Getting Media Coverage

In Australia, for which this guide was written, there are approximately 90 television stations, 700 newspapers, 130 ethnic newspapers, 300 radio stations, 1300 magazines and 10,000 key media people; and this is just for 20 million people. Plus thousands of web blogs and e-journals. Given the right information, they will all want to know more about your campaign. Well, some of them will.

Competition for mass news coverage is extremely heavy. Everyone is trying to find their way onto the evening's TV news, the breakfast radio programs and the morning's newspapers. It's been estimated that a newspaper newsroom can receive up to 500 press releases in one day with announcements covering everything from politics to the new red telephone box on George Street.

The importance of television

From a promotional point of view, it's hard to argue with the view that video, whether on television or on the internet, is the most consumed medium. Market research tells us that 80% of the public nominate TV as their source of news and information; among young people YouTube is beginning to supplant this for entertainment information.

A good picture wipes out a thousand bad words

Television and video is much more about pictures than words. One illustrative picture on the TV news is worth a dozen press stories. A good picture can also wipe out a lot of bad coverage.

In the early 1980s then US President Ronald Reagan was under fire for cutting funds for disability services. During the day the cuts were to be announced his staff arranged for him to visit a disabled people's centre in Texas.

With plenty of TV crews present, he was seen being met by smiling people handing him flowers. News stories that carried pictures of the President along with often savage commentary.

One network reporter got a call from Reagan's press secretary. She prepared herself to be bawled out - but he congratulated her on the story.

When she asked if she was hearing right, he said, `Absolutely, the pictures were fantastic. The President was mobbed by happy, smiling disabled people. Noone remembers the voice-over, it's the pictures that have impact. It couldn't have been better for us.'


You need a good media release

A media release is the first step to attract attention. Although distributing a media release is not always the right strategy, the drafting of one, at the minimum, forces you to make your story concise and sort out the key points.

Distribution might involve anything from phoning up a journalist you know would be interested and getting them to do an exclusive story, to sending out the release via email and fax to hundreds of outlets that might consider running your story. Limit your list; if it's a sports story, well don't bother with The Economist magazine, and vice versa.

A media release formula
  1. A headline that gets to the guts of the story.
  2. A first paragraph that summarises the story.
  3. Quotable quotes from a credible figure and preferably well-know spokesperson.
  4. Some facts or statistics. "Six in 10 people think ..." or some such.
  5. Explanatory details that cover the 'who, what, when, where and why'.
  6. All hours contact and phone number and spokesperson details (if you are doing a national release, try to find local people to be available to speak). Mobile numbers are essential: Sean Kidney was once phoned on his mobile at 6.30pm to appear on a late night news show that same night. He was in the studio by 8.30pm and in his loungeroom watching the pre-recorded piece at 10.pm.
  7. Keep it to one page. 90% of journalists will not turn the page. Even if you write a three page release, they'll only scan the first page; so you might as well work within that constraint.
A few more media release tips
  • Keep the message simple. The media message should relate to people's daily lives. Don't get too theoretical and don't make it all sound too big and impossible. You need to focus on practical options like, 'don't use bleach, use vinegar for your toilet cleaning', 'scientists say that rising sea levels will reduce property values in Rose Bay', etc. Think about how a journalist can use your item as a 60 second TV or radio news item.
  • A release for every occasion. Write a media release for each major event you have. But don't go overboard. Thirty releases a month on the same topic, however passionate you are about it, will not do your cause much good.
  • Keep the stories local. One of the secrets of communicating successfully with a wide variety of groups and people is to individualise the message. The key to regular coverage in regional media is stories with a local angle. It takes a bit of digging to find the local angle, but it's worth it. You can still use national spokespeople, but have some local heroes as well. The importance of individualised messages also applies to special groups like doctors or unionists.
  • Develop your theme over time. Try to get regular feature coverage. Journalists don't necessarily want you to write the stories for them (well most don't) but they do like you to feed them story ideas. If you can get to talk to a journalist, given them some interesting background information. Don't harass them, but keep in regular contact.

Think in pictures

You are more likely to attract television attention if you can supply plenty of visual material either in advance or at the time of the launch. A photo is remembered more than lengthy stories.

Events to hang your media release on

Events can help to get media attention, but you need to think about them from the media's point of view. A junior government Minister, launching a less than riveting product, will not get the press away from their desk. After all, they're even getting blase about people who throw themselves in front of Japanese whalers.

However with a little thought, you can make things interesting. A senior government minister will usually get the media there - if they've got something to say. A huge pile of letters dumped on the lawns outside parliament house will make a good picture. But an unknown person handing a less than charismatic politician a petition is unlikely to get the cameras rolling.

Use facts and statistics

Facts and figures are good. The press love them. If you can find some good statistics in your latest research report, launch the report and invite the media.

It may be worth remembering that the media formula is fairly limited. These are the sort of stories that tend make it in to the media:

  • 'We name the guilty'
  • 'We reveal the startling facts'
  • 'The powerless will fight'
  • 'Underdogs win'
  • 'Shock statement'
  • 'Incredible facts'
  • 'Cuddly pets'


Provide good spokespeople

Media stories are built around 'talent'. They want well-known or otherwise telegenic people who are going to say interesting and hopefully witty things. From our point of view, it also helps if they understand the issue. They also need to know what being interviewed on TV or radio involves.

When your message comes out on television, 70 per cent of it is 'visual'. Make sure there is nothing that could detract from what you want said. (see the Ronald Reagan anecdote above)

Have a good list of speakers ready

The public will respond if they see people they like and admire coming out strongly in support of the issues. The talent you use needs to be aimed at the target group. You wouldn't use a politician to sell a message to teenagers (or anyone else for that matter).

You need to put together a contact list of available 'talent'. It could include:
  • sports stars
  • TV drama stars
  • experts, academics
  • community leaders
  • politicians
  • church leaders
  • union officials
  • business leaders
  • 'real people' (who can talk about campaign experiences - the person who stood in front of the bulldozer)
Make sure your list is NATIONAL and don't forget the regional centres. Journalists don't like to go to a lot of trouble, so give them local contacts - make it VERY easy for them.


Target the right journalist

News stories can be directed to chiefs of staff at newspapers and news directors in television and radio news rooms. If it's a specialist story, for example, legal, environment or health story, send it to the relevant reporter. Local and international news agencies and press galleries are also important outlets for your news.
Producers are key people.

The producers of radio and television programs presented by well-known journalists should receive the release. In the main, it is the producer who makes the decisions about the stories and interviews for the day.

Throw your net wide. Don't restrict yourself to the main media; target the specialist press too. Every organisation has a newsletter and somewhere you will find a list of all those newsletter. Make good use of it. Some events may not interest the general media, but you could get a good run in the specialist press.


Timing is crucial

Email the news desks either the day before or the morning of your announcement.

If your use the mail, your release should be posted seven days before your embargoed story/event/launch. This gives plenty of time to journalists, especially if there are reports to be read or material researched.

Follow-up

After you've sent out your media release, make follow-up calls to a key list of media people. Radio producers and local radio stations should always be followed-up with a phone call. Try to build up a network of journalists who know who you are.

Be prepared to re-send your media release - many will have been lost or ignored the first time.


Be aware of deadlines

Keep the deadlines for publications and programs in mind. Time your press releases and media plans to fit in with the appropriate deadlines.

Newspaper supplements: Newspapers usually prepare supplements some months in advance. Find out what they plan to do. There may be something coming up which is relevant to your campaign or story.

Magazines: deadlines vary considerably. Some glossy monthlies have a five-month lead time. This is worth remembering when planning media campaigns. Always phone and check.

Follow up: Always follow up contacts you make. It is essential to phone key people on the day of the launch or event.


Three other ways to court the media

A media conference for an important message

Only use a media conference when there is something very important to announce or show. The best time is 11 am. The best days are every day except Friday and Saturday. Sunday is often a good day because it is generally a slow news day.

Media conferences give a certain degree of seriousness to the issue. Using a media conference format can also be detrimental to your campaign - you might have to answer questions you'd rather not. So think carefully before you have one.

Either choose a central venue such as parliament or a major hotel. A location which adds to the story in some way like a workplace which will provide good television shots.

Try the direct approach

There are many other ways to attract attention. Visits to radio stations to deliver your message while announcers are on air can be effective.

Direct contact with newspaper columnists might mean they use your story. Cartoonists on newspapers may well be interested. Letters to the Editor is also another, albeit lesser, way to get coverage.


Monitor your media coverage

You need to try and keep tabs on all your media coverage during a campaign. Then you can respond to any issues as they come up. It's also a way to build up a list of interested journalists who you can then target individually with further information.

You can use a media monitoring service to pick up clippings. Note the type of stories as well as the extent of the coverage.

Responding to controversy and criticism

Some aspects of a campaign will attract criticism. More often than not conflict can be a useful way to get media attention. But it can also take attention away from the real issues. You need to have a strategy to respond to criticism.

Three ways to deal with criticism:
  1. Get an independent expert speaker to answer the criticism. This is hard because once you're responding to criticism, you no longer have control over the agenda.
  2. Reclaim the agenda - redefine the issue in a more appropriate light. This will be the most effective way, if you can pull it off.
  3. Divert attention away from the issue by making available a news story a different but related topic.This is a common government strategy.
You will need credible community spokespeople to be available to address for all of these options.


Link your campaign to other events

Be like the cuckoo, leap into another’s nest

Part of the success of any campaign is to tie the campaign's message into as many other events as possible. This keeps the issue on the agenda. It also gives you the imprimatur and implicit support of the people you have linked up with. For example if a respected business leader talks about a successful workplace literacy program at a training conference.

Examples of events you could piggy-back on to:
  • nationally organised events (eg Clean-up Australia, an international small business conference etc);
  • other big events organised by someone else (ACTU Congress, Expo);
  • conferences that relate to your campaign area.
TV drama can take up your cause

TV dramas have a reach far beyond any other news media. For example kids love their TV drama heroes. If they see their latest heart throb talking about using condoms to his on-screen girl friend it will have the impact of a million brochures - or better.

If you have a genuine public interest message, you might be able to encourage writers and producers of TV soaps to incorporate campaign issues into their scripts. TV dramas generally love new 'issues' as they can provide dramatic grist to the never-ending scriptwriting mill.

Dramas also have the advantage of being able to put the issue into a human context and offer solutions. For example, a person who becomes ill because they couldn't read the instructions on a medicine bottle, and later learns to read, could support a powerful vignette in a TV drama.

To get these sort of stories up, you need to make personal contact with scriptwriters. Before you talk to them, write-up a selection of (true) stories that illustrate your message, using real-life examples available.


What to aim for with media coverage

  • Set an agenda - stimulate debate and get people thinking about your issue. You are not likely to "convince" someone via force of argument through the media; what you have to aim for is simply to get people thinking afresh about your issue, perhaps from an angle they haven't thought about before. This is sometimes called "framing". There is a wealth of very useful literature about this specific task; start with George Lakoff's "Don't think of an elephant". Getting people thinking about an issue "softens the ground" for further communications you should be undertaking, such as direct contact.
  • Put decision makers 'on notice'. Media is monitored by governments; is issues get airplay they will be looking for responses they can provide. At that point they will have become more receptive to your lobbying.

11 reminser steps to successful media coverage

1. Keep it short. Strip your message to the bare bones. Remember people hardly have time to read these days. Put your detailed information in a `fact page' at the end.

2. Think headlines. If the crux of your message cannot be expressed in a few words (maybe a sentence) it's unlikely to be successful.

3. Use a consistent slogan and logo. This is the best way to make your campaign instantly recognisable, especially over an extended period.

4. Do it regularly. Regular communication is essential to build a loyal and expectant constituency.

5. Be positive. Don't have a message which is totally negative. Offer a practical solution to the problem. This can inspire people. Litanies of disaster simply depress your audience and ruin the motivation.

6. Set the agenda. Redefine the problem to fit your solution.

7. Be visual. Pictures are much more effective than words. Pictures should reinforce emotions. Forget the intellectual high ground.

8. Appeal to emotions in news stories eg. conflict, fear, triumph over adversity (David & Goliath).

9. Entertain. Think of the media as theatre; it is primarily for entertainment.

10. Match the medium. Tailor the message to fit the different types of media.

11. Limit the campaign. Keep campaign segments to less than three months, otherwise everyone forgets the message, people lose interest and the campaign loses momentum.
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