Media Relations: Proactive Strategies
Proactive media strategies are inclusive of activities in which a press release, statement or pitch is delivered to a standard "media list" or member of the media, including a key editor or reporter. Contact can also be initiated by phone or e-mail with one or a few specific reporters who may be interested. Information, tools and templates in support of a proactive strategy are provided to enhance advocacy success.
The most basic tool is the Media List. Without one, you won't know who to call or where to send press releases.
It used to be that press releases were sent by regular mail or fax. These days, they need to be sent by e-mail- although some newspapers or reporters may still prefer faxes. (Reporters will tell you if you ask).
E-mail media lists can be organized as "group lists" to send ("blast") press releases all at once-or press releases can be sent individually, sometimes with a personal message.
Important! The text of a press release should be pasted inside the actual e-mail. Don't send attachments. Reporters guard against viruses by not opening attachments and some newsrooms have virus screens that strip them. If there is a lengthy document you want to send to a single reporter, ask first if it is okay.
Don't send e-mails in which many different names from different news organizations (i.e., competitors) are listed as addressees ("To: Larry, Curley, Moe, etc."). Instead, set up a group list with a single address that indicates in some way that it's news-related. For security purposes, make sure that only one or two people (e.g., executive director)are programmed as moderators to use the list and send releases
Here are some fictitious examples of group list addresses for otherwise real NAMI state organizations or affiliates.
Besides e-mail group lists, keep copies of printed lists with the names of news organizations organized by media type (i.e., newspaper, television and radio), the names of editors and reporters, their telephone numbers and email addresses-as well as regular mail addresses for special uses when time isn't urgent. Each time you make "pitch calls," names can be checked off and notes made for each call.
Researching local media
Take a close at daily and weekly newspapers in your community. Watch the local TV news and listen to local radio. Get a sense of who reports what kind of stories
Go online and explore the Web sites of newspapers and radio and television stations.
- For newspapers, the names of key editors usually are printed inside the paper, sometimes at the bottom of the editorial page. For Web sites, they sometimes are listed by name under "Contact Us."
- Look for bylines of individual reporters who write about topics that interest NAMI. When stories appear on Web sites, the bylines sometimes are linked to their e-mail addresses.
- Some local libraries have detailed media directories, such Bacon's, from which lists can be filed. Here are two other sources:
- Based on research, compile a basic list and keep adding to or updating it over time. An electronic copy makes updating it relatively easy.
- If necessary, particularly during an emergency, call the media organization's switchboard to ask for or confirm the name of the news editor or a specific reporter and ask for contact information.
- Editors (or producers) work by pages, sections, topics or function depending on the size of the media outlet. Reporters are assigned also by sections or "beats." In preparing a media list, you generally should include people with the following titles. Send each press release to all of them.
- News editor or news director
- Assignment editor
- Editorial page editor
- Metro editor
- Features editor
- Policy reporters (state or local government)
- Health reporters
- Any reporter who has ever contacted you for help on a story
Once you have identified a variety of outlets and contacts you would like to include in your list, as well as their basic contact information, you may want to organize contacts by outlet type: print media, television and radio. Within each group, it is also helpful to alphabetize by organization and then, within each organization, alphabetically by individual contact name.
View example media list.
Reporters want facts and figures, but they also want to talk with people who have experienced a policy issue firsthand-who can provide illustrations in real human terms.
- Include both individuals and family members who have been personally affected by mental illness in press conferences.
- In op-eds, letters to editors and other vehicles, include a short personal anecdote or reference.
- In "pitching" a story to reporter or responding to their calls, offer to arrange interviews with individuals and families whom you have pre-selected to be "on call." Be prepared to give a short description of their background.
- Because the advocacy focus is on state budget cuts, it's important that stories be directly related to the issue. Recruit someone who has been helped by a program that may now be cut and/or someone who can talk about something that has been lost or now has major problems because of last year's cuts.
- Help people prepare. A person needs to be ready to present the key parts of their story in one or two minutes. A reporter will then ask questions as the interview proceeds and more details can be provided.
This example of an effective use of a personal story illustrates how this can be used for advocacy success.
Press releases are the most basic tool when a person thinks about media relations. There actually are several forms:
- A "news release," based on an action or information, such as a letter sent to the governor or the release of a survey or special report
- A "statement" issued in response to a news event.
- A "media advisory" giving advance notice about an event.
Writing a press release
- Use NAMI letterhead.
Special note: Sending press releases by e-mail means they will not appear on letterhead. Instead, the headline and text are placed inside the body of the email to avoid newsroom concerns over viruses. However, press releases on letterhead are still important: They are used with faxes, they are included in press kits and they are use as handouts in personal visits with reporters or policymaker.
- In the upper left-hand corner note the release date. In the right-hand corner include the name, phone, and e-mail address for the local NAMI media contact.
- Keep it short and simple
- Focus on who, what, where, when and why
- Limit the release to approximately 400 words
- Use short paragraphs, with 1-2 sentences, when possible
- Include a quote from a NAMI leader to expand on the importance of the news. (Ideally the quote should be short and be the second or third paragraph in the release and include the person's title.)
- Include a compelling headline. (They catch people's attention and make them want to continue reading. Use clear, engaging words or phrases. Keep them short, or lay out two sentences or "thoughts" centered on separate lines.)
- Send your release on Monday-Wednesday unless it involves breaking news or there are other special circumstances. (That allows time for pitch calls and helps ensure they aren't lost over a weekend.)
When sending the press release via e-mail, remember that subject lines are headlines. It's what causes a person to decide to open the message and read it at all. Choose email subject lines carefully to reflect the topic.They need to be attention grabbers, but not be exaggerated. Don't waste space by spelling out NAMI's name. Some examples:
- NAMI Protest: Governor's Mental Health Cuts
- Schizophrenia: One Family's Story
- Teens with Mental Illness: Helping Parents
Use the press release template or media advisory template as a guide in crafting your own documents for use in your efforts.
Following-up on a news release by phone to focus an editor or reporter-particularly to encourage coverage of an event or action-is called "pitching." It's a lot like selling. Timing is important. It involves building credibility as a source and forming relationships with reporters.
To get a person's attention you may have to approach them more than once, in different, incremental ways. Generally, the best way to pitch is to first send a press release to your target person-and then follow-up by telephone.
Write your script before you start making pitch calls. See sample below.
- Wait a reasonable amount of time before calling to follow-up. "Reasonable" depends on the circumstances. Sometimes a day. Sometimes an hour if it's news you're trying to get into the next day's paper. Responding to a major news event, you may even find yourself calling a few key reporters in advance to let them know that you'll be sending a formal statement shortly. In some cases, you might skip the press release entirely and simply work the phones.
- Don't call a reporter after 3:00 PM to pitch a story unless it's really urgent and important. They often are writing against a 5:00 PM deadline.
- Don't begin by asking "Did you get my press release?" Instead: "I am calling to follow-up on my email about…" Make sure to state the topic quickly and stay focused. You may have less than 30 seconds to get enough attention to begin a conversation.
- Keep conversations short--unless the reporter extends it. Stay focused. If you leave a voicemail message, keep it short: e.g., 30 seconds, referencing the topic, when the news release was sent and your name and telephone number. Don't leave more than one message per day.
Sample script to use when pitching
Pitching a local story out of a national story:
"Hello, this is _________ from NAMI Baltimore, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I'm calling to follow up on the story that was reported in your paper yesterday about the proposed mental health budget cuts in Maryland. Did you see the press statement with our response to the Governor? May I e-mail you a copy now? Would you be interested in speaking with a local family that could share how budget cuts would impact them personally?"
When a Reporter Says No
When reporters say "no" or respond rudely, try to find out why. Don't press too hard, but ask "Is this a bad time?" or "Is there someone I should send the release or talk to instead?" Be courteous even if they are not. Everyone has bad days. They may be swamped with assignments or working under a tough deadline. If necessary, send an email to apologize for the interruption.
Press conferences are media events that require much preparation and involve high stakes. They convey "hard news" information to the media. They allow you to decide to decide what information is presented, how it is presented and who presents it.
You may want to hold a press conference to challenge proposed mental health budget cuts in your state. You can bring media attention to the fact that these cuts will impact some of the states' most vulnerable residents by reducing coverage for and access to adult and child mental health services.
Why hold a press conference?
- To raise NAMI's profile and publicize its work
- To send a message to a person in a position of influence about what NAMI wants
- To respond to a major news event involving mental health issues
- To release a special report or letter
Before you plan a press conference decide:
- Who is the target audience you hope to influence? (e.g. governor, legislators, agencies).
- Is the subject "newsworthy" enough to attract media interest? How can it be strengthened?
- What is the best date to hold it?
- Where is the best place to hold it?
Use the Press Conference Check List to help you prepare for and host a successful media event.
Letters to Editors
A Letter to the Editor is a short letter sent to a newspaper or magazine to present NAMI's position, make a correction or comment on a previous story-or a previous letter. They are a very good way to raise NAMI's profile, publicize NAMI's positions and influence decision-makers. Use the sample letter to the editor as a template to support your efforts.
Letters appear on the editorial pages of newspapers. To submit a letter, call the newspaper and ask for the editorial page-then ask what the word limit should be for a letter and how it should be submitted.
- Depending on the newspaper, the word limit may be 150 to 250 words. Many newspapers have special e-mail addresses for submissions: e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org
- For many papers, particularly large metropolitan dailies, there is strong competition among submissions. Your letter must be compelling in language and facts so that it stands out from others.
- Timing is important. Ideally, send a letter responding to a story the same day that it appears; otherwise within 24 or 48 hours.
- Don't wear out your welcome. Try not to submit more than one letter a month. Some papers won't publish more than one letter every three months from the same person or organization. (Letters from members sent independently are fine as long as they aren't form letters; each writer needs to "make a letter their own.")
- If writing in response to a specific story, reference the headline and date: e.g., "In the story 'Governor Proposes Mental Health Cuts' (2/5/10), little attention was paid to the high cost of cuts, which in the long run won't save taxpayers money."
- If you are writing with your NAMI title (NAMI spelled out) under your signature, you need not mention NAMI in the text-particularly when the word limit is very short.
Letters by a NAMI spokesperson (e.g. president) should be unique to each newspaper. Don't submit the same one to several papers. NAMI members can be encouraged to write letters individually-but should not send identical letters. They need to be in the sender's own words.
- Include complete contact information at the top of the letter: full name, NAMI title, home address, all telephone numbers (cell, office and home) and e-mail addressees. Many publications will contact the writer to confirm authenticity and that it has not been submitted elsewhere-or to clear edits that they would like to make to what you have submitted.
- Focus on one or two key points that you want to make and be sure to highlight the local relevance. If room allows, reflect on broader state or national implications.
- If you are responding to an article or other letter to the editor, don't attack the reporter or writer. Acknowledge points where you might agree, then tactfully address weaknesses or misleading information. Informed, respectful exchanges help build agreement and encourage others in the community to join the dialogue.
Op-Eds or Guest Articles
"Op-eds" are short for opinions "opposite the editorial page." Use the Sample Op-ed as a template for your own op-ed or guest article.
Op-eds represent personal views, submitted sometimes on behalf of organizations. They are longer than letters to editors and different in nature-more like essays on a topic and often taking a position on an issue.
- Some people consider op-eds to be more impressive, with room for greater thoughtfulness and special impact on decision makers.
- Other people consider letters to the editors to be more influential because they better reflect grassroots sentiment. They also are easier, quicker to write and submit.
- Our advice: try them both. See what works best under what circumstances in your community.
To submit an op-ed, you can call the newspaper and ask for the editorial page editor-or the op-ed editor if the paper is large enough-to find out the word limit and how it should be submitted.
- Depending on the newspaper, the word limit may be 600 to 800 words. Check in advance. Like letters to editors, many newspapers also have special e-mail addresses for submissions: e.g., email@example.com
- It's not necessary, but you can tell the op-ed editor in advance what you are thinking about as your topic in order to gauge level of interest. However, most will not consider an op-ed or commit to a topic until a piece is actually submitted. Op-eds are labor intensive with no guarantees.
- It is worth indicating-on the phone or in the submission e-mail-if there are special timing concerns: e.g., a key budget hearing will be held the following week.
- Submit an op-ed to ONLY ONE major newspaper at a time. Do not try to adapt it for multiple uses or circulate it to your members. If one newspaper declines to publish, then submit it to the next one on your wish list. In some cases, state leaders may try coordinate having affiliate leaders statewide submit op-eds to the leading newspaper in each of their communities. That should be done only with smaller newspapers (especially weeklies) and the submissions must be unique and personalized.
- Include complete contact information at the top of the submission: full name, NAMI title, home address, all telephone numbers (cell, office and home) and e-mail addressees. Many publications will contact the writer to confirm authenticity and that it has not been submitted elsewhere-or to clear edits that they think should be made.
Meeting with Your Local Newspaper Editorial Boards
FAQ and Checklist
Background: A key strategy for preserving and enhancing community and Medicaid mental health budgets is to receive media attention, particularly on editorial pages, regarding the budget crisis and the impact on people with mental illness, our communities and other systems. Editorial page coverage is important because policy makers read and rely on them to determine what issues are important and require their attention.
Meeting with your newspapers' key editorial staff will help establish a line of communication, provide them with a perspective on the mental health crisis in your state and pave the way for future contacts. Editorial staff should become familiar with both mental health issues and NAMI, and provide media attention in response to events of your state and local efforts.
Following are answers to frequently asked questions and a checklist for an effective editorial board meeting.
Q. What is an editorial board?
A.Most newspapers have a group of high-level editors who make decisions about which issues are timely and important for the newspaper to publish. They also make decisions about which opinion editorials ("op-eds") will run in the newspaper.
Q. When should I meet with an editorial board?
A. Before state legislative sessions begin is an ideal time to approach the editorial
boards of your state and local newspapers to raise the alarm on the budget crisis as it relates to people living with mental illness and mental health services in your state. Major events, like a federal investigation or tragedy or hospital closure, can also be successfully used to prompt editorial board interest in a meeting.
Q. How do I get an appointment to meet with an editorial board?
First, e-mail a request to the editorial page editor of the newspaper. Explain the topic you would like to discuss, why this issue is important, what is timely about the issue (e.g. governor's budget proposes cuts to mental health) and why it is worth a meeting to discuss in-depth. If your policy position involves any controversy or opposition, let the editors know. Then, follow up with a call to the editorial page editor and highlight one or two key points.
Q. Who should I let know about the meeting?
A. Inform coalition partners and, if appropriate, engage them in your efforts. Inform your Board leadership. As a courtesy, be sure to inform any local NAMI affiliate(s) that may be affected by media coverage.
Q. What should I provide to the editorial board?
A. Prepare and mail a "press kit" to the editorial board staff and to your participants prior to the meeting. Bring extra press kits to the meeting to be handed out as needed.
The press kit should include your talking points and supporting materials such as a "one-page," bulleted statistics and fact sheets. Use the most recent news, studies or data to support your talking points. Other materials such as your state's Grading the States score card would be helpful. Include a list of supporting organizations (coalition members).
Q. Who should represent our issue in the meeting?
A. Three to five effective spokespeople for you and the budget issue. Often, this is the executive director and/or coalition chair, an individual who has experienced first-hand difficulties with the issue to be discussed and/or a well-known, respected ally. A personal perspective is always compelling, but with this audience you will also need individuals who posses expertise about what is happening, what has happened in the past, any complexities of the issue and relevant data or facts, as well as why this issue is relevant and compelling to the public.
Q. How should I prep meeting participants?
A. Provide them with a press kit. Prepare a draft op-ed in advance in case you receive a request for one. Meeting participants should meet in advance to clarify roles and talking points. The goal is to be natural and aim for a normal, comfortable conversation flow while providing a brief personal perspective, sending a clear message and providing key facts, data or news to support your position. Offer to serve as a resource on mental health issues and ask for an editorial that outlines your case. Practice!
Q. What is my "ask" of the meeting?
A. Ask the editorial board if they are planning to write a future editorial or a story on the issue. If so, ask when and offer to be of assistance. Ideally, you will walk out of the meeting with a commitment for a lead-supporting editorial or a request for an op-ed. Even if you do not secure any commitment or request, you will have established a positive environment for this to happen in the future. If asked, provided your Prepared draft op-ed.
Q. How should I follow up?
A. You should follow-up the meeting with a thank-you letter and regular updates. Keep the editors and reporters aware of all progress, including dates for events such as rallies, press conferences, other press or e-media activity, pertinent meetings, etc. Keep your connection alive.