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Media Basics for Activists


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You have a cause. It's important. You might think that alone would spark media interest. And yet you find your emails going unanswered, your events uncovered, your press releases evaporating into the ether. Or worse, reporters and local bloggers are paying attention to your cause but it's all the wrong kind of coverage — weak or dismissive or snarky. Let's consider how to do this better.

Possibly the most critical guidance I can give you is to remember we live in a small town. Consider carefully how you present yourself at meetings and events, and with whom you align yourself. You do not need to temper a bold personality — please don't — just remember that how you define yourself up on that soapbox will follow you around for a long time. Giving some thought into how you play the part will pay off, especially when you're telling your story through the media.

One could make an argument that the domination of social media has made more traditional outlets — newspapers, radio, TV, online news outlets and regional blogs — less necessary. But your cause will likely need to expand beyond Facebook and Instagram to truly succeed. Take a look around at your local media options. In which places would it best serve your cause to appear? Are you looking to build an army of like-minded people or to make a new audience aware of your mission? Will a full-blown news story do you the most good if it means the opposition will have equal time, or is it better to create your own hook and bring a reporter along?

Read, watch and listen to your local media so that you have a sense of who does what, then make a list mapping out your options. Know the names of the reporters who cover the topics relevant to your cause. If you don't already know them, reach out. Send an email thanking them for their coverage of this important topic, introduce yourself, let them know that you're always available if they're doing a follow-up story. Volunteer additional information and sources that might be useful to them. Have links or materials ready to share if asked. Share their stories on social media with your own comment about how the story relates to your cause. Comment on the organizations's Facebook page so they can get to know you and see you're not a lunatic. (Um, don't be a lunatic.) If they got something wrong or missed something, let them know — nicely, and with some objective facts handy.

But, you ask, how do I get them to come to me?

Great question. A few ways. Mostly by having something to say that their audience will be interested in hearing. Why should people care about this? Is it timely? Is a vote coming up? A demonstration? A town hall? A fundraiser? Are you highlighting your cause in an unusual way? Forming a human chain across the beach to protest offshore oil drilling? Rallying dozens of activists to attend a supervisors meeting? Hosting a tour of an area you want to protect from something? Walking out of school to demand safety from shootings? The point is you need something to be happening. Existence alone is not enough.

Nor are facts. Don't get me wrong, facts are imperative. But also often boring on their own. What's the human story here? Do you have a hero? A bad guy? A call to action? How does this affect life, liberty and/or the pursuit of happiness?

If you're looking to rope in TV or radio, think ahead about visuals and sound. If you're advocating for legislation to outlaw cigarette butts, for example, invite a TV reporter to talk outside Arcata's Tavern Row, notorious for the carpet of butts littering its sidewalk.

Speaking of being interviewed, who is your spokesperson? The best spokesperson knows about the issue and is able to talk about it in a personable and normal-people way — without acronyms or jargon. The best spokesperson understands the most important messages to get across and sticks to those themes. The best spokesperson knows when to stop talking. With few exceptions, you can't go wrong leaving people wanting more.

When a reporter calls, make sure to get his or her name, contact information and deadline, then ask to call him or her back so that you can give yourself a little time to prepare. And then prepare! Consider who you're talking to, the politics and personality of the media outlet in question. Don't be afraid to ask the reporter what the angle is or for questions in advance. Also don't be afraid, when being interviewed, to say you don't know the answer to something. Offer to get back to the interviewer — and do.

As you are developing these relationships, don't assume a reporter to be sympathetic or have your best interests in mind. Even when speaking "off the record," don't say anything you wouldn't want haunting you later. We have some excellent, ethical reporters out there — and then there are the others. Get to know the difference. Don't waste time on anyone who repeatedly undermines your cause with bad, lazy or unprofessional "reporting." Write op-eds or your own blog posts instead.

Finally, there are plenty of online how-to guides for writing press releases and planning media events. You should use them. You should also seek out what's working for other groups. Get inspired! Because your cause matters and getting the right kind of attention makes all the difference in the world.

Prior to launching a career in ocean advocacy, Jennifer Savage worked as a reporter and radio host throughout Humboldt County.


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