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Media Tips: Getting Your Story to the Press

Resource Center - Foundation

(Oct. 12, 2010) Every nonprofit has a story to tell. But simply calling up a reporter out of the blue with your coverage demands is not likely to bear fruit. Here are some tips on cultivating a member of the media the way you would a donor ... by building trust and being a helpful resource.

The following article is taken from a book by Joseph Barbato called The Mercifully Brief Real World Guide to ... Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves (2005 Emerson and Church Publishers). Barbato describes helpful techniques for reaching members of the media and, as the title of the book suggests, drawing vital attention to your cause.

Become a Go-To Person

Reporters aren't on the job long when they learn who they can rely on as news sources.  Publicists who engage in drive-by pitches with little concern for the story needs of reporters go right to the bottom of the list. The professionals who are responsive and helpful all the time become the reliable sources.

My first boss at NYU's news bureau seemed to be on the phone with editors and reporters all the time. Granted, the university is a major New York institution.  But those editors could just as easily have called other area colleges when working on stories. They called Bill Spencer at NYU. He understood their needs.  He also understood the university. He could point a reporter to faculty members who made great copy, researchers with provocative new ideas, and bright students who were part of the latest trends. 

Need a comment on the election? Writing a piece on dorm life? Want a local example for a campus activism story? Bill was the go-to guy. Moreover, if he didn't have what a reporter needed he would refer him to his counterpart uptown at Columbia. That way, Bill always delivered, as reporters knew he would.

You can become a go-to person in your field.  Learn as much as possible about your people and programs. Read widely about your field so you know exactly where your organization's work fits in. Reporters will soon realize you know what you're talking about. They'll begin to rely on your advice. Helping them won't always lead to stories about your group.  But it will certainly win you attentive media ears when the big must-place story comes along.

Consider your own town. Which nonprofit leaders always get quoted in stories involving health, education, nature, or the arts?  Journalists often turn to the same places again and again for a reason: Some organizations know how to work smartly with the press.  They make it their business to be useful in all ways. A big higher education story breaks, and their natural impulse is to say, "Call Bill at NYU and get a quote." 

When reporters think about your field, make sure they think about you. And let them know you're responsive and there to help. Be a publicist who thinks clearly, acts quickly, and doesn't try to pitch other story ideas instead of assisting with the assignment in hand.

Having Your Say

Many organizations find the op-ed, or opinion editorial, a highly effective way to express their views on an issue.  Unlike a letter to the editor, the op-ed offers a chance for detailed discussion. Most often it provides a fresh perspective on the news.

Needless to say, the op-ed must work. It cannot be self-serving puffery. Rather it must fill an important gap in the public debate on an issue.  So, for example, if a government official has made sweeping and wrongheaded statements about health care for the elderly, an organization with expertise in the area can provide an op-ed with solid numbers and thoughtful observations. This helps the paper offer balanced coverage and brings important information to public attention.

Following the newspaper's style is important. Most op-eds run 500 to 800 words and offer a logical argument based on facts. If the information is fresh and unexpected - and submitted soon after the event or news story to which it responds - the article will stand an even better chance of publication.

During the Reagan Administration's "Just Say No" campaign to encourage teenagers to avoid alcohol and drug abuse, I wrote and placed an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times about a new way to reach youths about their drinking. The article described the keen interest of a group of high school students in the relationship between alcohol use and their health and fitness.

When the telephone company in New York City decided to take the traditional "212" area code away from customers in several boroughs of the city, I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about my experiences as a New York writer whose editors were confused about how to reach him-and whether he was in fact a New York writer- since he had a new area code of "718." It was an unexpected and humorous take on matters in the news, and the Times editors had great fun with it: Under the headline "The Man from Area Code 718," they ran the article with an illustration of a man waiting for a phone call on the moon.

For an organization with something to say, the op-ed is a great vehicle with which to bring important messages to a broad audience.  Once the article appears, it can be reprinted and mailed to supporters and others with a cover note.

Learn more about how to spread the story of your organization's cause in The Mercifully Brief Real World Guide to ... Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves in the AFP bookstore.

This information was reprinted with the permission of Emerson and Church Publishers.

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