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How to Handle the Media

Notes from a Media Training Seminar by Michael Shellenberger, Dawn Day, Dogwood Center February 1998

Major Points

  • Cultivate individual reporters, e.g. develop personal relationships; return their phone calls promptly; help them find sources even if they are not planning on quoting you.
  • When giving an interview, keep on the message. We do not need to respond to the questions that are asked. This is especially important at the beginning of a half-hour television debate format because, if successful, this lets you set the agenda for the show with your answer.
  • We live in a media-saturated culture. Keep a story alive. Plan more than one event so the story keeps going for as long as possible.
Cultivate Individual Reporters
  • The reporter knows us and is favorable toward us, he/she will be more willing to listen to our pitch.
  • If we know the reporter, we will know how to pitch the story.
  • The pitch to the reporter must also be designed to help the reporter sell the story to the editor.
  • Give reporters tips on good stories, even ones that are unrelated to our topic, if we can. This will help make the reporter happy to hear from us.
  • Thank reporters for good stories on our topics.
Problem Reporters, Inaccurate Stories
  • Deal with difficult reporters by finding a way around them. It is usually unproductive to complain to the reporter's boss.
  • If we need to correct an old news story, rather than ask for a correction, it is better to pitch a new story.
Pitching a Story
  • Call a print reporter before 3 p.m. if possible. After that they may have a deadline.
  • When you call, first ask if the reporter has a minute to talk. If not, ask when would be a good time to call.
  • If the reporter says he/she is not interested, ask why. And ask who else in their organization might be interested.
  • Develop a thick skin and be willing to keep calling.
  • Recognize that we are helping them do their job better, by giving them information, story ideas and contacts. They will (usually) appreciate our help.
Press Releases
  • A press release is a written pitch. It is usually thrown away
  • After sending the press release, it is important to call to see if it was received and be ready to send another IMMEDIATELY.
  • Think of a press release as a reason to call and talk to a reporter.
  • Send to a specific reporter. We may have to send to an assignment editor with radio or TV.
Staying on the Message
  • Ex: in the medical marijuana issue, stay on imprisoning patients; do not discuss increasing drug use among children or getting regulatory approval, even if questions come up on these topics.
  • Ex: Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) stays on the idea that long sentences are wrong. Tries not to get tied down in the details of individual cases, such as what exactly did Kimba Smith do.
Ways to get into the Media
  • Create a story. (Image the story and work backwards. FAMM has done this with stories about prisons and families that have been hurt.)
  • Anticipate and influence the debate
  • React to the debate.
    1. If we get a call from a reporter, it is likely that other reporters are interested in the story as well. It may well be an opportunity for us to develop a press release or other media opportunity.
    2. Be flexible. When the other side does something stupid, be ready to take the time to capitalize on it.
  • Get our theme into TV shows. Ex: try get needle exchange into the TV show ER.
Events, Types of
(these are opportunities to build relationships with reporters, rally our supporters AND find new supporters)
  • Press conferences.
  • Forums, meetings, hearings. These are often difficult to make into news, but can be useful as background/education for a reporter, if you can get the reporter to attend. To make news out of a forum, tie it to a local news story, e.g., a forum in Boston by a lawyer reform group highlighting overcrowded court dockets in Boston.
  • Press breakfast briefings (do not need a news hook for this, just education for reporters)
  • "Tours," site visits where we bring experts along with reporters to view how something actually operates.
  • Editorial board visits (offer a briefing; the board will want research--have good citations, know the facts.)
  • Law suits (ex: beef industry suit against Oprah warns others that if criticize the beef industry you will be hurt.)
  • Civil disobedience (ex: running needle exchange in some areas)
Events, Tips for
  • Rehearse testimony/statements
  • Draw a news story out for several days by using several different events.
    Ex: begin with a background breakfast for reporters. Another day do a press conference. Meet with a key group a third day. Write an op-ed for a paper a few days later.
  • Consider different locations. NYC and DC are saturated with stories, so perhaps another city would be better for some stories.
  • Consider timing. July and August, when Congress is out of session, are good times for reformers to get a message out from DC.
  • Consider targeting local media. They may be easier to get into. Local media are what local political leaders read, and those groups are an appropriate part of our target audience.
Events, Picking an Appropriate Messenger
  • Ex: on medical marijuana, use MDs and patients. In general, it is good to use people affected by a policy.
  • Ex: consider an unexpected messenger such as a police official who favors ending the drug war.
  • Ex: public relations groups now offer to create grass roots organizations for clients; they even are able to generate calls to legislators by calling households and then using a switch to put the call through to the legislator, if the household member expresses an interest in doing so.
Events, Studies as
  • More effective if conclusions are "new;" have a connection to a political movement, are part of an annual series, or are hooked somehow to a current issue.
  • Helpful if linked to "hot" symbols, such as violence, race, children, etc.
  • Helpful to have a political leader release a study, as Sen. Barbara Boxer does on some environmental issues.
  • Easier to sell if the focus of the study be simple and repetitive. i.e. the Sentencing Project annual report on incarceration.
  • Try to have state level data, so that even a national report can be covered from a local angle.
  • Helpful if done by senior researchers at prestigious institutions, thus adding weight and credibility to the information. Also, in this case we pitching someone else, which is usually easier than pitching ourselves.
Messages, Content of
  • What sells is sex, violence, kids, celebrities, furry animals, conflict.
    Ex: on the juvenile crime bill in Congress, fight by talking about children being raped, beaten up and committing suicide. Then on background add other issues that we think are important, such as race and that prevention works. But get the attention with the sensational.
  • Remember that individual rights does not sell very well. We need to be arguing that sensible drug policies will be saving our children.
  • Speak in terms of values such as security of the family and justice. Show injustice by putting a human face on it.
  • The phrase we need to be "smart" about drugs not "tough" seems to work well.
  • Look for a woman's angle. The Nike sweat shop story was made appealing to women's groups by pointing out how Nike uses women's empowerment issues to sell shoes but exploits young girls as workers in its overseas factories.
Messages, Presentation of
  • Keep message simple/singular. Ex: needle exchange programs save lives.
  • Put a human face on the story. FAMM does this. This approach can also be used to get stories through reporters who are not generally sympathetic to our viewpoint.
  • Use good props. Ex: giant check to illustrate the $1000/month an AIDS patient had to pay for medicine. Ex: Picture of widow/nurse next to husband's grave talking about how medical marijuana relieved her husband's pain at the end of his illness.
  • It is important to have our facts right and well documented. What we say is scrutinized more carefully than what the establishment says.
  • We need to be willing to express anger and outrage. This rallies our allies as well as causes a problem for the other side.
  • We need to be oppositional. This helps get the media attention and helps us to be heard.
  • We need to pitch our stories as entertainment. (60 minutes is entertainment as well as news.) So we need to have a cast of characters and a story.
  • Point to solutions.
Tips for Op-Eds
  • Timing is more important than quality
  • Local slant
  • Make personal, if possible
  • Short paragraphs, only 1-3 sentences long.
Tips for Television
  • Dress in gray, blue, or brown. Avoid patterns or big jewelry.
  • Talk in sound bites.
  • Avoid "uh" or "er". Use pauses.
  • Do interview in natural light, if possible.
  • Get a copy on video or audio to evaluate self.
Regional vs National
  • Find ways to bump the story up to the national level. This occurs sometimes after a story has had regional coverage for a while. This relates to stretching a story out, so it is ongoing.
  • The Kimba Smith was first a local issue. Then it appeared in EMERGE Magazine. Now it is the centerpiece of a college education tour being sponsored by FAMM and the NAACP with Congresswoman Maxine Waters involvement. (Kimba Smith is an African American college student sentenced to 24 years in prison for her peripheral role in a drug conspiracy involving her former boyfriend.)
Race has played a central role in the creation and perpetuation of the situation we are fighting. We need to be more effective in reaching African American and Latino communities with our messages.
Why are the Media Unresponsive?
  • Conglomerate ownership is more conservative.
  • TV news is expected to show a big profit, so they don't have time to research stories. NOTE: we can turn this to our advantage, if we figure out how to create good stories for them
  • When all else fails, we can buy ads. A local TV ad for Good Morning America (in a major market) costs $1200 for 30 seconds.
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