Getting Your Message Covered

Make it relevant: Understanding News Hooks 
To really grab a reporter's attention, your story must be newsworthy. This list of news hooks can spice up your story and help you score press. Which of these hooks apply to your story? 

  • Controversy sells stories. Frame the controversy to put the opposition on the defense.
  • Dramatic Human Interest. Include the stories of real people, their triumphs, tragedies, adventures and anecdotes.
  • Trends. Stories that suggest new opinions, behavior patterns and attitudes. Three is a trend; find at least 3 examples to assert that a new trend is emerging.
  • Timeline/calendar. Captures something coming up on the calendar. “Back to school” can be a hook for toxic pollution in your children’s schools. Mother’s Day can be a hook for a new breast cancer community hot line.
  • New Announcement. “Unprecedented” or “groundbreaking” or “first-ever”. Reporters are only interested in new news, not old news. Make your news fresh.
  • Localize National Story (and vice versa). Take a nationally breaking story and emphasize its local impact, i.e., how a welfare reform bill is affecting people living in your community.
  • Anniversaries/Milestones. One year later, one decade later.
  • Fresh angle on old story. Take an old story and put a fresh twist on it.
  • Profiles and Personnel may feature individuals, community leaders, or galvanizing spokespersons who may become news themselves because of their fascinating stories.
  • Special Event. A huge conference, rally or gathering. Frame event to capture the issue and importance.
  • Respond and React to news others have made.
  • Celebrity. If you have a nationally known celebrity on your side, make sure they are included in the story.
  • Strange Bedfellows. Have unlikely allies come together in solidarity over your issue? Highlight it in your story.

Making a Newsworthy Event and Photo

First and foremost, always find ways to visualize your news.  Like it or not: If there’s no picture, there’s no image. If there’s no image, than there’s no television or newspaper photographers. If there’s no television, then you lose thousands if not millions of audience members seeing your message. Television in particular needs pictures. So instead of just presenting talking heads in suits, behind podiums, beneath bad fluorescent lights, in boring office suites, create photo ops for your news. 

Stage the photo op with the message in mind. Visualize how everything will come together and look in tonight's TV news or tomorrow's paper. How will the viewer get the one key message that drives home your point? Find the one visual metaphor that communicates the message. Think about your news hooks! All of the elements that make your story newsworthy should be considered as you design your photo op. 

Build your event carefully so photographers don't have an opportunity to capture an image you'd rather not see on the front page of tomorrow's paper. 

Think about the pictures that help tell your story, and then build that picture, thinking through all the details, including: 

Background: Your location should be appropriate, convenient, should help tell your story. Be mindful of camera angles, the direction of the sun and the effect on lighting at outdoor events. Do not make camera people shoot directly in to the sun. Also, does the backdrop "read" in your picture? In other words, can you make sense of it? One hapless group in Washington, DC staged their photo op right at the base of the Washington Monument -- not in front of the monument, at the base of the structure. All you could see was some marble thing behind them. The inspiring structure they had desired was out of the picture because they were too close! 

People:  The messenger is as important as the message. Think about your spokespeople and the other key players at your event. Are all the right people represented? Will members of your target audience see people who they will find credible when they see your story on the six o'clock news? Will they see people who look like them? 

Typical speakers at your event might include: 

  • a key organization representative, like you!
  • a person who represents the human interest inherent in your story like a patient, their families or local resident
  • a local politician, ally or public official
  • an expert, such as a doctor, scientist or lawyer who can present the "raw facts" of your issue

Props: What are the visual elements and gimmicks that flesh out your story? It might be a costume, a toy, a cardboard cut out of some symbol or your issue. The perfect prop is often the crowning glory or your photo op. 

Sound bite: What you are saying at your event is, of course, as important as what your event looks like, so be sure that your sound bite is consistent with your theme and communicates a consistent message. Does your visual metaphor hinge on a common phrase or cliché? Put it to work in your sound bite! For example, Americans for Safe Access in Washington, DC staged a photo op to highlight patients “who face the threat of arrest every day just to get the medicine that their doctors prescribe".  Each person at the event wore a sign around their neck with a picture of a medical marijuana patient noting their name and medical condition.

Writing Effective Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor are an easy way to voice your opinion to policy makers and to educate people in your community about the issues your organization addresses. You can use letters to correct or interpret facts in response to an inaccurate or biased article recently published in a newspaper or magazine; to explain the connection between a news item and your organization's issues; or to praise or criticize a recent article or editorial. Whatever your purpose, your letter will reach many people in your community - without exception, the letters section is one of the most highly read segments of newspapers (and magazines). 

STEPS TO SUCCESS

Step 1: Know Your Paper's Policy 
Find out the newspaper's (or magazine's) policy for printing letters. Some have requirements for length of letters, some want letters to be typewritten, and almost all require that you include your name, address and phone number. (Of course your address and phone number would never be printed. Most publications will want to call you before they print your letter to confirm that you really did write the letter and that you want to have it published.) 

If the paper doesn't publish its letters requirements next to the letters it prints, don't be afraid to call. Ask to whom you should address your letter, if they have any length restrictions, and in what format they would like the letter.

Step 2: Be Timely 
Responding to a recent article, editorial or op-ed is one of the best ways to increase your chances of getting published. (Be sure to mention the name of the article and the date it was written in the beginning of your letter.) You can also capitalize on recent news, events, or anniversaries. 

Step 3: Keep it Simple 
You already know how to write letters to policy makers that are concise, informative and personal. The same should be true with letters to the editor. Make your first sentence short, compelling and catchy. Don't be afraid to be direct, engaging, and even controversial. Keep your points short and clear, stick to one subject, and, as a general rule, try to limit your letters to under three or four paragraphs in length. Most publications ask that letters be kept to 250 words or less. The shorter the letter, the better its chances of being printed. 

Step 4: Get Personal 
Newspapers, at their core, are community entities. Editors will be much more likely to publish a letter, and the letter will have much more impact, if it demonstrates local relevance. 

Use local statistics. For example, a letter focusing on a vote on the Clean Water Act should point out how many rivers and lakes are unsafe for swimming in your community or state. 

Use personal stories. For example, if you or someone in your family has become ill because of contaminated drinking water, you should talk about your experience in a letter to the editor addressing the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Use names. As congressional aides have repeatedly told us, if a letter to the editor mentions a Representative or Senator's name, they will see it. They care about how they are being perceived in the district, and they will pay attention to a letter that asks them to co-sponsor legislation, or to take a specific action in Congress. You should also urge your readers to support your position and to let their elected officials know their views. 

Use your credentials. If you have expertise in the area you are writing about, say it! 

Step 5: Increase Name Recognition 
Letters to the editor are an excellent opportunity to let more people know about your issue. As a general rule, you should sign your letter to the editor with your affiliation. On the other hand, if you and many other representatives from your organization are writing letters to the editor as part of a targeted campaign, you may not want to include your affiliation. Publications will not print letters they think are part of a manufactured campaign. 

If you are the only one writing to the editor, you may also want to work your organization's name into the text of your letter. For example, in a letter about food safety standards you could say that, "The (your organization) recommended guidelines for improving food safety standards to protect our children just last year." 

Step 6: Don't Forget the Follow-up 
Don't be discouraged if your letter is not printed. Keep trying. You can even submit a revised letter with a different angle on the issue at a later date. And if your letter is published, be sure to send the clipped version to your member of Congress as well! While your representative or senator will probably have clipped your letter, it carries more weight if it comes from you with a personal note attached. 

Steps 7: Think Strategically 
You should think about letters to the editor as a regular strategic campaign tool to increase the effectiveness of your organization's actions. Try to target several different papers in your area at the same time and encourage people to explore different angles on the same issue. However, do not send the exact same letter to more than one newspaper in the same market. If you want to be published in more than one paper in the same market, rewrite the letter slightly or choose a different angle to approach the subject at each publication. Newspapers do not like to print "form" letters. 

"It is especially good if the letters are geographically spread and the issue is repeated in a few areas. It creates a ripple effect. It shows that the issue has reached far into the congressional district which, in turn, gets noticed by the policy maker." - Congressional Aide

(Adapted from Green Media Tool Shed)