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Making the news: A guide to getting the media's attention
Utne Reader, Symon Hill, Red Pepper
March/April, 2009

If you've ever been passionate about an issue or a campaign, then you've also disagreed - passionately - with how that issue was (or wasn't) handled by reporters. It's tempting to simply throw up your arms and blame it all on the sorry state of the media. But there are two sides to every story, and active citizens must school themselves on how to attract attention, and never, every forfeit the power of the press. Here, then, is a 10-step primer from a media expert on how to help get you or your cause notice, on your terms.
- The Editors, The Utne Reader

1. Have a clear message

Decide what you are calling for and keep repeating it clearly and concisely. Don't dilute strong argument by going off on tangents or harping on trivialities. Relate your cause to everyday concerns. For example, if your campaigning for ethical investment, point out that it is financially viable and has a positive effect on the world. If you speak calmly and appeal to common understandings, radical ideas can appear not only sensible but even obvious.

2. Make media a priority

Effective campaigning means making media engagement a priority. I have often seen activists organize an event and then think about promoting it to the media. Put media at the centre of your planning from the beginning.

3. Offer news

Something is news only if it is new. Discussions of opinions are not news - but you can make them news. When the University of London Union campaigned on fair trade, they couldn't make headlines simply by repeating its benefits. But by conducting a survey that showed that London students were among Britain's most enthusiastic fair trade buyers, they made a good news story. Don't forget to be imaginative!

4. Watch your timing

If you are aiming for a weekly paper that goes to print on Tuesday afternoon, don't hold an event on Tuesday evening. Be where journalists are, both literally and metaphorically. It's difficult to get journalists to come to a protest outside a company's offices, but if you demonstrate outside the company's big annual meeting, business correspondents will already be there. Contact them in advance and there's a good chance they'll come over and speak with you.

5. Talk to journalists

It sounds obvious, but it is often overlooked. Issue a news release when you act or respond to events, but don't rely on the release alone. Get on the phone with the journalists who have received it. Be concise and brace yourself for disappointments - most of them will not be interested. But chances are you will find someone who wants to know more eventually.

6. Build contacts

Go back to journalists every time you have a story, especially those who seemed interested earlier. If you're concise and reliable, and give them good stories, they will soon be phoning you for comments. When this happens, make sure that someone is available. A good relationship with a few journalists is worth a thousand press releases.

7. Choose the right media

Who are you trying to influence? If you're aiming to shift local public opinion, the local press is, of course, vital. When the UK student group People and Planet launched their Green Education Declaration, they targeted specialist education media. The news was read by fewer people than if it had been in mainstream media, but that audience included the decision makers whom the initiative was targeting.

8. Keep it human

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. For example, Disarm UCL is a group of students campaigning for an end to their university's arms investments. They discovered that a University College London graduate named Richard Wilson had written a book about his sister's death as a result of the arms trade. By involving Wilson in their campaign, they made the story and made it harder for their opponents to dismiss them as inexperience and unrealistic.

9. Make it visual

A good image can make or break your chances of coverage. Photo stunts should be original and meaningful but not too complicated. A great example is students who dressed in military jackets and mortarboards to illustrate military influence on universities. With photos of protests, be careful about the background. I'm amazed how often people protest outside a shop or company without ensuring that the company's name is visible in shots of the demonstrations. Specialist media will often use photos provided by campaigners, so it's worth finding someone who's good with a camera.

10. Keep going

Media liaison is hard work, especially when you are new to it. But don't give up! The more you do, the more contacts you will acquire and the more coverage you will get. Keep your press releases and your phone calls regular. It will all be worth it when you see the coverage making a difference to your campaign.

* Symon Hill provides media training to activists and faith-based groups. His website is www.symonhill.co.uk Reprinted from Red Pepper, A British magazine of radical social politics: www.redpepper.org.uk

Rhetoric for Radicals

Ok, so you've finally got Anderson Cooper (or your local lifestyle-beat reporter) on the line. What do you say? "Improving your communication skills is probably the best way to deal with the media juggernaut," writes Jason Del Gandio in Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008). This little black book, packed with straightforward tips for engineering and articulating your message, is an important addition to any media-relations arsenal. Del Gandio, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, acknowledges that the media often misrepresent or altogether exclude radical issues, but he calls on activists to rise to the occasion: "Newspapers, magazines, journals, and radio and television shows prefer articulate, charismatic activists who speak and write well. This is because good communicators are able to clearly explain the purposes and motivations for their politics and actions."

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