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Citizen Toolkit

Grabbing Attention for Your Cause

Think the press is a beast? It can be your friend, if you know how to feed it.

By Charles Dobson 15 Jan 2004 |
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Eighth of a ten part series from The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, (which contains a much larger chapter on media advocacy that focuses on how to nudge government into taking action by "making the news.")

You want enough people to know about your group's project, and that usually means working with the media. Publicity has the added power of buoying up participants, bringing in more volunteers, nudging bureaucrats, unhinging politicians, and adding momentum to a grassroots initiative.

According to David Enwicht in Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns, empowerment comes from simple exposure. "Group members say, 'Did you see we were in the news again. Isn't it great? We are really starting to get places now.'" When you understand the media, you can also raise public issues that are being ignored and reframe issues from a citizen's perspective.  For more framing and reframing see the pdf article Framing the News on the Citizens Handbook website. Be careful if you are not used to dealing with the media. Many journalists look for stories rooted in conflict, error, and injustice. They may impose a confrontational agenda that can actually make it more difficult for you to resolve your issue.

Assemble a list of sympathetic journalists.

If you have a positive community story, you may have trouble getting a reporter interested. One way around this is to cultivate a list of journalists who care about community building. Note their deadlines so you can call when the pressure is off.

Find the media professionals in your community.

Seek help from the people in your community who work for newspapers, radio, and television stations. They can provide advice on what is newsworthy, how to get attention, and who to call. Most will not want to appear in the foreground, but in the background they will be invaluable.

Define your messages, then create your quotes.

Don't rush off to the media without a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. Create one or two messages -- this is what you want people to remember. If you intend to air a problem, one of your messages should be a reasonable solution. Once you have your messages figured out, you need to turn them into quotable quotes.

Make actions newsworthy.

To get media attention you need to tell a good story, with a human focus, about something that is happening now. The more creative, colorful, and humorous the story, the better coverage will be. Getting noticed is largely a matter of dramatizing issues.

Look for timing opportunities.

Try to link your issue to breaking news or to a government report, an anniversary, or a special holiday. Linking helps to make old issues current. Good timing is the key to getting access to the media.

Write letters to the editor.

Writing letters to the editors of community newspapers is an easy way to get publicity. Small papers will publish any reasonable letter that does not require a lot of fact checking. Draft and redraft letters so they are punchy and short. Check the length so your letter is at least as short as the average published letter. Common Cause, the largest citizens group in the US, did a study which showed that a letter to the editor was one of the most effective ways of influencing politicians.

Issue media advisories.

Send out a media advisory on your group's letterhead if you have an upcoming event you wish to publicize.

At the top left put "Media Advisory" and the date. Next, create a strong newspaper-style headline that will interest an editor who has to shuffle through hundreds of media advisories and news releases every day. The first sentence of the copy should contain the most important or most interesting fact in your story.

The rest of the advisory should cover the essentials of who, what, where, when, and why. At the bottom put "For more information" and a contact name and phone number. Keep it to one page in length. You can also email media advisories, but avoid attachments ; emails with attachments may be junked automatically to avoid viruses.

For big events, send out a media advisory two days prior, then telephone to make sure it was received and noticed. Direct fax the assignment desk for TV, to the city desk for newspapers, and to the newsroom for radio. But be aware that faxes usually end up in the garbage. Faxing an advisory without any personal contact is usually a waste of time, unless you are sending it to small community papers. The best way to get the press to an event is to phone assignment editors, producers, and reporters one or two days in advance. If no one comes to cover your event, phone around and offer an interview after it is over.

Aim at TV.

Some of the most effective citizens groups get TV coverage by staging events that provide action and good pictures. Greenpeace, for instance, gets attention by sending little rubber boats out to buzz around huge aircraft carriers.

Consider interviews at the location of the story. Use large colorful graphs and maps, or arrange to provide graphic evidence. Some groups also shoot their own broadcast-quality video or create video news releases to help control what is broadcast. Try to schedule actions before three o'clock to allow reporters enough time to process material for the six o'clock news. Choose a spokesperson who comes across well on TV, where a great deal is communicated non-verbally through tone of voice, facial expression, and body gestures.

Practice your blurb.

TV and radio news editors often cut quotes so they take only 10to 15 seconds. Make sure you give reporters 10 to 15 second sound bites that carry your message. Don't say anything that would misrepresent your message if it was taken out of context. Practice what you want to say before the event. Your statement or a minor variation can be used in response to any question asked. No one will know the difference.

Reframe stories on live radio.

If you can get on a live radio show, you can actually shape the news because you won't be edited as you would be on TV or in the newspaper. To sound good, prepare a collection of quotable quotes that convey your message, and write them out to take with you to the interview. Offer an interview by cell phone from a location where something is happening. Radio reporters like to do interviews with "actuals" -- background sounds that provide texture, immediacy, and the feeling of being there.

Don't rely on the media to educate.

The mass media are good at entertaining and good at raising issues, but poor at providing detailed information that would help people understand issues. If you want to circulate detailed information, you will probably have to do it through newsletters, op-ed page features, projects with schools, conferences, workshops, and websites.

Consider other media.

Promote your event or issue in a leaflet delivered by volunteers by ad mail, or by direct mail. Leafleting can be combined with fundraising that will pay for the leaflet, the distribution, and project administration. You can also display messages on printed T-shirts, window signs, roof-rack car signs, stick-on car signs, posters,, notices in apartment building laundries, or church orders of service, email newsletters linked to web pages and the print or email newsletters of other groups.

Try the direct approach first.

Before going to the media, consider phoning or writing those who have the power to put things right. If you have a city-related problem you are trying to address, contact city staff. If you get nowhere, call a city councilor.

Charles Dobson teaches creative problem solving at the Emily Carr Insitute of Art and Design in Vancouver and is author of

The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, available from bookstores and New Society Publishers.  [Tyee]

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