You've been working hard on an issue for months or even years. You've celebrated progress and successes on your issue, but haven't seen many changes in policy. Furthermore, there aren't any standout news hooks coming down the pike to use as ammunition for pressuring policy makers. You do have a roster of enthusiastic and effective spokespeople, however, and some solid policy recommendations up your sleeve.
How do you use the media to win policy change without the benefit of hard news to entice daily beat reporters into covering your perspective?
The following example explains how EMS decided to pursue editorial board meetings as a way to press for growth management policy reform with our partner group, 1000 Friends of Washington.
The political leanings of a newspaper can be found on its editorial pages. Editorials are unsigned opinion pieces printed under the paper's name along with various editors' names, publishing information, etc. These are different from op-eds, written by experts or others not directly affiliated with the paper's editors. Editorials in nationally recognized papers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post are highly regarded by national policymakers. Editorials in regional papers are useful when trying to reach congressional representatives, governors, state legislators, county commissioners, or other professionals influenced by public opinion. "Average Americans" do not tend to read editorials as much, but they can be very useful when trying to affect change through policymakers and officials.
Considering the impact that editorials can have, persuading a paper to reflect your own policy ideas by talking to the editorial board can be a highly effective strategy when you want to push for change but have no hard news to elicit coverage from beat reporters. Choose your opportunities to meet with editors carefully. Remember, you are asking for their valuable time. Meetings are not commonplace, and are usually reserved for new, complex issues, major recent developments, or visiting experts. You will increase your chances of a meeting if you have a new report, new or unusual recommendations on your issue to share, or if you are offering them an opportunity to speak with an expert or resource person who is rarely available. Offering a chance to talk with experts or spokespeople from outside the environmental community who share some of your views on the issue at hand can also help lend credibility and land a meeting. Looking beyond the usual suspects raises the importance of the message. If you are able to bring an unlikely ally, such as an economist or a politician, it can help your case considerably.
You will have to request a meeting. Editorial board meetings should be requested only after a paper has already written on your subject in its general news section. Know the paper. Be sure you already know what stand the paper has taken on this issue if they have written about it in the past. You cannot expect a paper to take a particular stand on an issue if you don't know what the paper has already said. If you don't already know someone on the editorial staff, contact the editorial page editor to arrange a meeting. Ask to speak to the editorial writer who specializes in your issues. When you call an editor you do not know, introduce yourself, your organization, and your issue. Have background information on paper, ready to be sent to your contact.
If you're able to schedule a meeting, you'll probably sit down with an editor and editorial page editor and perhaps reporters from the newsroom interested in your issue. Plan to present your case in brief, using facts and figures that are verifiable to add credibility. Opening statements should be limited to no more than three minutes. Quickly summarize your organization's position on the issue, offer supporting evidence, and anticipate and adequately address your opposition's criticisms. Make sure your spokesteam is well prepared. Everything you say at an editorial board meeting is on the record. Well-known experts are great as long as they can express their views clearly and concisely. Also, read the paper on the day of the meeting - make sure that you read any articles on your issue or organization, because the editors certainly have.
Bring background materials that you typically place in a press kit, such as fact sheets, statements, sign-on letters, past (relevant) releases, names and numbers of people to contact for information, etc. Also, bring copies of other editorials that may have been written on the issue by other papers. Try to encourage your audience not to look at your background information until you are finished, or don't give them the information until the very end.
Finally, let the editorial board ask questions. They must consider counter-arguments that they will receive from their editors and readers through letters. They may also want to test the validity of your position by playing devil's advocate, so be sure to anticipate the common criticisms of your position ahead of time and prepare to defend against them. If you cannot adequately defend your opinions, neither can the newspaper. Always remember that the editors are extending a favor to you by listening and considering your viewpoint. Be sure to respect their opinions, positions, and constraints. Editors stay around a long time, and getting on the wrong side of an editorial board, or even a single editor, can be costly for years to come.
In anticipation of the tenth anniversary of Washington state's Growth Management Act, 1000 Friends of Washington commissioned a report titled, Get Smart Washington providing status summaries of each of the 13 goals of the act with accompanying policy recommendations. In writing this report, 1000 Friends' objective was to encourage policymakers to reform the Act and strengthen its mandates. 1000 Friends planned to mail the report to policy makers but EMS advised them to magnify the impact of their recommendations by convincing newspapers to repeat the same messages. The report itself was unlikely to get straightforward news coverage so, getting editorials was the logical tactic for this "opinion" type news.
First, EMS worked with 1000 Friends of Washington to make Get Smart Washington, a "mediagenic" document. The report was pared down to a three page executive summary designed to grab the attention of weary editorial board members - providing only top policy recommendations. Next EMS asked 1000 Friends to contact legislators who supported growth management or who were original authors of the Growth Management Act to ask them to visit their local editorial board with a representative of 1000 Friends. As legislators agreed to participate in the editorial board meetings, EMS mailed the executive summary along with a cover letter to editorial boards throughout Washington State. EMS followed up with pitch calls to editorial board members asking them to consider our request and to schedule meetings.
(Click here for sample pitch letter)
EMS secured multiple editorial board meetings pairing legislators with growth management advocates to provide policy recommendations to major papers throughout the state. Resulting editorials may encourage state government to make further progress on the thirteen goals stated in the Growth Management Act. In a few cases, papers were unable to meet our requests for meetings and alternatively, EMS proposed an op-ed to the paper on the same subject. In each of these instances, the papers agreed to accept and run op-eds instead of writing an editorial.
Past Monthly Media Tips