How to get press coverage. Use these nine steps for getting the press to cover an issue or event.
The press is the lifeblood of every environmental battle. Unless citizen activists can obtain fair, accurate, frequent, and in-depth coverage of an issue, nine times out of ten the battle will be lost. One of the prime reasons why the Tocks Island Dam battle was not lost was because dam opponents were extremely adept at obtaining coverage in every newspaper in the region including The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as on major networks.
One of the leaders of the Tocks battle, Mina Hamilton Haefele, a former reporter for Associated Press and Newsweek, attributes this success to the assiduous application of the following principles.
1. Be compassionate. Reporters are notoriously underpaid, overworked, and subjected to the unremitting pressures of last-minute deadlines, late hours, and irascible editors.
Many reporters, particularly on local newspapers, suffer from bitter inferiority complexes. The hometown reporter wants to get out of the boondocks, wants to move to The Wall Street Journal, wants to be an NBC newsman, wants to write a novel. He/she does not want to be where he/she is. Treat this individual as a human being, and the results will be surprising. (But don't expect immediate dividends.)
2. Be supremely polite and friendly. Introduce yourself at press conferences and hearings. Get on a first name basis. Always compliment the press on stories well done — even if they're not your stories. Stay friendly, especially with those who haven't yet covered your issue adequately or fairly.
Use the personal touch to establish a relationship. A well-planned tour of the region threatened by a project, including a good luncheon with wine or beer, can work wonders. But no salami sandwiches or frankfurters. Go for hot soup, home-baked bread, fresh salad. Inexpensive but delicious food will soften the hardest heart.
Once a relationship is established, sustain it with occasional favors. Feed interesting leads and tips to selected press. The favor will probably be returned by a reporter leaking information to your group.
3. Be patient. It will probably take several years of painstaking nurturing to convert the press. The activist must be prepared to repeat the same information — calmly, rationally, clearly — over and over, at any hour of the day or night, year in and year out. At 8:00 a.m. or 11:00 p.m., be prepared to answer questions and give information.
Never phone the paper's editor to bitch and complain about inaccuracies. This is the quickest way to alienate, often permanently, the press. Do, however, in a straightforward, unemotional letter to the editor, set the record straight. Never blame the reporter for what may be the publisher's policy or a night editor's error. The press is not a monolith. Be aware that the reporter, the radio announcer, the publisher, the station manager, all may have different viewpoints.
Don't chew out the radio announcer for a policy that he may secretly disagree with and is slowly trying to change from within. Don't bad-mouth the press to friends, legislators, politicians. Word will somehow always get back to the paper and damage your reputation.
4. Be devastatingly accurate. Never make statements that cannot be substantiated. Never make unfounded allegations or personal slanders . . . even during supposedly off-the-record personal conversations. (A safe bet with all news media is that nothing is off the record, no matter what promises are given.)
Marshal the facts, carefully, logically. As often as possible, refer to credible studies, official documents, hard statistics to justify a position. Avoid the general. List specifics, detail cases. If an organization can cite the eleven historic homes due to be bulldozed, the 52 cases of land acquisition abuses, or 17 examples of misleading statements in an environmental impact statement, it makes a better story for the press and also, very importantly, makes it look as if you know what you are talking about.
If, during a phone interview, you don't have the answer to a question, don't fudge it. State that you want to be sure to have the statistic correctly, look it up, and call the reporter back. For a live interview, however, the citizen must have all the facts at his/her fingertips, on 3 X 5 note cards if not in the head.
5. Be interesting. State the facts, but do so using colorful, evocative language. Create dramatic events. Demonstrations, pickets, bus tours, float trips, map unveilings are all valuable techniques for engaging the press.
At hearings, conferences, and debates, have charts, maps, and photographs available for the media. The press is tired of words, nothing but words. A good, captioned photograph will often benefit the cause far more than pages of copy. Have enough copies of the photo for all members of the press present. If a citizen is appearing on a local television program, suggest he/she bring along a selection of color slides. Often, TV stations like to use photos as a backdrop for interviews.
A story without much drama can be made more lively for the press. An analysis of the biases in a government study, for instance, will get more coverage if the activist sends a bunch of protest telegrams to Washington, followed by a press release about the telegrams and the organization's critique of the study. (Like all recommendations in this article, this technique must be used judiciously.)
Get tuned into what interests the press. Here is the Waterloo for most environmentalists. If your local media don't care about "environmental issues", don't continue to harp on the subject. Temporarily, soft pedal wilderness or wildlife. Find the angle that concerns the press. Go after the economics of the project, tax impact, efficiency in generating jobs, energy conservation, human interest stories, political scandals, historic homes. When the press is finally interested, then the activist can shift back to environmental issues.
6. Be convincing and methodical. Frequently, it's hard for a small, newly formed group to develop credibility. The group's press releases never appear or are buried on page 62. A good remedy is to join forces, temporarily, with an established organization that already has some press credibility.
Several joint press releases sent out by the local group and a Public Interest Research Group or nationally known conservation group will help build recognition. Later, the local group can operate independently. If the new group is unfamiliar with the art of the press release, it is a good idea to contact a group in the state that is getting good press coverage and ask to see examples of their press releases.
With press releases, first appearances are half the battle.
Any environmental organization which sends out smudgy mimeographed statements flawed by typos and sentence insertions deserves what it gets: oblivion. A xeroxed clean copy, double-spaced with generous margins, is mandatory.
The release should be written in a lively, informative style. The first sentence must catch and hold the attention of a harassed, tired, bored reporter. Pithy quotes are a good technique for brightening the statement.
Keep on patiently sending out the press releases. Don't give up if they don't appear. Even if a release doesn't get published, it's important for the press to know that you exist and that the issue is alive. If after four or five tries the press releases still aren't appearing, there's probably something wrong with your press releases. Consult a professional. (You may be sending out too many press releases on non-news events.)
Find out press deadlines for all the media you have contact with. Don't expect a reporter to cover a story you dump on his desk two hours before filing time.
7. Be consistent. Have one spokesperson for the organization who handles all contacts with the press. The spokesperson must be persistent, polite, extremely articulate, totally unflusterable, and massively well-informed. He/she must be skillful at avoiding lawsuits, oversimplifications, and misleading statements.
A favorite reportorial interviewing technique is to preface a statement with "Wouldn't you say that . . . " If the spokesperson answers either yes or no, the reporter's statement may end up as the spokesperson's quote!
Relatively conservative dress is, of course, necessary for public appearances. But a little flamboyance is not a bad idea. No reason to be so conventional as to be utterly forgettable.
8. Be wary of press conferences. Most groups schedule too many conferences about insignificant events. The press conference must involve big news, big names. If it's just another slanted government study, inadequate environmental impact statement, or initiation of a lawsuit, you should probably go for a press release.
If a press conference is in order, be sure to contact a friendly source in the media regarding scheduling, so as to avoid conflicts. Try to schedule the conference to dovetail with another event related to your issue at which the press is already going to be present, so as to assure good coverage. Have coffee and refreshments available, plus plenty of packets of information, visual displays, and photos. Keep the presentation short and leave lots of time for press questions.
9. Be on the radio. Don't forget the potential for radio public service announcements . . . PSA's. (Television PSA's are probably beyond your budget.) Many stations will run PSA's ten times per day for several weeks at a time, so the opportunity for publicity is impressive. Start monitoring your local radio stations. Note type, frequency, and quality of PSA's. Call the station people and talk to them. Describe what you'd like to do, find out what's likely to be accepted by the station.
Be accommodating. No need to threaten lawsuits at the outset. Most stations prefer 30-second tapes which can be dropped into a cartridge for a couple of weeks. Don't attempt to educate the public regarding a complex issue. An oblique, soft-sell approach which publicizes the name of your group in a gracious way is the best way to start.
If your stations prefer PSA's with music, give it to them. The tape will be aired more frequently. One approach might be a few seconds of guitar music followed by an announcement: "This music brought to you by the Delaware Valley Conservation Association, which wishes to thank canoeists and campers for not littering the beautiful Delaware River and Valley."
Who knows? Your next message may be: "The Delaware Valley Conservation Association wants to thank citizens for their support on keeping the Delaware River free-flowing." This last message was suggested to us by a radio station. In short, the media can be tamed!
This article is based on a presentation by Ms. Haefele at the Second Annual Dam Fighters Conference, sponsored by the Environmental Policy Center in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. It appeared in this form in Not Man Apart, the semimonthly publication of Friends of the Earth, 124 Spear St., San Francisco, California 94105, and is reprinted here by permission. The writer is President of the Delaware Valley Conservation Association, P.O. Box 159, Stillwater, N.J. 07875.
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