model of news because that’s the context best suited for an advertising-dominated media environment.

While this structure works well for advertising messages, it is ill-suited for presenting complicated issues and complex ideas – which is to say, almost all issues and almost all ideas.

In a broadcast news story on a controversial issue, the average soundbite presenting the view of someone involved on one side or another of the issue is eight seconds. Under unusual circumstances, a soundbite may be given as much as 15 seconds. That’s the maximum allocated to someone to articulate a position on a major issue, be it global warming, the war in Afghanistan, social assistance rates, health care privatization, etc.

Your challenge: to use a format designed for saying “Buy this” to say “Don’t buy the status quo. Here’s why.”




“It makes sense to keep a realistic grasp on the factors that limit and distort the media product, while at the same time recognizing the many opportunities the media offer to introduce new perspectives and understanding. Many fine journalists, commentators, and activists have shown how much can be achieved with dedication and commitment.”
– Noam Chomsky




Media strategy

Getting media coverage is not a one-time thing, any more than working for social change is a short-term commitment. If the media are part of your strategy for social change, you need to work on media relations consistently and strategically.

A media strategy includes thinking about what you want to gain from media coverage and which media you are most interested in reaching. Will you aggressively pursue media attention, or whether you will simply make yourself available to respond to media calls?

Most people get their news from the mainstream media. The mainstream media reach huge numbers of people. If we want to reach those people, we need a strategy that realistically assesses the limitations and opportunities of using those media.

Poorly planned and executed public relations may simply result in not getting publicity, but it can also result in getting bad publicity.

Your message has to be repeated over and over again to get through. Effective lobbying organizations, (e.g. right-wing think tanks) send out their messages countless times in many many different formats.

Successful advertisers plan campaigns to drive a message home, and after one campaign is finished, it is followed by another, so that the brand or product or company remains prominent.

Important as planning is, it’s also important to be an opportunist in the sense of being able to respond quickly to changing circumstances and taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves. Circumstances sometimes have a way of sweeping aside even the best-laid plans in not much more than an instant. Trust your vision and your principles, and you’ll be equipped to adjust your plans and strategy.

You may know the old question: “What’s the best time to plant a tree?” The answer is “20 years ago”.

The same wisdom applies to building up your media profile: the best time to do it is well before you need media attention. Work at creating materials (e.g. media kits, FAQs, backgrounders) which can be provided to the media when needed. Try to interact regularly with the media, even if only by issuing news releases, so they know your track record and positions, and are aware that you are willing and able to respond to media questions. Always be professional and polite in dealing with journalists: they are not your allies, but they are not your enemies either. They too can and should be educated about the issues, and courteous clear communication helps to accomplish that.

When planning your media strategy, spend some time critiquing your existing publicity materials and efforts. Are they effective? How could they be improved?




About SOURCES:
Connexions' partner organization SOURCES specializes in helping organizations raise their profile and get media coverage. SOURCES provides each member organization with a permanent media landing page and with a presence on every Topic Page relevant to the organization. Organizations can post as many news releases and policy statements as they want, announce events in the Sources Calendar, include video clips, and promote their books, DVDs, and periodicals. Several thousand journalists a day use SOURCES to find spokespersons and experts. The general public uses the site too, to get information about issues: the site gets about 800,000 page views a month. For info see www.sources.com.



Frames

For each story you need to identify the ‘frame’ for the issue as you want to present it. This defines the essence of the issue as you see it: how you want people to see the issue.

In framing an issue you may have to counter the way the media currently tend to frame the issue, e.g. The media often frame environmental issues in terms of “jobs vs. environment”, i.e. if you act on environmental concerns, you are costing people jobs. You may want to frame it as “sustainable green economy = more and better jobs.”

In proposing an alternative frame, you want to avoid referring to the existing frame directly. If you refer to it directly, you can end up reinforcing it.

Another obstacle you have to contend with is the ‘soundbite’ nature of the electronic media in particular. News is presented as a series of unrelated events that happen every day. Much of it is focused on individuals and their problems: crime victims, accident victims, celebrities, etc. The very nature of the news business excludes context. News tends to ignore background and relationships.

Try to choose positive solution-oriented frames for your issues. A message that seems to say “the sky is falling in, things are terrible, it’s your fault, you have to lower your living standards” isn’t going to win many people over. A message that says “we can work together to overcome these obstacles” is much more likely to win people over.

Remember that many people (not just the media) have deeply held preconceptions that make them instinctively resistant to a new way of looking at things or even looking at evidence that challenges their preconceptions. The dominant assumption that no real change is possible can make proposed alternatives or solutions seem unrealistic or impossible.

Deciding how to frame issues is not just a media relations task
but a key challenge for developing strategies for social change.

Hooks

A hook is a way of pitching the story in a way designed to interest the media. Essentially this is the feature or aspect of the story that you use to entice or persuade the media, or selected media, to cover it. If we want to use fishing metaphors, we might actually want to call it the ‘bait’. But ‘hook’ is the established term. Sometimes your hook may be a staged event or a gimmick.

Ask yourself: why would the media want to cover this story? What about this story is newsworthy from the point of view of a media gatekeeper? What makes it interesting or noteworthy?

You may have one hook for the story, or you may have more than one, aimed at different media. For example, for a local newspaper, your hook might be the involvement of a local resident in the story. For a seniors’ publication, it might be how the issue affects seniors. For a health-related publication, you might pitch the health impacts of the issue. The story is essentially the same, but you may want to vary the headline and first paragraph, at least, to customize it for the particular medium you are contacting. Consider the local angle to national stories and the national implications of local stories.

Media Releases (News Releases)

  • Make it short, preferably one page. (Exceptions: when dealing with a complicated issue involving statistics or when responding to allegations or correcting the record, when more detail is essential.)
  • Use clear ordinary language.
  • A media release parallels the structure of an actual news story.
  • It must have a catchy headline that draws the reader in.
  • The first paragraph summarizes the basic message of the release.
  • Be concise, especially in the headline and first sentence. You are writing to appeal to media professionals who specialize in three-word headlines and eight-second soundbites. Write in the active voice. Use short sentences (maximum 18 words). What you have to say must jump off the page if you are going to make it past the first glance.
  • Use word pictures (“dead birds lying on the shore” rather than “significant waterfowl mortality”).
  • Include quotes. Support the points made in the release with quotations from people who are knowledgeable about and/or affected by the problem. Quote members of your organization rather than baldly state your views. Rather than say, “we think the proposed legislation sucks”, say “According to Dr. Heather Jones, ‘the new legislation will jeopardize patient care.’”
  • Include the Five W’s and Two H’s: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, How Much.
  • Avoid acronyms and jargon. Spell out terms and names in full.
  • Make it clear who the release is coming from. Make sure it has the date.
    Include the name or names of people in your organization who can be reached before and after office hours. One unanswered phone can ‘turn off’ a reporter on a bad day.
  • Pay attention to the appearance of the release. It should look clean and well laid-out. Don’t cram text onto the page. Vary the length of paragraphs, but keep them all relatively short.
  • The major media receive hundreds of news releases a day. Most of them end up in the garbage. Make sure yours doesn’t by making it interesting, informative and professional.
  • If you have useful or essential background material, send it as a separate document with its own headline clearly distinguishable from the release itself. If sending your release by email, never send attachments: most media email accounts block attachments. Instead, put a link in your email to the location on your website where the document can be found.
  • In some instances, you may want to do more than one release with different slants for different media. For example, a release questioning the safety of a pesticide may lead with the risk to consumers when sent to consumer health publications, but may lead with the danger to the farmers who apply it when sent to farm publications. Both releases will make essentially the same points (you certainly don’t want to be found to be sending out conflicting messages) but they may make those points in a different order, and may elaborate more on one aspect in one release, and more on another point in a second release.
  • If possible, consider making your release available in more than one language to widen the potential audience. In Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver especially, there are many papers with substantial circulations published for different language groups. Some of them are also more open to stories with a progressive slant than the mainstream corporate media.

Sample News Release Headlines
and First Sentences

Below is a sampling of news releases posted on the SOURCES website www.sources.com.
What is shown here is only the headline plus the first sentence of the release. This is what goes out by RSS feed, etc.; users who want to see the full release click on it.


More than 100 rights organisations urge UN to oppose defamation of religions
More than 100 rights organisations worldwide have banded together to urge member states at the United Nations Human Rights Council session this month to renegotiate defamation of religions resolutions that make criticising religion a crime in UN resolutions, declarations and world conferences.


Literacy Outside the Box
From March 23rd to March 26th at the Toronto Free Gallery, the students of Frontier College’s Beat the Street program prove that there is more to literacy learning than writing essays.


Catch 22 – A Voter Powered Campaign to Defeat the Harper Conservatives
A national public interest group opposing the Harper government has named 40 ridings across the country where Conservatives won by small margins and could be defeated by strategic voting.


Government neglect and ignorance about climate change
Academics from universities throughout Canada are demanding immediate, informed and responsible action on climate change.


Canadian Boat to Gaza announces the delegates who will be aboard the Tahrir
Before the end of June, the Canadian ship Tahrir will join the Freedom Flotilla 2 Stay Human, carrying civil society delegates from coast to coast, international partners, and journalists from a range of media.


CPCCA report threatens Canadians democratic rights, free speech
The report issued last week by an unofficial coalition of parliamentarians is a threat to the democratic rights of Canadians as the group makes recommendations to protect Israel from international criticism.


Conflicted About Conflict?
Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing.


Companies that cooperate with dictatorships must be sanctioned
Reporters Without Borders condemns the criminal cooperation that exists between many western companies, especially those operating in the new technology area, and authoritarian regimes.


Dene Nation Becomes Part of International Accord Opposed to Keystone XL Pipeline
The Dene Nation has helped prepare an accord opposing the Keystone XL pipeline with First Nations, tribal leaders, and property owners in the United States and Canada.


BPW Canada Urges the Government of Canada to Maintain the Long-gun Registry
In response to the Governments tabling of legislation to abolish the long-gun registry, Doris Hall, President of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women, spoke out in support of the long-gun registry.


The future is now. Nurse practitioners gather in Toronto to discuss their ever-expanding contributions to health care in Ontario
Nurse practitioners (NPs) from across the province are gathering in Toronto this week to embrace a new era of health care at the annual Nurse Practitioners’ Association of Ontario (NPAO) conference.


Investing in Quality Public Services – Best Alternative to Austerity Cuts
In the face of widespread cuts to public services, leaders of private and public sector trade unions, municipal governments and civil society groups have made the unprecedented joint commitment to work together to promote investment in quality public services backed by fair taxation policies as the key solution to the economic crisis, and the best way to build peaceful, equitable, democratic and ecologically-sustainable societies.

Distributing your media releases

  • Ask: who is your target audience? Which media reach your target audience(s)?
  • Media Lists: Unless you are interested in a very limited number of media outlets, it is more cost-effective to buy a media list, and make modifcations to it as required, than to create and maintain your own. Maintaining a media list of any size is insanely time-consuming. For $109.95 a year you can get a subscription the online Media Names & Numbers directory published by Connexions’ partner organization SOURCES. See Subscriptions information.
  • Your own media contacts: There may be some media outlets or individual reporters who consistently show interest in your organization or your cause. You may have direct relationships with a few journalists and editors. There likely won’t be a lot of them, but you will want to keep track of, and stay in regular contact with, friendly reporters and media.
  • Don’t forget community media, ethnic media, special-interest and niche publications, student papers, etc. Toronto alone has 11 daily newspapers and three others which publish several times a week. You may know the six English ones, but it can be worth your while to know the others too.
  • Always include Canadian Press (CP) on your list if you have a story that you think merits national coverage. Almost all the major media in the country subscribe to CP, so getting your story picked up by CP will land it in newsrooms across the country and increase the odds they will run it too.
  • News releases can be distributed in a targetted way or in broadcast way. An example of a targetted release might be one that deals with an issue specific to a particular geographic location where you only want to reach the media that serve that location.
  • Means of distributing news releases include fax, email, news release services, and your own website (you may set up your own RSS feed on your site if you release new information frequently enough to justify it.) Sending releases by mail is too slow, and courier is too expensive. Hand delivery is feasible if you are in a small town with only a handful of media outlets, where you may be able to hand-deliver your release to the editor of the paper, and pitch him/her your story as you do so.
  • You can also phone selected media to inform them of an event that you’d like them to cover.
  • It is tempting to use email because it’s easy and free, but the disadvantage – a huge disadvantage – is that a significant proportion of your emails never arrive at their destination because they are blocked by spam filters, and of those that arrive, many are deleted without being read.
  • Fax is more reliable and more likely to reach its destination. Though fax is now considered an old technology, most media organizations still have fax numbers, and usually someone will at least look at the faxes coming in. Usually one fax to the main news fax number will suffice. However, for large media organizations like the CBC it is necessary to send individual faxes to each program you want to reach, because each program has its own number and its own producers who make decisions about what stories to cover.
  • Your own website: You should post your news release on your own site, but it won’t likely reach a lot of media on its own. Your website may be great, but the sad truth is that with hundreds of millions of websites out there, reporters aren’t likely to be checking out your particular site unless your group is already in the news. Journalists typically have a few sources that they rely on for news releases and story idea.
  • News release services will post your releases on a media website and will also send them out via a feed that the media subscribe to. Connexions’ partner organization SOURCES (www.sources.com) charges an annual fee starting at $288 per year which allows you to issue as many releases as you want. CNW and BusinessWire charge on a per-release basis, the cost of a single release is typically $300 – $700.
  • RSS: Is a means by which releases (or other content) are fed into a ‘newsfeed’ which people (such as journalists) can subscribe to individually, usually based on content criteria (e.g. a user may subscribe to stories about alternate energy or wind energy or human rights or health). RSS feeds also go to aggregator sites which accumulate the content of thousands of individual feeds, allowing users to search the aggregator site for content.
  • Google, Yahoo, Bing and other search engines (e.g. DuckDuckgo and Ixquick, which unlike the big ones don’t spy on their users) are means by which your news release can quickly become visible to people who aren’t on your list. When your release appears on a news release website like CNW or SOURCES, the release will show up in Google’s results within a short period of time.
  • Twitter. Twitter’s effectiveness for disseminating news depends in part on how many followers you have. If you don’t have many, then few people will see your tweet. If your are responding to an issue currently trending in the news, you can get noticed by using the hashtags being used for hot items. Typically you'll be using Twitter to steer people to your news release or website.
  • Websites that deal with your issue: Don’t forget to send your release to websites and organizations that deal with your issue. They may post it, and then users of that site (journalists or the general public) may then find it there.

Interviews and contacts with the media

  • An interview may be by phone, or it may be in-person. A reporter may be calling to interview you then and there, or they may be calling to set up an interview later. Clarify this at the beginning of the call. Remember that everything is on the record from the moment you start talking. If you are being approached by a radio talk show, the initial call may be a pre-interview to see if you’d make a good guest.
  • Respond to media calls promptly. Being helpful with journalists won’t guarantee that they’ll cover your story. Being unhelpful, failing to return calls on time, missing deadlines, etc., will make it much less likely they’ll cover it.
  • If you have sent out a media release, you have to have a spokesperson available for interviews. Many organizations list two or three spokespersons to ensure a journalist will be able to reach someone.
  • If you are listed as a media source, e.g. in Sources, or on your own website, it is importantly you return calls promptly. Reporters will quickly move on to another source if they can’t reach you.
  • If a reporter calls you unexpectedly (i.e. not as a result of you having sent out a release, but because they’ve found you listed as someone involved in an organization or issue), take the time to ask a few questions and take notes: What paper/station are they with? What is the story they are working on? What angle are they approaching it from? What is their deadline? Do they want to do the interview now, on the phone, or do they want to do it on location or at the studio? How long will the interview last? Are they referring to a report or document? Can you provide them with your own documentation? If they want to do the interview immediately, on the phone, you may wish to say that you are in the middle of something and offer to get back in 15 or 20 minutes. This gives you an opportunity to prepare while respecting their deadline.
  • Always call back. If you believe you are not the best person to do the interview, say so, and suggest an alternative if possible.
  • Make sure you are well researched and prepared on the factual and analytical background of your subject matter. You may be nervous and prone to forget things during a media interview; it helps to have thoroughly mastered your subject matter. Be familiar with recent developments and recent news stories about the subject. You don’t want a reporter who has done his or her homework to have the advantage over you by being better prepared than you are.
  • Remember that journalists are doing the work they do to make a living. They aren’t doing it because they are in favour or opposed to your cause. Your relationship to them is a professional or business relationship, not a personal relationship.
  • Don’t automatically judge reporters by who they work for. The fact that a reporter works at a particular publication or station of which you have a low opinion does not necessarily mean that s/he shares the agenda, standards, or viewpoint of that publication. Reporters get jobs where they can while waiting for something better to come along. Give them the benefit of the doubt, while not naively assuming the best.



“Success in getting your story across in most Canadian mainline media today depends mainly on how well your story fits with the media’s pre-judgments about what is, and what matters. These pre-judgments in the final analysis mainly serve the status quo. They do not necessarily -- in fact do not usually -- square with historical accuracy or relevance, social responsibility, justice, scholarly analysis or logic. Therefore anyone or any organization with “idealistic” or “oddball” ideas that threaten the status quo faces a series of filters and outright blockages. Notwithstanding this uphill nature of gaining media access it is a grave error of intellect and attitude to consider the situation hopeless or monolithic.”
– Barrie Zwicker, Selected Tips for Getting Your Story Across in the News Media




Preparing for the interview

  • Plan your key message points. (See also “Frames”) Write them down and rehearse them out loud. These are your “aces” which you must play during the interview.
  • Think in terms of quotes and headlines.
  • A news interview may last five or ten minutes or longer, so you must be able to speak articulately and in some depth about the issue if you are going to do an interview about it.
  • Out of that interview, a typical TV news story will only use one clip lasting 8 to 15 seconds. You must be able to articulate your key message in that time. A print story will use quotes from you of comparable length.
  • Be clear in your own mind about who your audience is. You are speaking through the journalist to your real audience, i.e. the public, or some particular section of the public.
  • If possible role-play the interview with a member of your organization. Think of tough questions you may be asked and practise how you will answer them.

During the Interview

  • An interview is not a conversation. It is a structured ritual with definite rules. Make sure you understand the game and how it works. Always remember you are talking to a journalist.
  • Make sure you say what you want to say and nothing else. Don’t be drawn into saying something you don’t want to say. Nothing is off the record.
  • Make sure everything you say is true and can be backed up. Don’t guess at answers or make up “facts” on the fly. One incorrect statement or unsubstantiated opinion can undermine your whole message.
  • Listen carefully to each of the reporter’s questions. Questions which seem to be offbase can be a sign that the reporter doesn’t really understand the topic. If you detect this, expand more on your answers and give more context so the reporter gains a clearer understanding.
  • Be calm, authoritative, and present your case. At the same time, show that you care about the issue and explain why you care.
  • Use examples to illustrate your point.
  • Don’t let yourself be drawn into arguments or irrelevancies.
  • Respond to emotionally loaded issues and questions with sensitivity. Don’t dismiss the misfortunes of others.
  • Avoid direct attacks on your opponents. Criticize policies and actions, not individuals. You’ll come across better if you seem calm and reasonable rather than loudly angry.
  • If you find yourself under attack (rare, but it can happen) respond calmly and rationally. The audience will side with the polite calm person who is under attack.
  • Don’t let the questioner put words in your mouth, and don’t repeat incorrect formulations when responding to them. If the interviewer asks “Won’t the policies you propose cost thousands of people their jobs”, don’t reply by saying “No, it won’t cost thousands of people their jobs”. That just sets you up for a headline that says “Environmentalists deny thousands of jobs to be lost” or “Environmentalists dismiss job losses. ” A better response might be “Our policies will lead to increased employment opportunities while protecting our environment for future generations. ”
  • Don’t be drawn by silence. A common technique in studio interviews is for the interviewer to remain quiet to see if you start to ramble to end the silence. If this happens, simply remain quiet, smile, and look expectant until the interviewer asks the next questions.

Problem Questions

  • Question states a false premise
    - Don’t nod in response to the question. It looks like you’re agreeing.
      Calmly state why the premise is false. “I wouldn’t say that” or “the way I’d put it is.”
  • Hypothetical questions
    - Don’t speculate

  • Multiple question
    - Pick the aspect of the question you want to reply to, and reply to that.

Bridging

Bridging is the art of moving from a topic or question that you don’t like to one that you do like. If an interviewer is leading the interview in a direction that you think is unhelpful, bridging is your technique for steering the interview back to the important points that you are trying to communicate.

There are several techniques for bridging from a question that contains incorrect assumptions or that is going off the issue as you see it.

  • Refocus: “The real issue is”
  • False ‘either-or’ premise
    - “Neither... the issue is...“
  • Refocus on the large picture: “The big picture is...”
  • Give an example: “One example of this is...”

 

For activists, bridging involves not only bridging from an off-track topic to the issue you want to talk about, but also bridging from the status-quo assumptions contained in the question to different assumptions. In other words, you are trying to shift the frame.

  • “The issue is whether corporate profits are more important than the future of our children.”
  • “We believe in a democratic state with equal rights for everyone. No one should be discriminated against because of their religion or ethnic origin.”
  • “The real question is whether we can afford tax breaks for extremely rich individuals and corporations while public services are being run into the ground.”
  • “This benefits the rich at the expense of working class people and the poor.”
  • “We don't think workers should be forced to choose between being unemployed and taking jobs that risk their health and the health of their communities.“
  • “This process violates the basic principles of democracy. This decision cannot be made behind closed doors while the people affected by it are excluded.”


Op-Eds

  • Op-Ed articles are articles printed on the page in the newspaper across from the editorial page. Many newspapers accept outside submissions for these pages.
  • Length is typically 700 – 1000 words.
  • Inquire first (usually there is an op-ed editor) to see whether they would be interested in your article.
  • An op-ed can be a good way to set out your views on an issue in greater detail – and you get to write it, although the editor may ask for changes.

Letters to the Editor

Writing letters to the editor is an effective and inexpensive way of getting publicity for your point of view and your organization.

Letters to the editor are published by almost all publications, from newspapers and magazines with a national circulation, like the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s, to community newspapers, special-interest magazines, trade publications, and newsletters.

A letter to the editor may not have the glamour of splashier forms of media exposure, but the letters pages are among the most widely read sections of almost all periodicals.

Guidelines for writing a letter to the editor:

  • Make it brief. 100 to 150 words should be the maximum, fewer if possible.
  • Confine yourself to one subject. Make one point and make it clearly. You or your organization undoubtedly have views about many issues, but in a letter to the editor, you’ can make one only point effectively.
  • To help you focus your letter, summarize the point you are trying to make in a single phrase or sentence before you begin writing the text of your letter. Use this to guide you in writing the letter.
  • You can and should bring in supporting evidence and arguments, but they should all be in support of your main point. Don’t digress.
  • Your main point can be specific or broad, e.g. “The proposed landfill site will pollute Otter Creek” or “If we don’t stop overfishing, the world’s oceans will become deserts”.
  • If possible, have someone else read or edit your letter before sending it off. It’s hard to judge one’s own writing objectively.
  • If you are writing on behalf of an organization, make it clear that you are speaking on its behalf. However, be aware that newspapers tend to favour letters from individuals over letters from organizations.
  • Avoid personal attacks or disparaging the motives of someone you disagree with. Stick to the issue and the facts.
  • Send your letter off quickly, while the issue is fresh, preferably the same day. The chances of your letter being printed diminishes the more time goes by.
  • Fax your letter, or send it by E-mail, or deliver it by hand. Sending it by mail may delay its arrival by two or three crucial days.
  • Remember to include your name, address, and phone number with the letter. Many publications have a policy of contacting the letter writer to confirm that s/he is truly the author of the letter.

Articles

Abubacker, Ershad. Mainstream Media and the Propaganda Machine.

Allen, Max. Is the Media Your Message?

Brecher, Jeremy. Talking Back to the Right

Carney, William Wray. What Makes a Good Story?

Community Forum. Seven Things Nonprofits can learn from Profits.

Cook, Jonathan. A Comparative Review of Flat Earth News and Newspeak.

Diemer, Ulli. Free Speech as long as it doesn’t offend anyone.

Dobbin, Murray. How the Left Should Frame Issues

Fenske, Lynn. Maximizing Coverage in Community Newspapers

Fillmore Nick. Could a ‘mini-paper’ nip at the heels of mainstream press?

Fillmore, Nick. Creation of Sustainable Free Media Would Be Huge Breakthrough.

Fillmore Nick. Independent media advocates must develop creative news sites.

Friesen, Carl. Media Relations as a Marketing Tool.

Keeble, Richard. How Alternative Media Provide the Crucial Critique of the Mainstream.

Lakoff, George. Framing the Issues.

MacDougall, Kate. How to Lobby Like a Pro.

McChesney, Robert. Media Capitalism, the State, and 21st Century Media Democracy Struggles.

Medialens: Intellectual Cleansing

Monbiot, George. The Climate Denial Industry is Out to Dupe the Public... And It’s Working.

Sommers, Susan. Making your marketing brochure a keeper.


Selected Resources


Books: How-To

Bonner, Allan. Media Relations. Sextant Publishing, 2004, 173pp, ISBN 0-9731134-2-1.

Carney, William Wray. In the News: The Practice of Media Relations in Canada, Second Edition. University of Alberta Press. 2008. ISBN 0-88864-495-7.

Community Forum on Shared Responsibility. Media for Social Change: A Resource Guide for Community Groups (revised edition). 1986, 69pp.

Langlois, Andrea; Dubois, Frederic. Autonomous Media: Activating Resistance and Dissent. Cumulus Press, 2005, 168pp, ISBN 0-9733499-4-8.

McLaughlin, Paul. How to Interview: The Art of the Media Interview. Self-Counsel Press, 1990, 233pp, ISBN 0-88908-872-1.

Sommers, Susan. Building Media Relationships: How to Establish, Maintain, and Develop Long-Term Relationships Oxford, 2009, 224pp, ISBN 978-0-19-542695-3.

Sources. Media Names & Numbers: The Directory of Canada’s Media. Online directory of newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, online media.
ISSN 1492-1340. www.sources.com/mnn/


Books: Media Criticism

Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. Seven Stories Press, 1997, 2002, 64pp   ISBN:  9781583225363

Edwards, David, Cromwell, David. Newspeak in the 21 Century. Pluto, 2009, ISBN 9780745328935

Hackett, Robert A.; Gruneau, Richard; with Donald Gutstein, Timothy A. Gibson and Newswatch Canada. The Missing News: Filters and Blindspots in Canada’s News.H Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives/Garamond. 2000, 258pp, ISBN 0-88627-173-8.

Herman, Edward S.; Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon, 1988, 414pp, ISBN 0-394-54926-0

Parenti, Michael. Inventing Reality: The Politics of the News Media. St. Martin’s Press, 1993, 274pp, ISBN:  0-312-02013-9

Patriquin, Larry. Inventing Tax Rage: Misinformation in the National Post. Fernwood, 2004, 190pp,
ISBN 1-55266-146-6

Raboy, Marc; Bruck, Peter A. Communication for and Against Democracy. Black Rose Books, 1989, 248pp, ISBN 0-921689-46-2.

Rutherford, Paul. Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Marketing the War Against Iraq. University of Toronto Press, 2004, 226pp, 0-8020-8651-9.

Steven, Peter. The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media.Steven, Peter. The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media. New Internationalist Publications/Between the Lines, 144pp, ISBN 1896357873.

Winter, James. Lies The Media Tell Us. Black Rose Books, 2007.



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