Working with the Media

Establishing solid talking points and knowing how to effectively work with the media will also help with your interactions with the public.

It is critical that your organization stays on its message. Again, any divergent voice weakens the strength of the collective voice. You want to speak in unison, expressing the same objectives.

The good news is that you are already the expert! It is natural to be intimidated when talking to the media for the first time, but you need not be. You know the facts. You are at the center of this storm. You are telling your story—and nobody knows it better than you.

Remember to always personalize, humanize and dramatize:

  • Connect your story to the specific journalist from whom you seek coverage (personalize).
  • Show how the bad policy personally impacts you. You are the “human face” of this controversy (humanize).
  • Demonstrate how the status quo compares to the better, brighter future your solution has to offer (dramatize).

It’s OK to show emotion about your situation—what you are going through is difficult and may be downright horrible, and the media should know that.

Your message must focus on the simple, clear and outrageous facts of the situation. You should explain economic liberty, explain the situation, battle the myths and explain the solution.

Preparation is key. Keep your message simple and repeat it over and over again. Remember that, often at the very most, you are going to get just one quote in the media. You want to make sure that you would be comfortable with anything you say being the only thing quoted in the media.

At IJ, we call talking points “Strategic Over-riding Communications Objectives” (SOCOs). SOCOs are prepared statements you deliver with punch and passion that advance the themes you wish to convey. Developing SOCOs allows you to establish the terms of the debate and argue on your turf. Crafting these messages together before communicating with the media ensures that you are consistent and effective in getting your point across. You may also find that this is an effective way to put your thoughts into words when writing letters to the editor, op-eds, media advisories and press releases. Make sure that your SOCOs focus on just one or two main issues about your battle. Here are some generalized examples. You will want to make these specific to your fight and industry:

  • Like all Americans, we have the right to earn an honest living free from arbitrary and protectionist government-imposed restrictions.
  • Cities should encourage entrepreneurship, not try to stifle it.
  • This is about protecting economic liberty—the right to earn an honest living—for Americans everywhere.
  • This is classic crony capitalism: expanding government power in order to protect politically powerful interests from competition.
  • It’s not the government’s job to pick winners and losers in the marketplace; that’s the job of consumers.
  • A business’s success should turn on how good its product is, not on who it knows at City Hall.
  • The government cannot be in the business of chasing entrepreneurs out of town simply to protect a powerful special interest group from honest competition.

Remember: Do not concede points made by the other side. No level of protectionism is OK, no matter how “small” or “limited.” Your opponents may claim they are trying to protect the public’s health and safety, but that is not accomplished through limiting competition. They may argue that they are trying to create a “fair” playing field, but “fair” is in the eye of the beholder. A restaurateur may think it’s “fair” that street vendors be kept 500 feet away from his or her establishment. A limo company owner may think it’s “fair” to force her lower-priced competition to charge higher prices. Do not let the other side define your fight in terms of their definition of fairness.

It is helpful to identify a key spokesperson to speak on behalf of the group, to ensure the group’s message is consistent and the media has a main point of contact who can be reached at any time. This person should be articulate, and other members of the group should be comfortable with this individual speaking on their behalf. The spokesperson should master the talking points (as should all of the members of the group) and be readily available to do television, radio and newspaper interviews.

Track the names and contact information of journalists who have been covering your issue in the news and start keeping a list. Also, think creatively about alternative media outlets, like community blogs and neighborhood listservs. If the mainstream media won’t cover your battle, force them to by making it top news in alternative outlets.

Try to get to know the reporters who are covering your issue. Are they for or against you? What might sway them? What angle are they most interested in? Tailor your pitch to them accordingly.

When you call a reporter to pitch an event or story, there are two questions you absolutely must ask. First: “Are you on deadline?” If he or she is on a deadline, apologize for taking his or her time and suggest a time later in the day when you might be able to speak. Second: “May I give you a 30-second pitch on a story I thought you would be interested in?” This demonstrates respect for his or her time, which will be greatly appreciated. Practice your 30-second pitch ahead of time and do not take any more of his or her time than that. You can burn a bridge by talking his or her ear off. You want to be someone that the media looks forward to talking to.

And remember: the microphone is always on, no matter who you’re talking to. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to read in print the next day or watch on the evening news that night.

The media is an incredibly valuable (and free!) tool to get your message out. Here are some tools that you can utilize.

  • Letter to the Editor. If a story is printed and you think you have something relevant to say in response, write a letter to the editor. You will want to keep your letter short, sweet and to the point. Check the word limit of your paper, but typically letters to the editor are 150 words, and if you exceed the limit, they are automatically dismissed. You want to make just one point very clearly with your letter—you don’t have enough words to do more than that. It’s often hard to limit yourself to so few words and so few points, but restrain yourself. There will be plenty of other opportunities to express your opinion elsewhere, like with an op-ed.
  • If a newspaper won’t run your letter to the editor, you can respond to the piece on your website or blog and promote it through your social media accounts.

Read a sample letter to the editor.

  • Op-ed. An op-ed is a longer piece, generally between 400 and 800 words, that is published opposite the editorial page of a newspaper. Again, you will want to limit the number of points you make—three is good—since you have limited space. You want a strong introduction, colorful language and simple points. Don’t get into the nitty gritty of the law. Focus on personalizing, humanizing and dramatizing your situation. Tell your personal story and how the policy impacts you and your community. Use your SOCOs. You want the reader to be able to relate to you and feel compassion for you.
  • To submit an op-ed, call the paper’s editorial page editor and ask what the rules are for submission, how long the piece can be and to whom you should submit it. Op-eds are typically exclusive to one paper, so if your piece hasn’t run (it can take up to two weeks, so be patient) contact the paper again and withdraw the piece. You are then free to take your op-ed to another paper. Op-eds are a great way to announce the formation of your organization and its mission and establish the terms of the debate.
  • If your op-ed ultimately does not run, you can post it on your own website or blog or distribute it to bloggers.

Read a sample op-ed.

  • Radio. Radio programs may be interested in having you on their show, especially in anticipation of a big event, hearing or vote. Practice your SOCOs, have a copy in front of you and stick to them. If you don’t know the answer to a question you are asked, it is perfectly OK to say that you are unsure of the answer but you would be happy to get back to them. Speak slowly and articulately, and smile while you speak. Smiling will make the tone of your voice friendlier. If you are calling into a radio program, it helps to stand while you’re being interviewed. Ask the producer ahead of time how long he or she anticipates having you on the program so you can be prepared. If you’re asked at the end of the program, if there is anything else you would like to add, seize the opportunity to say the SOCOs that you were unable to otherwise work into the conversation. And always remember to plug your website!
  • Television. The same principles work for television. Get all of the information about your interview ahead of time. Will it be live or pre-taped? If pre-taped, you are given more latitude to make mistakes. If you stumble over a sentence, you can simply put your hand in front of your face and ask, “Do you mind if we try that again?” Whether or not the producer is on your side, flubbed-up interviews don’t make good TV or good ratings.

Sometimes (hopefully!) a television reporter will show up at your event and want a quick quote. Remember your SOCOs, take a deep breath and go for it. If he or she asks you a question that is leading you in a direction you don’t want to go, you can redirect by answering with one of your SOCOs. And when you’re asked that golden question, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” remember those remaining talking points!

If you know you are going to appear on television, wear solid color clothing. Avoid small, complex patterns and stripes. Avoid white and black if possible. If you wear earrings, avoid ones that dangle. If you wear makeup, go with subtler, matte colors.

  • sample media advisoryMedia advisory. At least 24 hours before any event that you hold, you should issue a media advisory. It should be no longer than one page and contain the following information: (1) date, time and location of the event (surprisingly, many press releases or media advisories accidentally omit one of these key pieces of information), (2) a short description of the issue; (3) a short description of the event and who the speakers will be; and (4) a contact number for questions. The advisory should go out to all local media—especially those who are following the issue. You can usually find fax numbers and e-mail addresses online. Try to do some research, so that you’re sending the information to the person who either covers these sorts of events or assigns coverage.
  • Press release. Press releases are longer than advisories and allow you to comment on a significant event or call for a specific action. A press release reads like a news story. The headline needs to demand the attention of the editor in just a few words. It should be catchy, informative and well-written. In the opening paragraph, introduce the who, what, where, when, why and how. In other words, summarize the news you are reporting with a “hook” that an editor is likely to determine newsworthy. Throughout the body of the press release, add details and insert quotations from your group and other noteworthy supporters where appropriate. Be sure to include the contact information of your spokesperson for media contacts.
  • Press packet. A press packet is a set of documents that you send or hand to the media whenever you want to introduce someone to the issue. The point of a press packet is to give enough information for someone to be able to write a story based on what you have given them—or at least be able to write most of the story with a little bit of follow-up.
  • Social media. If you have decided to use social media, make sure to promote your op-eds, letters to the editor, news appearances and events through Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms for even wider exposure.
  • If your battle gets heated, you may consider forming a media rapid response team that is responsible for tracking and responding to all attacks in the media through letters to the editor, op-eds, radio or television commentary.