Tool 6: Engaging the Media

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!

In This Section

  • Media relations overview
  • Tips for writing and placing an op-ed
  • Tips for pitching a story
  • Ideas for promoting successful media placements
  • Related resources

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:

    • What does your audience care about? What keeps them up at night?
    • How would you describe your audience’s lifestyle? What about that lifestyle facilitates their ability to stay informed and engaged? What about that lifestyle makes it more difficult to stay informed and engaged?
    • What motivates your audience? Why do they want to be informed and engaged in the first place?

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:

    • News: Although you may not think about it, much of what you find in the news outlets you read isn’t actually news. News refers to those stories which are timely and relevant to the outlet’s readerships. The example above about the woman with Down Syndrome, while interesting and important, isn’t news. However, the woman’s employer being awarded a Community Champion Award from the city council for its inclusive hiring practices may in fact be considered news.
    • Opinion: “Opinion” is often best understood against the backdrop of news. If news involves the objective, fact-based reporting of events that transpire, opinion articles typically provide an interpretation of those events or prescribe an intervention of some sort to be considered for future action. Returning to the other example described above, the article outlining what the state should do to invest in DSPs fits squarely into the category of opinion—it makes a prescription for solving what the author perceives to be a problem facing the community.
    • Features: Different outlets will have different terms for this type of article, but for our purposes, we use “features” to refer to those articles that go in-depth to explain a particular challenge, highlight stories of success or otherwise shed light on things of import to the community. Ranging from investigative reports that go undercover at a local pharmaceutical company to a two-page spread highlighting local artisans who started a weekend market in the community, these stories aren’t necessarily timely, but they’re certainly of interest to the outlet’s readers. The success story of the woman with Down Syndrome referenced above would most likely fit into this category.

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.).

Following Up

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

    • Start by identifying your target outlet. This may be your local newspaper, or it might be a publication that covers relevant issues. For example, a statewide business journal or a regional health care magazine might be as viable an option as your local paper. See the section above for in-depth information on how to select an outlet.
    • Once you’ve decided the outlet you’ll target, search its website for their submission guidelines and read published op-eds to get a feel for the kinds of content they prefer to publish.
    • Lead with a hook that’s timely and relevant. Where possible, connect your topic to a conversation that’s happening among the people likely to read your target outlet. This might mean linking to recent news articles on the topic, or explaining an overlooked facet of a topic that’s been discussed at length in public dialogue.
    • When crafting your message, three things should be front of mind: What? So What? Now What? In other words, what do you need to convey, why should readers care, and what should they do about it?
    • Be sure to identify the “So What” early on and don’t be afraid to stake a strong claim. Remember: you’re not writing your opinion about the Included. Supported. Empowered. campaign; you’re writing about the value of true community integration and what readers can do to support the full inclusion of people with I/DD in the community.

Tips for Placing Your Op-Ed

    • Identify the name and email address of the opinion editor and email the op-ed directly to that person, along with a short note (1-2 paragraphs) about what you’re submitting and why you think the outlet’s readers would find it valuable.
    • It’s always best to leverage existing contacts, as an editor with whom you already have a relationship will be more likely to respond to you than an editor who is wholly unfamiliar with your work. But, if you don’t have an existing contact to leverage, you can generally find contact information on the news outlet’s website. The Included. Supported. Empowered. team can also help you by querying the ANCOR Foundation’s media database; email to get started.
    • Where possible, include one or more photos with your submission. Especially for digital outlets, photos help drive engagement, both on the outlet’s website and when the content is shared on social media.
    • Be sure to include a “byline” (the person you’d like to be listed as the author of the op-ed) and a 1-2 sentence bio about that person, as readers will want to know a little bit about the qualifications of the person who contributed the content.
    • If you don’t hear back from the editor within a week or so after submitting your op-ed, follow up, either by email, phone or social media. If they still don’t respond within 1-2 more business days, you are welcome to submit the op-ed to another outlet.
    • DO NOT submit the op-ed to multiple outlets at once. Outlets will generally only publish original content, and one outlet will not want to publish your content if it appears elsewhere.

Whereas the section above offers tips for getting opinion content placed, this section offers tips for garnering coverage for news or feature content.

    • Keep your pitch note short. At the very least, include the general arc of the story you’re envisioning, what makes it timely or relevant, and why it would be of interest to that particular outlet’s readers. Keep in mind that the media environment is increasingly competitive, so reporters are often in the position of justifying to their editors why pursuing a particular story is worthy of the reporter’s time.
    • Include a subject line that helps the reporter envision the headline they might write. Of course, you should be transparent by indicating that your email contains a story pitch, but framing the subject line as a headline can help the reporter see how your story idea might play out.
    • Reporters will often want to get in touch with someone they can interview, whether that’s an expert on a particular topic or a “real” person or family who is impacted by a particular situation. Therefore, indicate in your pitch the types of people you could connect them with to enhance their story. (Typically, you should refrain from sharing that contact information in your original outreach so the reporter has a reason to be in touch with you.)
    • You may find that you don’t have fodder for an entire story, but you have information that could be helpful to the reporter as they report on broader topics. In these cases, you can send a “tip” instead of pitching a full story. Often, such tips offer insider information that the reporter wouldn’t be able to get from someone else, and can be a great way of building a relationship with that reporter.
    • Keep in mind that reporters are busy. Between the deadline-driven nature of their work and the need to pivot on a dime, it can often be tough for reporters to respond to the array of pitches and tips that come their way in a given day. To increase the likelihood of getting a response, keep your pitches concise, make sure you’re offering them something valuable and not just expecting them to be your megaphone, and respond as quickly as possible when they respond with questions or other inquiries.
    • If you don’t hear back from the reporter within a week or so after sending your pitch, follow up, either by email, phone or social media. If they still don’t respond within 1-2 more business days, you are welcome to send the pitch to another reporter at the same outlet, or to another outlet.
    • Whereas you should not submit the same op-ed to multiple outlets at the same time, story pitches can be sent to multiple reporters at the same outlet at once, and to multiple outlets at once. Because you’re soliciting various people to write the content, the same concerns about original content do not apply when pitching stories. That said, keep in mind that sending pitches or tips to a single writer might help you build a relationship with them, whereas cc’ing a handful of reporters on the same pitch may not have the same effect.

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.

    • Share a link to the story on your social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. If there’s a particularly compelling sentence or paragraph that captures the heart of the matter, use that as the caption on your post.
    • If you have a newsroom or similar section of your website, cross-post the article there. Depending on the stature of the news outlet, it may even warrant being featured on your organization’s homepage.
    • Include the placement in an upcoming newsletter to your email subscribers. You’ll want to articulate why the placement matters beyond simply being able to brag about your media savviness. For example, if the article can be used to fuel advocacy efforts, be sure to point out that you sought the placement so advocates would have something to link to in their outreach to policymakers.
    • Send a personal email with a link to the article to the people in your network most likely to share and benefit from the article. This might include your board members, colleagues at peer organizations or your top advocates.

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 or tagging @WeHaveAStake on Facebook and Twitter.

    • Media & Public Relations Blogs: Several individuals and agencies maintain blogs that cover a range of helpful topics related to media and public relations. In particular, we recommend PRsay, an offering of the Public Relations Society of America, and PR Week.

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