Amplify Your Message
If your issue is to gain momentum it must emerge from the small group of citizens that it directly affects and become part of wider public discourse. Galvanizing media interest will be crucial to bringing about this emergence.
On an academic level public opinion dictates action, the media influences public opinion, and therefore to incite action one must create a dialogue in the media.
The media advocate must bring his/her issue into the public conversation and will not be effective unless he/she can win the undecided or sway the entrenched. At his/her best he/she will manage a consistent and unified stream of cross-channel content designed to target segmented demographics and motivate concerted action.
Among other things, one may turn to public channels to:
- Inform the electorate about the implications of upcoming ballot measures
- Influence policymakers to change or implement regulations
- Disseminate a story relevant to coalition activities
- Persuade community members to take action
It's important to recognize that by utilizing the media an advocate may gain a valuable audience but may also loose a certain degree of control. Your message will need to be managed and followed so that editors, journalists or social networks accurately depict the story you're trying to tell.
Any anecdote that provides a platform for the advancement of your cause is an opportunity for advocacy. The better your group can combine compelling narratives with interesting issue angles the more successful you will be in the media.
This guide will outline the fundamentals of media advocacy, strategy development, and the approaches one may take to amplify his message. Regardless of strategy or platform the advocate can prepare himself to tackle just about anything by filling his toolkit with a few basic skills.
For better or worse, the media is much more complex than it once was. Now formats, platforms and styles are as varied as the advocates that use them. Each group and issue will call for its own approach and therefore it's important to design a strategy tailored specifically to your group's needs.
Follow this simple workflow to easily develop a messaging strategy:
What do you hope to accomplish?
You've already assessed the situation and honed your message so you should have a good idea of your goals. Begin by thinking about what you hope the ultimate outcome of your advocacy will be.
Who will you need to persuade to accomplish your goal?
For instance: If you are targeting primarily people under the age of thirty your campaign may want to focus more on social media and grassroots platforms than if you hope to influence local lawmakers.
How will your group reach its audience?
Depending on whom it is that your group would like to reach you may consider writing opinion pieces, creating social media campaigns, buying advertisements or pitching stories to journalists.
There are three broad categories these approaches may take depending on goal and audience:
1 to 1
Wielding individual influence
Learn: Write and successfully publish editorials and letters to the editor
1 to Many
Managing the spread of information
Learn: Pitching stories, offer statements, craft fact-sheets, and effectively advertise
Many to Many
Keeping your audience engaged
Learn: Understand and leverage emerging platforms
Conversations are a form of advocacy. In our discussions with co-workers, friends, and family we often exchange viewpoints. When we find ourselves at odds with one another we provide anecdotal evidence and data to support our claims. The Authoritative Opinion is simply a conversation held in the public eye – on the most fundamental level it's simply one person talking to another. As with all strategies, the Authoritative Opinion will be most potent if it is used to target the appropriate audience. Almost half of all weekday readers browse a newspaper's editorial section, to put that in context, the sports section gets about the same level or readership. These readers tend to be older, better educated, more affluent, and inclined to political activity – this often includes policymakers and their staffs. The most successful of these pieces leverage the writer's positional leadership within a group making a compelling and persuasive case on behalf of a united coalition.
Depending on the situation at hand your group may consider the following approaches:
Opinion Editorial (Op-Ed)
Weather print or digital, one of the most powerful formats for spreading any message is the opinion editorial, or op-ed for short. All newspapers devote a few pages or column inches to concerned readers with points to make. To write a great op-ed one must simply select an issue and convince readers why they should care about it. Clearly a task much easier said than done, but with some patience it is very attainable.
Begin by choosing an issue you'd like to address. You can't solve the world or even your group's problems in less than 750 words—the recommended maximum for most editorials—but you can fully explore a single idea. Op-eds are places to make affirmative claims about topical concerns, so if you'd like to debate an article or comment you believe to be incorrect or insulting consider writing a Letter to the Editor (LTE).
Opinion editors are pitched numerous op-eds each week, to increase the chances of your article being placed it's important to give your piece immediacy by linking it to current events. Especially if you're pitching a local publication, pay attention to activities of regional government bodies, widely visible organizations, or other large happenings. For instance, while not a traditional editorial, we wrote this piece using the Pope's visit to the US in September of 2015 to highlight the benefits of short-term renting in his final stop, Philadelphia. This is not an academic article so get creative and choose a theme to draw in your audience. Travel Tech placed this op-ed in the Washington Post using a Trojan horse as a metaphor to outline the negative effects of proposed travel tax increases.
As you write try to establish and maintain a personal connection with your reader by using the active voice, speaking plainly, using a relaxed tone and telling interesting, true stories. Support each of your claims with data and be fair to those with opposing viewpoints. Don't hit your reader over the head with statistics or focus only on the shortcomings of your rival. Op-eds that have a strong voice, and successfully blend anecdote with evidence will be very persuasive.
When you've finished writing and editing your article you'll want to pitch it to the appropriate publication(s). Think about publications that are widely distributed in your area that you and your friends typically read. The website of these target publication should have the contact information for an editor of opinions or editorials – if not, try calling the newspaper's offices as they're sure to have an email address or phone number on file. It's a good idea to begin establishing a positive relationship with this person starting with your first pitch, as they are responsible for giving this piece and all your future submissions the green light for print. Avoid submitting your article through an online form: you're unlikely to receive a quick response—if one at all—and, as you may be required to upload your document, you essentially lose the ability to pitch other publications until you get a hard pass from the first. By targeting only one publication at a time and being diligent but not irritating in follow-up you can begin to develop a relationship with an editor that will surely prove valuable as you continue to advocate in the media.
Letter to the Editor (LTE)
In a Letter to the Editor you get to make one point well. An LTE is quite short, ranging in length from 150 to 400 words, so to be most effective be concise, be articulate, and then be quiet.
Open with a salutation like "To the Editor of the Daily News" followed by an attention-grabbing opener—few will stick with your article if it's not engaging from the start. Make your point succinctly and support it with good evidence. Your reader does not care about this issue as much as you so explain why they should. Many LTEs serve as public complaints; rise above this norm by proposing a solution. Shorter letters have a better chance at publication so make every word count.
Sign the letter with your full name and relevant title making sure to include your contact information and where you live, as the opinion editor will likely call to confirm that you did in fact write the letter. While they will sometimes withhold your name on request, newspapers won't print anonymous LTEs. Generally, the editorial pitching best practices for op-eds apply to LTEs as well.
Here are some good examples of LTEs from the University of Kansas' Community Tool Box (a good supplement to this advocacy guide).
Every organization wants to be covered by the press; every journalist is on the lookout for article fodder. Public Relations is the practice of pitching your group's story in such a way that it meets the needs of both parties.
How to pitch the media
You need something to pitch. Your pitch should cover a happening within or about your organization: a new project, an event, a protest, an achievement — but it also must appeal to a journalist.
Reporters have beats, specific article topics and genres on which they tend to work, make sure you propose articles to writers that are likely to care about what it is you're pitching. As silly as it sounds, many people use a shotgun approach simply blasting content to a long list of media "contacts" often with whom they have little or no actual contact. Not only will this almost guarantee your email is deleted before it is opened but, especially if it's a regular occurrence, it will hurt your chances of ever pitching that reporter with even relevant content.
Relationships are key to getting your story to the presses. Ultimately you'll want to establish working connections with local reporters who are likely to pen stories relevant to your group's cause, but, at the beginning, you'll need to do a bit of leg work to prove yourself and your content to these journalists.
Start by researching who's writing similar stories to the one you'd like written and then approach your columnist of choice with a brief, well-worded message that optimally cites a one or two of their previous articles as support for the connection between their beat and your story. In exchanges be pleasant and respect a reporter's time, she likely won't be able to get to your story right away so if you have a deadline, consider giving her some lead time.
Depending on what type of content you'd like to get to press there a few different approaches you might consider:
The first step to crafting an effective press release is to recognize that you're pitching a narrative. Journalists' inboxes are daily bombarded with press releases. The writer's task is to sift through all the content they receive that is relevant to their beat and find compelling stories to tell readers. The most successful releases are those that are already written like an article.
Begin your release with a short, captivating title and then dive right into the details. In the first paragraph succinctly explain the situation. Journalistic articles use an inverted pyramid structure that opens with the crucial information and then outlines any other details in subsequent paragraphs. Don't use industry jargon but rather focus on making one concise story broadly relatable.
When possible, supplement your content with photographs; newspapers are usually on the lookout for pictures and by providing download links through public sharing sites like fickr.com you can easily give your release a boost.
Finally, send your release to one reporter at a time addressing him or her by name and never dump it in the slush pile by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here's an example of a recent STRAC press release.
If the press is already reporting on an issue relevant to your cause but have yet to include you in the conversation, consider interjecting with a press statement. Unlike in a press release you're not pitching a story but rather offering a viewpoint in a developing storyline.
A statement is essentially one long quote that a journalist can put into conversation with other content he has received, so write in the first person and include information that will fit well into the broader ongoing narrative.
Use this simple example as a template.
Releases pitch stories, and statements contribute to ongoing dialogues but sometimes it is advantageous to manufacture newsworthy content either to start a discussion or to redirect a conversation. Finding or repackaging data is the best way to create a newsworthy moment. Do this by organizing fact-sheets and info-graphics or conducting public opinion surveys and economic impact studies. Such data can easily be crafted into a narrative and released to great effect.
Check out Airbnb's economic impact studies for inspiration. You may consider something like this to enhance your online presence as well.
A Note on Advertising
If you have resources on hand and a few catchy ideas you may consider purchasing space in the newspaper or time on television. This will give you maximum control over what is said and how but it is worth noting the audience who may be persuaded by such a strategy—likely not policymakers—and critically analyzing how it affects your group's broader perception and may fit with your organizations other advocacy efforts.
Over the past few decades, new media outlets have forever altered the way content is reported and received. To be an effective media advocate in the 21st century one must understand and leverage these platforms in addition to utilizing "old media" strategies. These platforms range from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to niche publications and local blogs. An effective new media strategy, regardless of channel, must be consistent and integrated.
These are some of the tools at your disposal:
The secret to social media is good content posted regularly. You have to earn your credibility online: it is crucial to understand that, since each user curates his or her own feed, if you post boring content that is irrelevant to your target audience they will not engage. As an advocate you can leverage social media to remain in constant conversation with your support base by attract them to your page and giving them compelling reasons to stay.
Some rules of thumb:
- Post often at different times of day. Use a tool like HootSuite or TweetDeck to plan and manage posts.
- On Facebook: don't post more than twice a day probably less or people will hide your content or un-follow your page.
- On Twitter: post multiple times a day, reiterating key messaging points and action items.
- Interact with your target audience and encourage them to interact with you. If someone tweets at you, or comments on a Facebook post engage with them in real time.
- Use images, graphics, and videos. Anything eye-catching is more likely to stimulate your audience.
- Give links and data context
- On twitter always use hashtags like #STRAdvocates
- Don't be scared to reuse or repackage the same content, but don't do it too often.
Social media can be a very powerful tool if used correctly. Check out the STRAdvocacy Twitter feed for ideas.
Blogs and Online Publications
For every print publication there are countless websites, blogs and feeds that serve smaller, more specific and often more devoted readerships. As you write opinion pieces and pitch press releases, research some of the niche publications that may serve the audiences you hope to target. Trade websites and local blogs will typically be very interested in a version of your story.