LET THE WORLD KNOW: MAKE YOUR CAUSE NEWS
A Beginner's Guide to Getting Media Coverage
By Jason Salzman
Flip through the
news and you probably won't see or hear much about nonprofit
organizations and activists. Why? Part of the answer is as
simple as it is ironic: Most activists are too busy saving the
world to tell journalists about it.
are overloaded with--as one senior manager put it--the
"real" work: volunteer recruitment, program
operations and development, fundraising, lobbying, and so on.
When it's time to prioritize scarce resources at nonprofit
organizations, getting media coverage doesn't make the cut.
this put-the-media-on-the-back-burner attitude leaves
activists struggling to stay afloat in the dim light of
obscurity and wondering why more people don't value their
work. Even worse, it means they don't reap all the benefits
that media attention can bring to the "real" work of
nonprofit organizations (e.g., more money, more volunteers,
easier staff recruitment, political victories, and so on).
But there's good
news: It's easy to get a media program started at your
organization, even if you've never done it before. Just make a
long-term commitment to getting the word out and invest the
time required to get the job done. Here's how you can begin:
Step One -- Observe what's newsworthy
often the types of people who hate the mainstream media,
preferring the sanity of public radio or the soothing books of
Noam Chomsky. If you're this type of person, get over it.
what's newsworthy, you have to consume as much news as
possible, including local TV news, talk radio, newspapers of
all types, and more. Take in as much as you can, wherever you
go. Over time, you will begin to recognize the kinds of
stories that appear in, say, the business section of the
newspaper or a particular daytime talk radio show. With this
knowledge, it will be easier for you to "package"
stories about your organization for specific media outlets
whose audiences you want to reach.
You will notice
that, in general, news stories have one or more of the
following characteristics: conflict, novelty, simplicity,
shock, kids, celebrity involvement, action, strong imagery
(usually outdoors), local impact, humor or cutsiness, and
Step Two -- Learn how to "pitch" stories to
When you identify
a newsworthy story about your organization, you need to tell
journalists about it. The most common way to do this is by
phone. (A "press conference," where journalists
gather to hear an announcement from a newsmaker, is seldom
justified for a nonprofit organization.) If you're persistent,
you can reach almost any journalist--at local or national news
outlets--on the phone.
have a conversation, you've started a relationship," says
John Allison, Op-ed Editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"Once you've had a conversation with someone, the story
becomes a bit more real."
The best time to
call is early in the day and early in the week, but the
reality is that journalists are--more often than
not--extremely busy all the time, facing new deadlines every
"We're in an
impatient business," said Porus Cooper, Assistant New
Jersey Editor for the Philadelphia Enquirer. "We get lots
of phone calls. In fact, there's a call pending right now as
I'm speaking to you. I'm going to put you on hold. Hang
on....To get the attention of a media person, you need to get
to the news aspect fairly quickly."
It's up to you to
respect journalists' time crunch and "pitch" your
story to them as quickly as possible. Practice your
"pitch" repeatedly before picking up the phone,
making sure that you've got the strongest, most concise
reasons why your story merits news coverage. Also, prior to
calling, you should fax or mail journalists about two pages of
written background material.
Here's a sample "pitch:"
Hello, I'm with a national
organization called Earth Force that's initiating a
new program in Denver. Do you have a minute or two to
hear about it?
Okay, go ahead.
Surveys show that young people want to do something
to protect the environment. But, the problem is, kids
don't know what to do.
Earth Force has developed a pilot program to help
get kids involved--and Denver is one of only four
cities across the country to test it. If the program
is successful in Denver and the other pilot cities, it
could spread across the country.
Here's how it works: With the help of their
teachers, the kids survey their communities for
environmental problems--they actually take a walk
around the neighborhood and look for environmental
problems. Then they choose a specific problem to
address, research it, and implement plans to solve
it--for the long term.
Here in the metro area, we've teamed with educators
in 15 schools from Boulder to Commerce City to Denver.
For example, in Commerce City at Adams City Middle
School, students looked around their community and
decided to address drainage, litter, and recreational
deficiencies at a nearby park. At Place Middle School
in Denver, students have a plan in place to erect
environmental signs along a stretch of Cherry Creek
near the school. At Cole Middle School in Denver, the
kids will be surveying the Cole neighborhood Tuesday.
Earth Force--funded in part by the Pew Charitable
Trusts--creates a structure to direct young people's
concern about the environment into productive projects
in the community.
Does this sound like a story that might interest
you? If not, can you suggest someone else I should
This sounds interesting to me. Do
you have written information about this?
Sure. Yes, I'll send you a packet
of background information and a list of teachers
If you're calling
more than a couple journalists about a news story, you should
prepare a "news release," which is a one-page
explanation of your "news," prepared specifically
for journalists. News releases are written like news in the
newspaper or on TV, with short paragraphs and quotations.
Most of the time
that you dedicate to writing a news release should be spent on
the headline and first paragraph. The heart of your story--as
well as any visual imagery for television--should be described
in the headline. If appropriate, be creative and try to grab
your readers. Always print a news release on your
"One page is
more than enough," says Porus Cooper at the Philadelphia
Inquirer. "Give me the news right away. Give me the
Here's a sample news release:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE April 1
Contact: Jason Salzman
Explains How Nonprofit Groups Can Get Media Attention
Nonprofits Aren't Boring and Don't Have to Be Invisible
your pet issue or cause absent from the news? Well, stop
complaining about the media and do something about it.
the gist of a new handbook written for citizens who want to
shine the media spotlight on a cause or important issue. Based
on interviews with working journalists across the country,
Making the News: A Guide for Nonprofits and Activists covers
everything you need to know to get the word out.
300-page book contains concise information on how to contact
reporters, create newsworthy imagery, book a guest on talk
radio, write effective news releases, compile media lists, be
a master interviewee, publish op-ed columns and
letters-to-the-editor, pitch feature stories, lobby editorial
writers, columnists, photographers, and much more. It also
lists tips on how to develop credibility among journalists,
respond to reporters in a crisis, and create a media strategy.
organizations and activists can get more media attention by
improving their media skills," says Jason Salzman, author
of Making the News. "They need to offer journalists
quality information--in the right packaging at the right time.
Nonprofits aren't boring, and they don't have to be left out
of the news."
the News was just published by Westview Press. It retails for
$19.95. Check your bookstore or order directly by calling
book should be in the hands of every community group that
wants to make a difference." -- Michael Moore, filmmaker
and author of Downsize This.
truly essential guide to making the most of organizing through
the media. Every organization should have this in its tool
kit." Harvey Wasserman, Greenpeace.
Here is another sample news release:
Contact: Paul Klite For Immediate Release
303-832-7558 Monday, February 16
Challenges Licenses of Denver TV Stations
Television News Harming Citizens
February 16 (RMMW) -- Rocky Mountain Media Watch called on the
Federal Communications Commission today to revoke the licenses
of four Denver TV stations, claiming they are broadcasting
local news programs harmful to citizens. RMMW asks the FCC,
pursuant to its legal charge to regulate broadcasting "in
the public interest," to protect the people.
Petitions to Deny, based on a series of content analyses of
local television news conducted by RMMW from 1994 to 1997,
document that local newscasts on KWGN-TV, Channel 2, KCNC-TV,
Channel 4, KMGH-TV, Channel 7, and KUSA-TV, Channel 9, are
severely unbalanced, with excessive reporting of violent
topics and trivial stories.
fighting the onslaught of tabloid journalism," said Paul
Klite, RMMW Executive Director. "Night after night
audiences are terrified and titillated, aroused and
manipulated, but not informed. Like an unbalanced diet, which
gradually can lead to serious illness, the local TV news
threatens the health of our community."
asks the FCC to require stations to improve their newscasts
and to (1) air public service announcements alerting the
public to TV news' potentially harmful side-effects, (2)
broadcast educational media literacy programs in prime time
for both children and adults, (3) require stations to develop
a plan, and make it public, for improving their coverage of
TV news has serious side-effects, like viewer alienation,
cynicism, racial polarization, violent behavior including
copy-cat crimes, intimidation, passivity, ignorance, and
disempowerment," said Klite. "Together these
constitute a toxic stew of negative influences in our
Mountain Media Watch is a Denver-based nonprofit organization
founded in 1994 to challenge the news media, particularly
local TV news, to resist tabloid coverage and air stories that
inform citizens It's publications, including Baaad News: Local
TV News in America, have received national acclaim.
complete Petitions are on RMMW's web site: http://www.bigmedia.org/
You could have the
country's best event, the planet's best news release, the
universe's most up-to-date media list, and be blessed in
heaven--and all of it may not matter unless you make follow-up
calls to make sure journalists know about your event.
or e-mailing a release to a reporter does not guarantee that
he or she will see it. Mail gets lost, chewed, ignored, or
buried. At some outlets, the faxes pile up into oblivion
unless a journalist makes a special effort to retrieve one.
call can make the difference in getting on the air," says
Leonard Nelson, producer of KNBR radio's morning show in San
Francisco. "If you're persistent, you stand a better
chance." Few journalists have layers of secretaries. You
can get through. Keep trying. Before you call, practice your
Here is a sample follow-up call for a TV assignment editor
or TV reporter
Hello, I'm calling from People
for a Liveable Downtown to make sure you received our
news release about our plans to release giant balloons
to show how ugly the new skyscraper will look
downtown. Five neighborhood groups are opposing
construction of the building.
Let me check.... I don't see it.
We're releasing the balloons
tomorrow to dramatize how massive the new skyscraper
will be. I'll fax the release again right now.
least half the time, reporters will not be able to locate your
faxed news release when you call. You should immediately fax
it again and call again immediately after sending it to make
sure it was received the second time.
Step 3: Become a Master Interviewee
The key to
successful interviews with journalists is to keep it simple
and interesting. In most interviews, you should stick to one
or two central messages, drawing on a couple supporting points
for each message. You should repeat your messages for
You should also
develop a soundbite or two to communicate your simple
messages. Soundbites are the type of speech commonly found in
the news, especially TV news. They are defined by how long
they take to deliver (five to 12 seconds) and the style of
language the contain (action verbs).
An effective way
to write a soundbite is to begin with the phrase, "I'm
here today...." (e.g., "Save Our Cities is here
today to show that citizens care about preserving historic
buildings across the state.") Often the most quotable
soundbites are linked to imagery. For example, activists in
New Mexico donned large Pinocchio noses to illustrate their
opinion that officials were stretching the truth about the
safety of a nuclear waste dump. Their soundbite: "The
truth about the governor's position is as plain as the nose on
Tips to Be a
Practice answering questions in advance. (Have
your friend pretent he's a mini-Sam Donaldson.)
Speak slowly and give brief answers to
Pretend you're Henry David Thoreau: Simplify,
Tell a reporter what you think is the most
important point you've made.
Develop different styles of communicating for
print, TV, and radio reporters.
Realize that it's okay to be nervous; anxiety
can actually add vigor and clarity to your thoughts--and,
besides, everybody gets nervous.
Refer to concrete examples, personal experience,
and clear images.
Remember that reporters want stories, as well as
For television, look at the reporter or camera
operator--not directly into camera.
Warm up your voice before your interview. (Sing
to your dog or something.)
Never assume journalists agree with you though
they will often act as if they do.
Eliminate insider jargon and acronyms from your
Never say "no comment;" if you cannot
talk about a topic, explain why.
If you don't want to answer a hypothetical
question, simply say so.
Suggest questions that reporters should ask of
your opponents or critics.
If you don't have an answer to a question, say
so and try to track down an answer later.
Don't worry about being a "media
personality." Be yourself.
Step 4: Create a media strategy for your organization
intense analyses of "spin," leaks, and power news
conferences, it's no wonder many people are daunted when they
think of developing a media strategy. But for nonprofits,
creating a media strategy isn't hard. You just have to take
time to plan the purpose and timing of your efforts to make
If it contains
nothing else, your media plan should state why you want media
coverage. Once you've got a clear answer, you should identify
the audience you want to reach and when you want to reach it.
Then you should list media outlets that will reach your
audience. Your final task in developing your media strategy is
to figure out how to convince your target media outlets to
cover you at a time that makes strategic sense for you.
For example, if
you want media coverage to educate teenagers about the
benefits of birth control, you won't want to focus on getting
covered by local TV news. Teenagers don't watch it! Instead,
you'd want to devise a media strategy focusing on pop radio or
teen magazines--news outlets that reach your target audience
If you want to
link your coverage to a lobbying campaign in the state
legislature to pass a bill for the free distribution of
condoms in public high schools, you'd aim for news coverage to
appear at a strategic time as the bill is being considered.
(You might even want to target media outlets that will reach
the districts of swing voters in the Legislature.)
strategy should be part of another, longer organizational
document: your strategic communications plan. This should
explain how you want your organization and your issue to be
perceived by your community in the long-term. It should
explain how all your organization's communications
efforts--from lectures and newsletters to op-eds and annual
reports--advance the long-term goals of your organization.
Your strategic communications plan should explain how your
entire public profile fits together to present your issues and
organization to citizens.
Step 5: Compile a media list
The best way to
begin to put together a media list is to call groups in your
community that work on a similar cause and ask for their
lists. Or call your state-wide association of nonprofit
organizations, if your state has one. You can take what
they've done and build on it; any media list can be improved.
If you can't get help from a like-minded organization, check
the library. Lots of reference books are available.
information your media list contains, the better off your
organization will be--especially in the long-run when staff
leave, taking everything that's hasn't been entered into the
data base with them. So, while you can get by with a local
list of about 12 major media outlets, names of a contact at
each, and his or her phone and fax number, you should aim
exhaustive list that includes all the news outlets in your
area, including all neighborhood publications, and even
newsletters of community groups. For each, try to include: the
name of the outlet, multiple contacts at each, phone and fax
numbers, the street and e-mail address, call letters, channel,
format (live, taped, talk show, etc.), deadlines, relevant
comments, and a detailed history of interactions with your
Below are four
major types of news outlets and whom to contact at each.
Again, your primary tools for reaching reporters are the phone
and fax machine. (E-mail will certainly be used in the future,
but most local journalists still prefer to receive information
doesn't bother me," says Cooper at the Philadelphia
Inquirer. "It doesn't bother me, either, to be asked what
we'll do with [a story idea]."
Newspapers. There are many different ways to get covered
by large metropolitan dailies. Take advantage of as many as
you have hard news (e.g., a new report with statistics, a
protest, a response to a national news story), contact the
city desk or a reporter who covers your issue area. Also call
the photo editor, if your organization is up to something
that's visually interesting.
Features are lengthy human interest stories that aren't
necessarily connected to the "news" of the day. For
example, you might see a feature on mushroom hunting, driving
a taxi, or AIDS research. Unlike news stories--which are
usually written on one day and published the next--features
often take a couple weeks or more to develop and write.
Contact the feature page or, preferably, specific feature
writers with your ideas.
Write letters in response to news stories that affect your
work. The letters page is one of the most widely read sections
of the newspaper. Take a moment to write a 100 word letter,
but don't bog down trying to make it perfect. Just get it
done. (Most newspapers now take letters by e-mail and fax.)
While the pundits whose work appears in the commentary section
may not be read by the masses, you can be sure that most
policy junkies make a point to read them. You can join them,
if you publish a guest column. Such a column--often called an
"op-ed"--gives you the chance to go into more depth
(about 750 words) about your ideas, which often gain a measure
of legitimacy after appearing in the newspaper. To submit a
guest column, run your idea by the op-ed page editor first.
"I like to talk to local people," says John Allison
at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I can often steer the
person in the most fruitful direction. I can say, 'Don't do
this; do that instead.'"
Local TV News. More
people get their news from local television programs than any
other source. That's one reason why there's intense
competition to land stories on these shows. Another reason is
that only a small number of stories can be aired in the
approximately 12 minutes that the average 35-minute local TV
news shows reserve for actual "news." (The rest is
commercials, sports, chit-chat, teasers, and weather.) To
break into the local news your story has to have strong visual
appeal and you have to be persistent. (Yes, you can get
covered even if your story isn't about mayhem!.) Contact the
assignment editors at your local TV stations. In your pitch,
News radio. Unfortunately,
radio stations across the country are shutting down their news
departments, leaving their disc jockeys (or "shock
jocks") to read news tidbits and celebrity items from the
local paper or from news services. This means that even large
metropolitan areas may have only one commercial radio
station--plus possibly a couple public radio stations--with
staff reporters who might cover your story or event. Find out
which stations have news departments and pitch your story to
the news director or to specific reporters.
Talk radio. Talk
radio can be a communications force. It attracts a devoted
band of listeners, many of whom are active in the community.
Identify the shows that make sense for you and call the
producers or, in smaller markets, the host. One caveat: If you
face a cranky host, have an adept spokesperson.
media outlets. Here's a list of other local news
outlets--along with (in parentheses) whom to contact at each:
weekly newspapers (the editor or reporters), magazines (the
editor or freelance writers), TV public affairs programs or TV
talk shows (producers), news services (news editor), pop radio
(disk jockeys). You should keep a list of national news
outlets, too, for that Big Story that will come your way one
Step 6: Start publicizing your cause in the news
The key to getting
news coverage of your organization is to take advantage of the
full spectrum of news media outlets in your community. It's
your job to identify, create, or tailor stories about your
organization to suit the different needs of different
nonprofit organizations see the news," said Elaine
Effort, a reporter with KQV radio in Pittsburgh. "They
see what's going on, and they know if a service they provide
relates to it. For example, yesterday there was a big shooting
at a school. Say there's a nonprofit that deals with grieving
children. Here's their chance. Call before the story is old
Put your media
list to work today. And don't give up. Just because you didn't
get covered one day doesn't mean you won't make the news the
next. On a slow news day, anything can be news. Also remember
that, over time, your job will get easier as you develop
relationships with journalists in your community.