Spreading the word through Internet, print, television, and radio news outlets is a great way to change minds about important issues. But if you don’t interact with journalists the right way, you could waste a lot of time or worse, do more harm than good.
How and why to contact the press
Use a news peg
If you want to pitch a story about your cause to the news media you need a news peg. Two of the most common news pegs are an event in the news that relates to your cause or an activism event you organize yourself.
Tying your pitch to an event in the news—local, national, or international—is probably the most effective way to get news coverage. Reporters are often looking for ways to put an issue in context and advance it past what other news outlets are reporting.
Another strategy that can be effective is staging an event. However, there are many things to keep in mind during the planning for this. Make sure that the event is at a convenient time and place for reporters to show up, ensure you have a good turnout from your team, and create strong visuals. There are more tips on staging events in this guide from the SPIN Project: http://spinacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/SPIN-Works.pdf
Many reporters prefer to receive pitches in email, as they can read them when they have enough time to digest the ideas.
Here’s an example of an email you might send to a reporter when the peg is a story that’s currently being covered in the news.
“Subject: Your story on tech and small business and another big problem that’s looming
Bob – I saw that you wrote about how technology is impacting small businesses and really enjoyed it. So I thought you might be interested in another angle here, which is how international treaties will hurt both consumers and innovation. My group works on these issues, and we have an expert who would love to talk about what’s going on right now: secretive international negotiations that could create new global rules that hurt small business. For example, the business you mention could be forced to stop adding upgrades to customers tablets and cell phones. There’s more information here [URL to a blog post or something else on your website—not your home page!] Please let me know if you’d like to talk more.”
*** In your signature line, include complete contact information for yourself (with a title if you have one), and your organization.
If you have decided to organize an event, you should post a media alert on the web that includes the basics: title of action, where, when, what reporters will see, and contact information for organizers and some links to more information (e.g., blog posts or other analysis as well as to the organizers’ home pages). Don’t put up too many graphics or over-design it—make it easy to read and understand. You can see an example at https://www.eff.org/press/releases/senators-call-privacy-law-update.
Here's a sample email to send to the press to alert them about your event:
“Subject line: Local event on dangerous international treaty that hurts consumers everywhere
Bob - I saw that you've covered how ill-conceived laws can hurt technology businesses, so I thought you’d want to know about our Anti TPP flash mob at 10am Saturday in front of the Big Corporation Building [URL]. TPP stands for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and it’s a secretive, multi-national trade agreement that threatens to extend restrictive intellectual property laws across the globe and rewrite international rules on its enforcement. You can see pictures from our last flash mob here [URL]. If you need anymore information, just let me know.”
You might consider adding an RSVP to try to gauge interest. But you will find that response or lack thereof has little connection to reality, either way.
Who do I pitch it to?
- The best bet is to go local. Look at the websites for local and neighborhood radio, TV, newspapers, and popular blogs. Send text for a public service announcement to college radio stations, neighborhood newspapers, and your local news weekly.
- If you're hosting an event, be sure to get the event listed in your local alternative weekly newspaper's event section. Look for other event local or issue specific listing websites and blogs to post a listing of your event, too. Make sure to send your event alert at least one week in advance in order to hit their deadline. Many publications will reject anything after a certain date, so check the news organization's website for calendar submission details.
- Identify the reporters who have covered issues that are similar to your own and find their email addresses. Keep that press list and take note of who gets back to you because you'll likely use it later
- Always send an email to the general “news tip” email address that most outlets include on a “contact us” webpage as well.
- Send an email to a small, targeted group of reporters rather than sending your pitch to a long list of email addresses that aren’t vetted. Use BCC to send a group email to add a level of privacy, and send personal emails to reporters that are the most relevant. Keep the it short; reporters are deluged with sloppy email pitches.
What happens when a reporter is interested?
If a reporter responds to your email, answer any questions promptly and clearly. If you leave reporters hanging, you are telling them you are unprofessional and your tip isn’t worth following up on.
Never imply that your email is an exclusive tip, unless it is. If a reporter asks who else you pitched it to, be honest: “I sent out similar email to a number of other reporters, but I’ve heard from you first. I think this story is very important and under-covered.” Or: “I sent email out to a number of other reporters. This story is very important and under-covered. Let me give you an example that you’d be particularly suited to writing about."
What happens when I get no response, or a reporter has lost interest?
- If you emailed a reporter in response to news coverage and got no answer, don’t resend the email. He/she may have read it, and may not have. But you should feel free to try again when there’s a new story to respond to.
- If you emailed to pitch an event you planned, you may follow up with a phone call or email reminder about 24 hours before the start time if it's for broadcast. If you call, remember to ask whoever picks up the phone if they have time for your call, and then keep it short and to the point. Example: “I emailed about an event tomorrow regarding the TPP treaty. About 20 people will be there in costume, doing skits on how this treaty will hurt consumers. Do you need any more information?” For print or websites, follow up with a second, shorter email alert.
- If reporters email you back to say some nice version of “thanks but not this time,” make a note of it. They are good reporters to email again when a new news peg comes up.
- If reporters email you back to say “please don’t contact me again” or give other instructions for pitching stories, follow their directions. If you don’t, you are going straight to the trash.
- In all your interactions with reporters, don’t get annoyed about not getting the response you want, and don’t spam them in frustration. Stay positive and email judiciously.
What to do when the press contacts you
- You should have three points in mind that you’d like to make. Rehearse them, a lot. Make sure to get them in your answers. Think of three questions that you really don’t want to answer and rehearse your response to those as well.
- Always assume that you are on the record and everything you say is going to be quoted. If that makes you speak slowly and deliberatively, all the better—it will give the reporter time to take notes and get clarification.
- If someone calls for a TV or radio interview, make sure to clarify if it will be live or taped, and what the reporter or interviewer expects of you. In case of a live show, feel free to ask for tips and helpful hints. Ask for questions in advance.
- For TV or in-person interviews, dress in something that makes you feel confident and professional. It doesn’t have to be a suit, unless that makes you feel relaxed and in control.
- Often print/web reporters will ask to record the interview. Generally speaking, this is a good way to ensure that the reporter quotes you accurately. However, if the reporter does not broach the subject first, you should ask whether it will be recorded. When an interview is being recorded, be careful not to say anything off the cuff that you wouldn't like to be broadcast publicly.
As mentioned above, never leave reporters hanging. Always be organized in order to return phone calls and answer any questions promptly and clearly. If you don’t, they’ll never waste their time again.
What happens after I see the story?
- If you like it – or even if it’s just average or not so bad – send a follow up thank you email. Compliments don’t hurt either, if they are genuine.
- Do follow up later with any new developments that you think might interest the reporter. But don’t overdo it, or you will find you’ll soon be ignored.
- If there are elements of the story that you don’t like, you can clarify politely in your thank you message. This is a good way to get corrected spellings, etc., into web copy, for example. It happens much faster if you are cheerfully pointing something out than if you angrily demand a correction.
- Only ask for a correction if there is a clear, factual error (e.g., names, dates, numbers, laws, misquotes). Done politely, this will not sabotage future coverage and may in fact nurture a better relationship of trust. What you do not want to do is attack the angle, interpretation, perception, balance, or characterization. Basically, you shouldn't start an argument about something that is a matter of opinion.
- Once you start arguing with a reporter about his or her accuracy and ability to tell a story, you could easily ruin the relationship. Ask yourself: Is this change worth sabotaging all future coverage? Am I being oversensitive? Remember that you can’t control media coverage. Looking imperfect is sometimes the price of admission. However, the public opinion gains that you can make with media coverage usually make the risk worth it.
Getting media is extraordinarily hard—be pleased with any progress that you make. If you don’t get any coverage from your first few attempts at pitching the media, learn from your mistakes and try again!