Dos and Don'ts: How to Get Journalists to Pay Attention to Your Cause or Organization
Our clients often ask us for advice about how to get more press coverage. What can you do when your important issue or organization doesn't seem to be getting the media attention it deserves?
In this guest post, writer and editor Emily Crockett shares some tips from a journalist's perspective on how advocates for worthy causes can be more effective at press outreach.
As someone who cares about progressive issues and movements, I know what it's like to be frustrated about how the media covers those issues (or doesn't). But as someone who has worked in journalism, I also know what it's like to be a reporter trying to balance competing demands in the news cycle. Unfortunately, even reporters who are sympathetic to your cause can't always give you the coverage you want — especially if your story idea, or "pitch," isn't quite as good as your cause.
One of the most frustrating truths about journalism is that just because something is important, doesn't mean it will be considered newsworthy. Luckily for advocates, there's also this truth about journalism: The definition of "newsworthy" can shift dramatically depending on which reporter, editor, or outlet you're talking to — and more importantly, how you talk to them.
Here's my advice for advocates trying to boost their chances of getting noticed by reporters:
DO research reporters and outlets that either cover your issues or might be likely to, and tailor your pitch to them.
This will definitely take some time and effort, but it's important. The easiest way to get a reporter to say yes to your pitch is to give them a story that feels like it was made for them — and if you do your job right, it will be. If you're promoting a local union strike, read up on local reporters who cover economic issues, or national reporters who either cover labor specifically or work for a progressive, pro-labor outlet. If you work on immigration issues, get to know who all the immigration reporters are at various outlets: local, national, mainstream, issue-focused, advocacy, etc.
Then send each reporter a different, tailored pitch showing why your story is perfect for their coverage. Not just their general beat, like economics or immigration, but also the specific type of coverage they do and the tone and mission of their outlet. For instance, do they tend to write opinion or breaking news? Policy explainers or human interest stories? Is their favorite subject families, or bureaucracies? Does their publication have a particular ideological bent or mission, or more of a straight-news vibe?
If you can find a way to tie in your current story with a previous story a reporter has written, so much the better; it shows them you’re familiar with, and understand, their work, and lets them more easily imagine writing about what you'd like them to.
And don't forget to consider how the intersectional angles of your work might relate to different beats than you'd expect. For instance, a labor story could have a compelling gender or racial justice angle that might interest reporters who cover identity issues.
DON'T spam reporters.
This includes things like pitching stories to reporters who have completely irrelevant beats, or sending an excessive number of boring, self-serving pitches. When you're working day and night for a cause you passionately believe in, you naturally want the rest of the world to know about it — but not everything you work on is going to be of equal interest to the rest of the world. Choose what you try to amplify, and who you try to promote it to, wisely.
DO make your pitch compelling.
DON'T bog it down with excessive advocacy jargon or unnecessary details.
This is both obvious sounding and easier said than done, but I can't stress enough how much it matters. I've read too many dry, muddled pitches about too many vital issues that really deserved better. As much as possible, use plain, urgent language to make the stakes crystal clear and the importance of writing the story obvious. Who's doing what to whom, how, why, and why should we care?
As an exercise, ask yourself why you care. And if you've ever gotten a friend who knew nothing about your work to care, how did you do it? Use these answers as a guide for making your language more compelling.
Remember that for better or (mostly) worse, the news tends to bias toward novelty and conflict. This is somewhat less the case for investigative or mission-focused publications, but they still want a good story.
DO pitch a story, not an issue.
This is one of the most common mistakes advocates make when seeking media coverage. "We don't have enough affordable housing" is an important issue, but it's not really a story. "This big stupid policy is blocking us from building enough affordable housing" is a story. "Homeless mothers are fighting to occupy a vacant house because we don't have enough affordable housing" is a great story. A new report on affordable housing statistics could be a story, but the report's existence alone may not be enough to get coverage; you'll need to pull out the most interesting parts to help reporters along.
Speaking of which...
DO make a reporter's job easier in any way you can.
This is more for your benefit than theirs. Reporters are usually busy and overworked, and the more you can do to give them what they need, the better your chances of convincing them to write about what you want. This includes guiding them to good sources and offering a strong, compelling frame that lets them easily imagine writing a piece that would break news, interest readers, or influence a key issue.
DON'T assume reporters understand your issue as well as you do.
This is especially the case when you have to send a single press release to a wider list, but it's also a good general rule. Write clearly, concisely, and for a general audience, even if you know or suspect that a reporter knows something about the topic. Make the stakes and the story's importance clear enough to be understood without background knowledge.
DO try to catch a reporter's eye with an original pitch, a timely angle, or an exclusive.
Reporters love to get a good story that no one else has, or at least a fresh angle on the same story everyone else is writing about. If you have a genuine scoop or piece of breaking news, play that up — but only if you really have one, which is rarer than you think ("Activists to hold rally" is almost never a breaking scoop, and only sometimes even a story).
Otherwise, try to find a relevant "news hook" connecting your story or issue to recent news, a newsworthy public figure, or a long-running public debate. You might need to get creative. If your issue or point of view is undercovered, point that out, explain why the undercoverage is a problem, and indicate why covering it would make a reporter's work stand out.
Consider offering an exclusive if you have something really meaty or interesting; that can sometimes catch a reporter's attention. But choose that reporter wisely and give them a deadline to respond, because you can only offer an exclusive to one person at a time!
DO build goodwill with reporters when you're not actively trying to pitch them.
Try creating a Twitter list of reporters you're interested in engaging with. That makes it easy to scroll through the feed, see what those reporters have written lately, and interact with them organically to try to establish a rapport and name recognition. If they've written something you think your followers might like, tweet it out and tag the reporter. Reporters love it when people promote their work and give positive feedback, and they just might retweet you.
If a reporter has already written something about you and it's great, share genuine praise with them, either your own or nice things you're hearing in your network.
DON'T assume reporters care about your organization as much as you do.
DO give them a good reason to.
If your organization isn't well-known in the press, you'll need to make the case for why it should be. Maybe your group or leader can be a great source of expertise for a reporter struggling with a complicated topic. Maybe you deserve to be quoted because you speak for grassroots activists and lead powerful coalitions, or featured because of the innovative campaign you're trying or the super-effective lobbying you do. Whatever it is, play it up.
DON'T expect reporters to come to a press conference just because you're holding one.
Especially for print journalists, press conferences are a waste of time unless there's an opportunity to get exclusive information or quotes that they couldn't get from a press packet. Only do an in-person press conference if you can reasonably expect to get TV or radio coverage from it, and make sure you can offer something that's worth people's time. More often, a press release or a conference call with reporters will work just fine.
DO be honest.
DON'T blow smoke.
DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT exaggerating or making things up.
It should go without saying that getting caught in a lie will probably ruin your relationship with a reporter. If you give them information that you're not sure about without checking and it turns out to be wrong, that can be almost as bad. It's totally fine to say you don't know the answer to a question, or that you'll have to get back to them about it.
In general, always remember that reporters have strong bullshit detectors. If you're blowing smoke to make your group or your event sound more important than it really is, a reporter can probably tell. They might still quote you, but they will probably think less of you.
If you're not getting the kind of press coverage you want, my two biggest pieces of advice are to be real with reporters, and be real with yourself. Being real with yourself means setting specific, realistic expectations for what kind of press coverage you need and can reasonably expect to get. Being real with reporters means not just communicating clearly and honestly with them, but also making an effort to understand their work before expecting them to promote yours.
There are times when getting press coverage is all about luck. Sometimes a major breaking scandal dominates the headlines on the same day as your big campaign rollout; other times, that scandal will just so happen to involve the subject you're an expert in. Most of the time, though, the barriers to getting media attention for your cause are more predictable — and so are the strategies you can use to turn things around.
If you're looking for ways to use your digital presence to get more media attention, we can help. Click here to book a call with the ACM Strategies team.