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Making press contacts and getting your story out

Christine Robinson is a prominent figure in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community at the University of Kansas. She has been involved with many organizations and projects to fight prejudice and foster equality on and off campus. Through her work, Christine is regularly interviewed and is often quoted in the paper. She talked to us about her relationship with the media and about her techniques for arranging news and feature stories.

Christine said that the media both on campus and off campus have been wonderful in helping her reach her goals. She has established such a good long-term relationship with the media that her press releases almost always end up as a story in the paper.

"The media is an incredible resource for getting the word out about anything," Christine said. "If you have any issues that you're trying to educate the public about or if you want to do anything in terms of social change, you've got to get the word out, because things do not change often by individuals acting alone; they change by people working together in concert. The media is an incredible tool to get behind a movement or to have a policy changed.

"I've established long-term relationships with some press people and they know me and I know that when I send them something they will read it," she said. "So it's really important to cultivate personal relationships with certain press contacts at whatever papers you regularly send things to so that they will read it and take you seriously. Don't send out everything as a press release; be selective about what you want printed."

Christine said that the best time to submit a press release depends on what the issue is. "If it's just a newsworthy item, I will just send it out. Sometimes I will wait to send something out until the event is about to occur because I am afraid that people may forget about it. I always make sure there's contact information of the people directly involved, so if a reporter wants to write a story, they can contact the actors directly involved in it. I also send out my press releases on e-mail. However, you should also send them on faxes and hard copies when you have time. It's harder to forget something if it's not something they can delete on an e-mail. You've got to have a catchy subject on your e-mail. Don't put the exact subject giving away your message if you think that people will just delete it. You might want to put a vague title so that they at least open it up first and look at it. Packaging is everything."

Christine said that she tries to take advantage of what is going on in the community to time her opportunities to get a story out. "I can give you a specific example. Emporia State University's faculty senate voted on something to do with their nondiscrimination policy last Tuesday. I sent an e-mail message out a couple of days before saying that this was happening Tuesday and asking people to e-mail the faculty senate members and express their thoughts on the issue. You have to do whatever you can to get the people's interest. You have to convince them that they have to read this and it is important," she said. "Sometimes, you have to show your readers why an issue affects them. You can't let them read between the lines and make the connections, or have to make the connections for them or they won't get it often. You've got to let them know why they need to read that story! How does it affect them?"

Christine has built up her press contacts over time. "Often I will send a press release to a number of people at different papers, to a number of different writers and to whoever it is that starts responding to me regularly, then I give them the stories directly. I send them the stuff so they get the scoop on it. There's a mutually beneficial relationship there. If I'm writing for the queer community I'm going to write to every queer paper (I know). I get as many e-mail addresses as I can find to contact people and I build an e-mail list (and I named it "Press") so all I have to do is type in "press" and push return and it goes to that whole list. I want all of the press people to think they're getting the scoop, so I don't send them my press contacts as a public list. I send them a blind copy and keep a copy for myself. It's a little deceptive, but you create the impression that they're one of a few people who are getting the message and they don't know who the other contacts are.

"I like to do e-mail interviews rather because I can have control over my quotes and I always make a carbon copy for myself and then the reporter knows I've made a copy for myself."

Finding the right person to pitch your story is done by trial and error, Christine said. "Look up their homepage -- most places will have a homepage -- and certain reporters have certain beats and sometimes the homepage will tell you who is the person for that beat. So I try to contact that person by phone, by e-mail, by fax. If I don't get a response, I go higher up or I go to other reporters and I say "Hey, I've been trying to get in touch with this person about this story. Would you please make sure she gets this and does something with it?" And often that person will respond to you. So, if the person directly isn't responding, go around them. Get somebody else to do it. If it's somebody that I've never worked with before, I always try to get a commitment that I will have the quotes read back to me. But I'm usually able to respond to something off the cuff if I know about it. If I don't know something about the subject, I don't speak about it. I give them the name of who they need to talk to."

She said that sometimes she offers tips to reporters who are just covering the story, but don't really know much about the issues she's working with. "I tell them 'this is the most important point. Please, emphasize this.'"

Her relationship with the press is not problem-free, of course, but she learned ways to manage those problems. "I have learned to be defensive when it comes to (certain publications). Whenever I'm quoted, I make an agreement before with the person that they will call me and tell me exactly what quote they are going to use before they print it or I'm not going to talk to them. I have avoided some serious problems that way. But for misquotes that have been printed, I e-mail the person who misquoted (me) and I also e-mail the editor of the paper so that person gets a copy of it and puts pressure on the reporter. I say "you need to write a retraction because you changed this and it changed the context of what I was saying and this is inaccurate." I've never had a problem getting a retraction when there's a problem, but I try to avoid having to go through that.

"It is important to thank people for releasing the stuff that you send them, because it helps you to get the information out, they feel appreciated and they know they can come back to you for more information. Developing those relationships is very important." 

Marcelo Vilela