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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
- 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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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
- 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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