|Learn how to create news stories, releases, and notices that will have maximum media appeal, together with strategies for gaining media publication or broadcast.|
What is a news story?
What are the benefits of using TV, newspaper, and radio stories?
Providing newsworthy stories
How do I present my story idea?
Choosing good media opportunities
How many times have you heard a radio or TV reporter say something like “Next, we hear about a woman who started her own business while she was homeless”? How about a newspaper headline on the order of “Teens Take on Trash and Win?” The chances are you said to yourself, “That might be interesting,” and stayed tuned in or continued reading. Those stories might have come not from a reporter’s digging, but from an organization or initiative like yours.
Organizations involved in advocacy, whether that’s their primary purpose or simply a way of gaining support for the work they do, often pitch stories to the media. Placing news stories can be the cheapest and most effective means of getting your message to the public, and, through them, to policy makers and funders. This section provides some guidelines both for recognizing or creating news stories related to your work that appeal to the media and the public, and for persuading the media to publish or broadcast those stories.
What is a news story?
A news story is a written or recorded (or, occasionally, live) article or interview that informs the public about current events, concerns, or ideas.You don't usually write the story – though sometimes local media will use exactly what words you give them – but you provide story ideas to journalists who then flesh out your idea to create the story as it appears.
A news story can be:
- Long or short, depending on its newsworthiness (we’ll discuss this more later) or interest to people who watch TV, listen to the radio, or read the paper.
- Written, recorded, live, or taped, depending on the medium you use and the timeliness of the story
- Hard - full of important facts and news items, or soft - focusing on the personal, more human side of a news event or situation. An example of a hard news story is an article on the alarming rise of HIV cases in heterosexual women. A soft news, or feature, article would be a story about a man in a wheelchair overcoming architectural barriers in town as he moves through his day.
What are the benefits of using television, newspaper, and radio stories to spread your message?
- They can provide cheap, immediate coverage of your issues
- They can connect you with the largest and most diverse audiences
- They give you the possibility of continuous, in-depth coverage of your issues as long as you provide stories that sell
- News stories add credibility to your work, since they’re much more widely believed than advertising
- They offer a wide variety of strategies to communicate your message
- They can provide a fairly comprehensive explanation of your issue or description of your organization and your work
- They’re free publicity
Providing "newsworthy" stories
The fact is, most of today's public health and community development concerns have been around for a long time. Though your issues are important, they may not seem "newsy". One challenge that media advocates face is to promote issues from new angles so that journalists consider them fresh, current, and surprising - in other words newsworthy. If you're trying to create newsworthy stories (i.e., stories that are current, interesting to readers, or will impact readers' lives), you've got to make your issues seem fresh and unique. Wallack, Dorfman, Jerniagan, and Themba (see Resources) suggest ten kinds of news "angles", or approaches, to a news event that catch a journalist's eye:
- An anniversary story: Can this story be associated with a local, national, or topical or historical event? A good example of this would be marking the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a story of how nuclear waste has affected the ground water in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the United States government tested its first atomic bomb.
The anniversary in question might be one connected to your organization as well. It’s an important milestone when a community-based organization survives for five or ten years, or even more.
- A breakthrough: What is new or different about this story? One example would be a story on the isolation of a dangerous virus or a new treatment for a disease or birth defect.
- A celebrity-supported story or event: Is there a famous or locally well-known person already with or willing to lend his or her name to the issue? One international example is the rock musician Bono's advocacy for human rights and aid to developing nations.
- A controversial topic: Are there opposing sides or conflicts in this story? How does the Catholic Church feel about right-to-life advocates who don’t oppose the death penalty?
- An uncovered injustice: Are there basic inequalities or unfair circumstances to be reported? For example, why can't minority populations often get the same kinds of housing loans as middle class white people?
- An ironic account: What is ironic, unusual, or inconsistent about this story? For example, how can alcohol manufacturers support a "Don't drink and drive" campaign, yet refuse to change their advertisements that encourage people to drink alcoholic beverages?
- A local interest: Why is this story important or meaningful to local residents? An example would be a story on drug dealing that goes on in a housing project but remains poorly investigated by police.
- A milestone: Is this story an important historical event? Perhaps you can provide a story on a city's first collaboration between the university, community, and local residents.
A local milestone could be specific to an organization. A high school equivalency graduation, the completion of a job training course, the successful finish of an initiative, the awarding of a major grant or contract – any of these could be the occasion of a news story of local interest.
- A human interest story: This kind of story usually focuses on an individual or a family or group that has a story to tell that’s relevant to an issue of interest. It might feature one or more members of that high school equivalency graduation class, detailing the struggles they’ve gone through to get to this point, and their hopes for the future. It could tell about a medical advance through the experience of an individual with a condition that is now treatable for the first time.
- A seasonal story: Can this story idea be attached to a holiday or seasonal event? Perhaps you can pass on a story of the increased risks of skin cancer due to consecutive severe sunburns acquired during the hottest part of the summer before age 15? Hunger or homelessness in the community might easily be highlighted during the winter holiday season.
In addition to these angles, news stories can be built around events or recruitment as well. An Open House staged by your organization is a good excuse for a story on your work, or on how the organization was founded. The start of classes or training sessions, or a notice that a program is accepting volunteers or participants are also reasons for suggesting a story. If you want more than just a notice – and you do – you’ll need to come up with something to focus on. It could be an article about an interesting staff member, one about the issue itself, or a “where are they now?” take on what has happened to people as a result of their participation (which can help to highlight organizational, as well as individual, successes.)
When you make your pitch to the media, try using one or a combination of the above news angles as a frame for your story. It’s a good idea to have your news item already framed, or to fit it into one of these news angles when you contact a reporter; that way, journalists might be more likely to report the story your way. This is one reason press releases can be a good tool for spreading the word.
Choosing good media opportunities
Media publicity is, in many ways, an opportunistic activity. Given the speed with which news events are reported these days, you've got to seize an opportunity for media attention whenever you can. Don't wait around!
Certain situations will make it easier to get media coverage because your work has greater "news value", or interest, to the public. Some of these occasions include:
- Local, regional, or national events that tie in well to your organization's work. The opening day of a national conference on teen pregnancy, for example, is a good time to highlight your work on the same issue. Linking your story to a related story that is happening right now is called "piggybacking".
- Holidays and other special dates that provide a good backdrop to your viewpoint. A story about the work you've done to reduce drunk driving could appear on New Year's Eve, a night when many people are driving cars after drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages.
- A high school prom night is a perfect time to run an article on preventing teen pregnancy (since prom night may correspond to increased teen sexual intercourse) or an article on the relationship between alcohol consumption (which is common on prom night) and teen sexuality.
- In the event that you don't have a breaking story to throw on the media's plate, you have to make your own news. Use your imagination to give boring facts or figures and old news a facelift.
Some guidelines for contacting the media
(From the Dupont Circle PR website’s Creating News and Pitching Stories: How to Become a “Go-to” Organization for the Media.)
Do not call a reporter to pitch a story idea unless you are ready to provide everything she needs to write the story
- Prepare a pitch script of what you will say on the phone or in the email. A phone pitch should be no longer than three sentences and the highlights of an email pitch should be in the first paragraph with more details below.
- Have your background and one-page sheets that describe the problem (and the solution) ready to go. If publicizing comprehensive documents or reports, have a plain language executive summary and press release. Make sure your statistics and “social math” (e.g., “That’s enough people to fill Shea Stadium”) are accurate. Make sure your research is fresh, thorough, and credible.
- Have other interview subjects lined up (e.g., a “real person” who can tell a personal story, an unbiased expert such as an academic who can explain the law, or the researcher who analyzed the data.)
- Plan an action step that shows how you propose to solve the problem you’ve brought to light. (e.g., filing legislation, organizing communities, taking out TV and radio ads, electing or defeating slates of political candidates, submitting a new curriculum to the school board, etc.)
- Be able to answer: Why now? And, why is this important? Anticipate any other questions the reporter may ask.
Target reporters who will be interested in your news
Resources like The Yellow Book show which beats reporters cover and consultants can give you leads to friendly contacts. You should also read the papers that you would like to be in. Notice the by-lines of the reporters who are writing articles of interest and target them for outreach. Remember that reporters are in the business of finding news. They will appreciate good story ideas, even if they can’t follow through that day or week.
If your initial contact is not interested, ask whether she can refer you to another reporter who is more appropriate. If you have no idea who to contact first, try out your pitch on the news or general assignment editors. After all, the newspaper has many sections: a news reporter may not be interested in a soccer championship story, but the sports reporter will be.
Recognize that you will be interrupting someone who is busy working
A few tips can make the call easier:
- Do not call reporters late in the day when they are on deadline. The best hours are between 10 a.m. and about 2 p.m.
- Keep your pitch brief. You only have a few moments to capture their interest.
- Be relaxed and calm, but show enthusiasm when the news is good or outrage when the news is bad. The reporter will be taking cues from you.
- If you get an answering machine, leave a substantive message with a call back number.
- Call at different times to try to get through, but don’t leave multiple messages.
- Don’t call at the last minute, unless you have breaking news. Know when reporters’ deadlines are, and respect them. Give them plenty of time to do the best possible job on your story.
Become a “go to” organization for the media
Be a fast, reliable, and credible source for news.
- Always be reachable – give out your cell phone number and offer 24-hour availability.
- Always have the answers for reporters’ questions and get back to them right away – respect their deadlines and help them meet them.This may mean dropping everything and not finishing another task you planned for the day, but it is worth it. You are building relationships and a reputation that will encourage reporters to call you to find out what’s going on and help get their attention when you want to make a pitch.
Continue to work to maintain your relationships and credibility with the media, and continue to pitch stories to them
You might even set a goal of getting stories into print a specific number of times a year, or of contacting your friends in the media just to update them on what’s happening in your organization and with your issue. Stories may or may not come out of these contacts, but they will keep the media informed about you and your work, and will make them all the more ready to work on stories when they come up. Media advocacy is not a one-time effort: it’s a long-term endeavor, and it should go on as long as your organization needs support – indefinitely.
Digital Age Media Relations is from e.politics, and it provides information on pitching stories for different media outlets.
How to Pitch Nonprofit Stories to Media is an article by Joanne Fritz about how to make your story timely, newsworthy, and relevant.
News Media: A Different Kind of Advocacy is an excellent guide from the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors for working with the media.
Pitching Your Story to a Reporter has pointers to creating a story the media wants from Strategic Alliance.
Pointers on Pitching from Both Ends of the Call is an article from Freerange Thinking that offers various pointers and links on pitching stories.
Rural Housing Coalition Media Advocacy 101 is a guide for pitching news stories and writing persuasive editorial articles.
Seven Tips to Pitch Your Story by Phone is an article from the Community Media Workshop on how to make the call and make the news.
10 Tips to Pitching to a Reporter is a list of tips from Advocates for Youth.
Tips and Principles of Pitching Stories is a document from the Sierra Club with information on how to tailor your pitch to make it more likely to be picked up.
Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.
Goldman, K., & Zasloff, K. (1994, December). Tools of the trade: Media do's and don'ts. SOPHE News & Views, 6-7.
National Cancer Institute. (1988). Media strategies for smoking control: Guidelines. Bethesda, MD: Author.
Pertschuk, M., & Wilbur, P. (1991). Media advocacy: Reframing public debate. Washington: The Benton Foundation.
Wallack, L., Dorfman, L., Jerniagan, D., & Themba, M. (1993). Media advocacy and public health: Power for prevention. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.