Engaging with the media can feel daunting and even scary, but it doesn’t have to be. With a general understanding of how to engage in media relations and some tools to facilitate the process, you’ll be seeing the issues you care most about in your local newspaper in no time!
This section contains the information you need at all stages in the process of garnering attention for your stories in the media. Because the media industry is far more complex than can adequately be described on this webpage, we’ve purposely oversimplified the information to give you only what you need. If you’re interested in diving deeper, don’t hesitate to let us know.
Identifying the Right Outlet
When it comes to the types of outlets you might consider engaging with to bring visibility to your work, there are a range of options out there. We first tend to think of newspapers; from your hometown paper to major publications with international circulation like the New York Times, local newspapers are still among the top sources from which Americans get their news.
Beyond local outlets, there are a range of special interest publications you may consider engaging. In this category may be many of the outlets you read to stay informed on certain topics. From “mommy blogs” that share parenting tips and product reviews to wellness magazines that offer nutrition advice and fitness plans, special interest magazines tend to have highly engaged readerships that can sometimes rival or exceed those of the major daily newspapers.
When determining which type of publication is right for you, start with what you hope to achieve. Is it more important to get your story in front of the widest possible audience? Or, is it more important that you get your content in front of a smaller but highly influential audience? Depending on the content, either approach may be appropriate.
Once you’ve narrowed your focus by deciding whether you want to reach a broad audience or a more specific one, imagine your audience’s persona. Audience personae are profiles of exemplary members of the identified audience that help you conceptualize what’s important to them. Rather than conceptualizing your audience according to demographic factors (e.g., age, sex, annual income), crafting an audience personae helps you conceptualize your audience in terms of their behaviors, motivations, habits and the like.
For instance, instead of thinking of potential donors as people aged 18-64 who fall into one of the top three income quintiles and reside in cities or suburbs, this way of thinking would get you to imagine Marta, a 49-year-old widow and mother of a college student with Autism. Marta is excited about the opportunities her son has to succeed, but she worries constantly about whether he has the support he needs living on campus and away from home for the first time in his life. Marta and her son have been able to navigate the system thanks to the natural supports provided by the county school district, the behavioral and occupational therapy offered by a local provider agency, and the outpouring of support offered by the local Catholic church, where Marta and her son are parishioners.
If you think of your audience to be comprised of a bunch of Martas, then it’s not hard to discern the types of outlets that you might engage with to reach Marta and other mothers like her. Perhaps she reads eParent, a news website designed to be the “ultimate resource” for the special needs community. Perhaps she is part of some Facebook groups where parents of children on the Autism spectrum come together to share resources and ask questions. As a devout Catholic, perhaps Marta subscribes to the Catholic Herald. And, because Marta turned to her community for support when she lost her husband a year after her son’s Autism diagnosis, perhaps she subscribes to the local newspaper and reads it religiously each morning before work.
It’s not hard to imagine why this way approach is more fruitful than simply imagining your audience in demographic terms, as it points you to a series of questions. Imagining “Marta” as the stand in for “your audience,” you can ask questions like:
Asking these questions can help you narrow in on which media outlet might be appropriate to engage with when it comes time to tell your story.
Engaging with the Right Outlet
Once you’ve identified the outlet (or outlets, as the case may be) with which you want to engage, it’s time to hone in on the person at that outlet to whom you’ll reach out. In some cases, media outlets are relatively small—sometimes staffed by just a single person—which makes the decision about who to reach out to an easy one. But larger outlets can have hundreds of people on staff, making it a little trickier to decide.
In these instances, you’ll have to decide what type of coverage for your story or issue you want to pursue. Though both might appear in your local paper, a success story that profiles a woman with Down Syndrome who enjoys competitive employment with the help of an I/DD provider in her community is a different kind of article than one explaining what the state should do to invest in the Direct Support Professional (DSP) workforce. Beyond the difference in substance, these stories differ in who writes them, which sections of the paper features them, and how the paper comes to know about them in the first place.
Generally speaking, your stories will fit into one of the three following categories:
Of course, we offer these categories not for the sake of categorization, but rather because understanding the type of story you’re likely working with will determine how the story gets on the outlet’s radar, who writes it and, therefore, how you’ll proceed.
Pitching News Content
For news content, articles are typically written by people with titles like reporter, staff writer or correspondent. Generally, reporters at larger outlets will be more highly specialized. A large national outlet may have a reporter who writes exclusively about health care policy and another who writes exclusively about health care technology, whereas a medium-sized outlet may only have a reporter that covers health care generally. Meanwhile, a small outlet may have a reporter who writes about health care, immigration, local crime and everything else under the sun.
If you have content that you believe warrants coverage and fits into the news category, you’ll want to reach out to a reporter at your chosen outlet that writes about topics similar to the one you believe warrants coverage. Your outreach—also known as a “pitch”—should briefly articulate the issue, what’s newsworthy about it and why it would be of interest to the reporter’s readers. Generally speaking, you’ll send your pitch via email, although it’s not unheard of to call a reporter or send them a Direct Message on Twitter.
Submitting Opinion Content
When it comes to opinion content, you’ll typically be the one to author the content, which will generally be in the form of an op-ed or a letter to the editor. Although each outlet will have its own standards for submitting op-eds and letters to the editor, the general distinction is that op-eds tend to craft an argument or prescribe a course of action related to topics that are broadly considered timely and relevant, whereas a letter to the editor typically responds to topics or issues the newspaper has already covered. For example, an op-ed might use DSP Recognition Week to lay out potential solutions to the DSP workforce crisis, whereas a letter to the editor might seek to clarify a factual inaccuracy presented in an article the paper published about the state’s proposed adjustments to Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Because you’ll be the one to author your op-ed or letter to the editor, you’ll want to reach out to an editor, rather than a reporter, at the chosen outlet. These people’s titles may simply be Editor, or they may be called Opinion Editor or Commentary Editor. In most cases, your pitch should include the fully developed content you’d like to see published as an attachment, and your email should give a brief summary of what the content contains and why it’s relevant to the outlet’s readers. It is not advised that you reach out to gauge the editor’s interest in publishing your content without having developed it—their decision regarding whether to publish will have as much to do with the quality of writing and the volume of submissions on related topics as it will the general idea presented in the article. You should also not expect that the editor will give you the opportunity to review and edits she may make before publishing your submission; therefore, it’s essential that you have carefully copyedited and fact-checked your content before submitting it.
Pitching & Submitting Feature Content
Finally, when it comes feature content, there are a couple different ways in which these stories come to fruition. In some cases—especially when engaging with outlets that employ a larger staff of writers—you should expect to pitch the story, much in the same way you would pitch a news story. The primary difference between your pitch for a news article and your pitch for a feature is that the news article pitch should articulate why the topic is newsworthy, whereas the feature pitch should articulate why the topic is relevant. The story about the woman with Down Syndrome working in competitive employment, for example, may not be newsworthy, but you should be able to articulate why the outlet’s readers should care about employment opportunities available to people with Down Syndrome and the role providers play in making employment success possible.
When pitching ideas for feature content, you may reach out to a reporter or to an editor. If you reach out to a reporter—someone with a title like Features Correspondent or Lifestyle Contributor—you might consider identifying someone who has written about disability and inclusion issues in the past. If you decide to reach out to an editor, your pitch will be mostly similar to the pitch you’d send to a reporter, but instead of asking them to write a story, you’ll ask them to assign a writer or correspondent to craft the story. When doing so, be sure to let them know that you’d be happy to work closely with the writer, including by putting them in touch with people they can interview as they develop the story (e.g., an individual you support, their family members, a DSP at your agency, etc.).
If you surveyed 100 reporters and editors, 98 of them would tell you that they receive an incredibly high volume of pitches, tips and story ideas each day, making it difficult or impossible to respond to each and every one. Therefore, you should not interpret a lack of response to mean that the person you’re trying to engage is ignoring you. Instead, allow the person about a week to respond (less than a week if you’re sharing urgent or pressing news), and follow up with them if you still haven’t heard back. You can follow up by forwarding them your original email and politely asking if they might be interested in pursuing the story, or you can call them or send them a message on the social media networks on which they are active (typically Twitter or LinkedIn). See the following section for additional tips on how to effectively engage members of the press.
If you’re seeking to garner visibility for opinion content—that which advances a perspective on an ongoing debate, prescribes a policy recommendation, supports a particular community practice or the like—you may consider writing an op-ed. This section includes tips for writing an effective op-ed and successfully getting it placed in an outlet that will help you reach your target audience.
Tips for Writing Your Op-Ed
Tips for Placing Your Op-Ed
Whereas the section above offers tips for getting opinion content placed, this section offers tips for garnering coverage for news or feature content.
Let’s say you submit an op-ed and the editor agrees to publish it, or that you send a pitch and the reporter agrees to write a story about the topic you proposed. Congratulations! That’s great news! See—it’s not that scary after all!
And…you’re not done yet. In addition to following up with the reporter or editor and thanking them for helping bring attention to your story, you’ll also want to make sure that people in your networks are aware that the news article, op-ed or feature was published. Below are a few tips for increasing visibility for your story beyond the outlet’s readers.
In addition to the ideas above, the team at Included. Supported. Empowered. wants to know about your successes! Therefore, be sure to share a link with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or tagging @WeHaveAStake on Facebook and Twitter.