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Frequently Asked Questions
When Working with the Media
Why approach the media?

Today, more than ever, the news media help set the agenda for public policy debate. Newspaper, magazine and broadcast coverage commands the attention of political leaders. If your issue is not in the media, it does not exist. Lobbying, policy papers and research all play an essential role in influencing public policy, but if you don't also work with the media, you will be missing a key opportunity to advance your issue.

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If the media does cover my issue, what good will it do?

The media acts as a communications tool within the public policy community. Government officials may not interact with grassroots organizations on a daily - or even a consistent - basis. But, they - like most of the public - read newspapers or receive some form of news. You can communicate with the public and policy-makers most effectively and efficiently by communicating your messages to the media.

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What's the best time to call a reporter?

The best time to call a reporter varies, depending upon when the outlet's product comes out. The worst time to call a reporter is when he/she is on deadline. But you will have to find out when this is. For example, morning and evening papers, TV and radio programs all have different deadlines.

When you do get hold of a reporter, ask if he/she is on deadline and when he/she prefers to take pitch calls. Also ask if he/she prefers to receive information via fax, email or phone. Then, keep good notes for next time!

A reporter for a morning paper will usually face an afternoon deadline. So, as a general rule, your best bet is to call these reporters in the morning.

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I've tried to call a reporter and never my calls returned. How do you reach the press?

Reporters are busy. Your call is just one of many they receive every day from people pitching them stories. When you call - and you definitely should - be prepared to leave a message. Messages should be short and to the point. Give them a reason to call you back. What is your piece of news? Who are you and how can they reach you? Try not to leave more than one message. Let them know you are faxing or e-mailing information to them. Reporters will call you back if they are interested. Simply make sure they know how to reach you if they want to follow up.

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What's the best way to get information to a reporter?

Faxing is common. However, reporters get tons of faxes and yours could get lost. Many reporters now prefer to receive information via e-mail. Your best bet is to ask the reporter which method she/he prefers. It may still be most cost-efficient to fax press releases and advisories, but use the reporter's preferred method of communication when delivering your pitch. If you have to mail your information, it's best to send it via overnight mail or mark directly on the envelope what type of information is enclosed. For example, "Local toxic hot-spot material" or "ESA (Endangered Species Act) information for eastern Washington," written on the front may help get their attention. Always call reporters about the information, regardless of the method you use. This lets you know if they got it and informs them of what they should be looking for.

More on writing press materials...

How do op-eds get written and placed?

Any opinion piece - national, regional or local - should be timely. Be sure to follow current events and determine how you can work in your issue and add to the debate. Follow the word count limitations of each paper. Know the paper's past editorial/opinion track record on the issue, whether you need a local angle, if you should write and sign the opinion or if a different voice should be heard, etc. Once you submit the opinion, follow up with the op-ed page editor. Ask for input and take suggestions. Be sure you never submit the same op-ed to more than one paper at a time - unless the paper's policy allows it.

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What about Letters to the Editor?

Letters to the editor are the easiest way to voice your opinion through a newspaper. You can use letters to correct or explain facts in response to a recently published, inaccurate or biased article to explain the connection between a news item and your organization's priority issues; or to praise or criticize a recent article or editorial.

Know the paper's policy on space limitations, where and how to submit letters, and be sure to call to make sure your letter was received. Many publications now accept letters to the editor via their websites, others by fax.

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Isn't a press conference the best way to get your issue covered?

Not necessarily. The type of press outreach you do depends on several factors: type of story, financial and human resources, timing, etc. Is your 'story' really breaking news, or is it more background information? Is the issue complex? Maybe your best bet is a one-on-one interview or exclusive to get the ball rolling.

On a regional or local level, it may be in your group's best interest to limit outreach on a story to faxes and follow-up calls to select reporters. In small markets, your best approach may be to really get to know the handful of reporters you will be working with regularly. A large press briefing may not be necessary.

More on press events...

Shouldn't you always hold your press conference at some really exciting, visual site?

This depends on the story and type of reporter you want to attract. For print reporters, a visual is not as important as it is for TV reporters. An interview on wildlife held in the "great outdoors" might make a good visual for TV or audio for a radio report. Demonstrations or protests make good photo opportunities, but rarely generate long or in-depth stories. The availability of a central location for press events is another consideration. If you hold an event at a hall or hotel, make sure that it is a convenient location for reporters. Bear in mind that reporters have limited time to devote to your event. If it is hard to get to, they might not come at all.

More on planning an event...

If I send out an advisory or news release for a press conference, I've done all I can, right?

No! Always call to follow up on an advisory. Faxes get lost. E-mail gets deleted. Follow- up calls serve as a reminder to reporters, and offer you the opportunity to highlight what may be most interesting to a particular reporter. For example, health reporters will be interested in a different angle than environmental reporters. The phone call is your chance to build relationships and flesh out what specific reporters are interested in.

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How do I find out the names of the reporters who cover my issues?

There are several good media guides, such as the Yellow Book, and services such as Bacon's that you can buy. They provide basic information on media outlets and reporters. These are updated frequently, but you should never be afraid to call an outlet and ask! The news or assignment desks may be able to help. Journalism is a fast-paced industry and reporters switch jobs frequently.

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If one reporter from a news organization says 'no', that means the whole organization isn't interested, right?

Not necessarily. You might just have the wrong reporter. For example, although you may think of stories about genetically engineered food as environmental stories, many outlets have 'biotechnology' reporters. Some stories about pollution in your local river turn out to be 'health' stories.

Every outlet is different. Don't assume the environmental beat is structured the same at each one, and be willing to speak to several reporters until you find the one most likely to cover your story. But remember, when you do, that ultimately it is the reporter - or her/his editor - who determines whether your idea or event constitutes "news." Don't be angry with the reporter if your don't receive coverage.

More on journalists....

It's also important to make sure you are approaching the right media outlet for your story. There are several key questions you must answer.

More on media types...

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