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The Planet

Making the Most of the Media

The Planet, May 1997, Volume 4, number 4

By Sarah Fallon

Media skills are a prerequisite to effective public education organizing. If you can harness the power of television, radio, newspapers and magazines, you can reach thousands, even millions of listeners, readers and viewers. One of the cheapest and most effective ways to get attention is to give the media lens a good excuse to focus on you. The gorilla costumes pictured on page 1 and the "coho salmon" below are great example of how Club activists turned rallies into colorful visual events that TV cameras and newspaper photographers couldn't resist.

If you can't find your gorilla suit, however, try letters to the editor. The letters section of the newspaper is read more than any other.

Letters to the editor can be used to explain how your issue is related to other news; correct facts after a misleading, inaccurate or biased letter or story; and talk about the local impact of national issues. Furthermore, letters are perceived as a display of public sentiment by legislators.

Letters should be brief (200 to 300 words), clear and to the point. Short letters are much more likely to be printed than long ones. Remember to be positive, write or type clearly, include your address and phone number, and double-check facts and figures. If your letter isn't printed immediately, keep trying; if a group of you is writing, stagger letters a few days apart so you maintain public awareness and interest over a longer period of time.

To conduct a long-term media campaign, however, you need more than an active imagination and a good supply of stamps.

The following guidelines should help you build a strong media program.

Consider Your Options

Start with a well-defined message, a good idea of who your target audience is and then determine the best outlets to reach that audience. Radio and TV news programs use the "sandwich" format: A few lines of narrative by a reporter are the bread around prerecorded comments by one or two key sources (you and perhaps a representative of the other side). Because stories are usually only 30 to 60 seconds long, broadcast media is more a headline service than a vehicle for in-depth coverage. Newspapers and magazines are often better suited for fleshing out complex issues, but far fewer people get their news from print media than from radio and television.

Build Your List

Once you've decided where you want to direct your media resources, build a media list. Start with a resource like the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, or Bacon's directories and gather the names, phone and fax numbers of local broadcast and print outlets. Then call each outlet and find out the best person to pitch your story to. At a daily newspaper, the city editor can tell you who has the environmental beat. For television and radio, ask for the assignment editor if you have a news story and the program director if you want to get onto a talk show.

Get Covered

There are a number of different approaches you can take; you can hold a rally, schedule a press conference, get on talk radio, schedule a guest on an interview show, send out a news release, write letters to the editor and write op-eds. A more common way to get coverage is to send a news release to reporters. Get a how-to and a sample press release from media representative Daniel Silverman (See "Key Contacts," page 7.) to get an idea of the tone and the length. The following tips should help as well:

  • Keep it simple, clear and direct.
  • Engage your reader with a catchy lead paragraph.
  • Be sure of your facts.
  • Limit it to one or two pages.

Follow Up

Call the reporter and check to make sure the release arrived. Be prepared to deliver your message again, but respect the reporter's time and don't try to keep her on the phone if she's working on a deadline. If she asks for additional information, get it to her promptly; at this point your job is to help her do her job. Above all, respect her objectivity and professionalism; a reporter who writes a favorable story is not necessarily your ally, and a reporter who writes an unfavorable story is not necessarily your enemy.

The All-Important Interview

The following tips should help you prepare to talk with reporters.

  • Decide the major points you want to make. Think about how to work them into your answers to questions you are likely to receive. Stress your points early and often.
  • If you don't know an answer, admit it, gently sidestep it, reemphasize your message and move on.
  • Be concise. Interviews are always edited for a news show, so your statements and answers to questions should always stand alone. Learn how to estimate time and keep answers to 15 or 20 seconds.
  • Practice.

Video Killed the Radio Star

It's true, looks really do count on TV. Keep the following points in mind if you're asked to appear on television.

  • Moderate gestures help make you interesting. However, every gesture is magnified; if you pick your nose or scratch your head, it is the only thing people will notice. Sit still and upright, keep your feet together, and don't swivel in your chair or dangle your legs.
  • Dress carefully and conservatively.
  • Wear glasses if you need to, but contact lenses are preferable. Avoid lightsensitive glasses or you'll look like a CIA agent.
  • In an interview situation, address the host. The camera will do the rest.
  • If you're speaking into a microphone, don't speak directly into it. With most mikes, a foot or two away is about right. In a panel situation where mikes are passed back and forth, be sure one is in front of you before you speak.

Sound Check

You don't have to worry about how horizontal stripes will look when you're on the radio, but you do have to watch your speech more carefully.

  • Focus on your words. Enunciate clearly and be precise. Every "uh" and "er" is magnified.
  • Use a friendly conversational tone. Radio is an intimate medium and as far as the listener is concerned, you are sitting right in the living room or car. Don't shout or preach.

Don't Get Mad, Get Friendly

When you get hostile questions from a reporter or the audience, you can often defuse them by following one of the techniques below.

  • Rephrase the question: Redefine the issue so you can control the terms of discussion.
  • If there is an accusation, you can deny it if it's untrue, admit to it if it's accurate and follow with a good explanation, or admit to it and follow with a description of the lesson you learned.
  • Often you can question the alleged facts or assumptions that underlie the line of questioning. Treat this as an opportunity to set the record straight.
  • Stay calm, pause, think, smile. Never let an interviewer get you angry.

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