Talk Back: Write and Submit a Letter to the Editor

Writing a letter to the editor is one of the best ways to respond to articles, editorials, or op-eds published in your local paper. And, you can use these letters to advance your issue. A letter to the editor might amplify an editorial with which you agree, limit the damage caused by an op-ed that is harmful to your cause, or highlight key information left out of an article.

But remember to choose your battles wisely — even though a letter is a more personal message, stick to the facts, keep emotions in check, and never disparage other individuals or organizations.

RESPOND QUICKLY. Timeliness is key. After you identify a story or editorial that needs a response, draft and submit your letter as soon as possible.

READ THE LETTERS SECTION. Read letters to the editor published recently and mirror their format.

FOLLOW THE RULES. Look for guidelines about format, length, and other submission requirements on the paper’s website or in the paper near the letters section. If you can’t find them, call the newspaper and ask.

BE BRIEF. Keep your letter short and to the point. Focus on making one key point in two or three paragraphs and use just a couple of key facts or statistics, or a very brief story, to support your argument. Aim for about 150 words — never more than 200.

KNOW THE AUDIENCE. Read past letters to the editor and become familiar with what the paper typically prints. It is much more difficult to be published in a metropolitan daily newspaper than in a neighborhood weekly. Try to relate the letter/issue to the local community.

IDENTIFY YOURSELF.
 Include your name and your affiliation with NCJW (or another organization, if appropriate) to be published with your letter. If you are writing on behalf of NCJW or another organization, make sure that you have the organization’s support for your point of view and permission to speak in their name. For the editor’s information only (not to be published), include your complete contact information.

EDIT. Proofread carefully to eliminate typos and grammatical errors. And be sure to avoid jargon and acronyms.

SUBMIT THE LETTER TO ONE NEWSPAPER.
 Letters to the editor should be specific. Sending the same letter to multiple outlets dilutes the message and irritates the editors.

GO FURTHER. 
Distribute copies of the letter-to-the-editor, especially if it is printed, to any interested individuals — potential members, supporters, donors, and coalition partners. Send a copy to your decision-makers, such as your US senator, whether it is printed or not. They will be interested to know that you are contacting the media about this issue.

Tips for a Writing a Blog Post

“Blogs,” online weblogs consisting of individual “blog posts” have become a widely used form of online media, giving anyone with an internet connection a way to share personal experiences and views. People blog about all kinds of things, including: food, movies, and their kids.

Opinion blog posts are essentially shorter, more personal informal opinion editorials (op-eds). As advocates, we are interested in opinion blogging, that is, changing readers’ minds or starting a conversation on a timely policy issue.

Here are some tips for writing an opinion blog post about an issue you care about.

HEADLINE: Keep it simple. The headline makes your point in a straightforward way. Simple and clear words will be picked up by search engines and attract more readers. E.g., one of the most widely read columns on The Huffington Post was headlined “Top Ten Reasons Why Obama Defeated Clinton for the Democratic Nomination.”

LEAD PARAGRAPH: Draw people in. This is so important. Use a compelling anecdote and try to use your own, most personal “voice”—let the reader know you’re an actual person. The opening line is important because people will stop reading if it doesn’t grab them. Say something unexpected. Use a startling statistic. Draw the reader in with a dramatic personal story. E.g., “A concerned male student came to my office this morning and asked, ‘What is my risk for cervical cancer?’” Then introduce your main point.

BODY OF THE BLOG POST: Make your case. The body makes your case — just like it does in an op ed. First prove your point with statistics, studies by experts, lessons of history, personal stories, or references to popular culture. Then use specific examples to build your argument — highlighting one or two specific events can sometimes be more powerful than trying to give an overview that is more general. Paint a picture for your audience to capture their attention and better engage them in the scene.

CONCLUSION: Call people to action. The conclusion restates the message and includes a call to action. Encourage your readers to learn more about abortion rights and share their views with elected officials.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE IS KEY. Write in first person (using “I” statements). Blog posts go beyond conveying information to also sharing the personal experience or connection to what is being discussed. You have a unique and interesting perspective — that’s why we want you to write a blog post! Don’t be afraid to share your reactions, and reasons for those reactions, to the event/issues you are discussing.

SHARE YOUR PASSION. Think about why you are involved and passionate about reproductive rights. Even if you don’t state your reasons directly, the reader should get a sense of why you are passionate, knowledgeable, and connected to this cause when reading the post.

CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY. Your blog post can only be 500 words in length. Studies show that online readers respond best to more clear and concise sentences that focus on a single idea rather than sentences that are long and more complex. (You can still use complex sentences occasionally, if needed, but a higher percentage of sentences should be simpler.) Use bullets or number your supporting arguments to make your post “scan-able.” Even without bullets or numbers, keep your paragraphs short. White space is easier on the eye.
Adapted from resources created by Dupont Circle Communications: www.dupontcirclecommunications.com

Maximize Media Attendance: Hold a Successful Press Conference

It is appropriate to hold a press conference when you have significant hard news to release and want to convey it to a broad audience. A successful press conference depends on being well-organized and presenting your news clearly and concisely.
THE LOGISTICS

►    Pick an easily accessible site. Your location should be convenient for the media to access and, when possible, relevant to the news you have to announce. (For example, a press conference on a judicial emergency might be held near the courthouse.) There should be enough space for the anticipated number of reporters, as well as any invited guests. Remember to obtain a permit in advance, if needed. Post signs to guide people to the press conference area.

►    Hold it at the right time.
 Timing is very important for press conferences. The best choices for coverage are usually Tuesday through Thursday, in the late morning or early afternoon (between 10 am and 2 pm), so that reporters can meet their deadlines. Avoid competing with other events happening at the same time as your event. Contact your local Associated Press wire bureau to find out what is on its “daybook” — a listing of events happening in a particular area on a particular day.

►    Make it visual. Consider the visual impact of your event — especially for photographers and TV cameras. Display a banner behind the speakers and on the podium. Be sure these are easy to read and on message. Where appropriate, use organizational logos.

►    Create a media-friendly set-up.
 The set-up should include a podium and, typically, a microphone for the speakers to use when delivering their comments. Depending on your venue, you can also provide chairs for the speakers and/or attendees. Be sure the media have an unobstructed view of the speakers. And if the press conference is indoors, remember to leave a clear space and a place for TV cameras to plug in if needed.

►    Have an audience. 
If space permits, invite your allies to attend, so they can be part of your work and also help share your message. Think about including other organizations or prominent individuals in the press conference to add appeal for the media.

THE MEDIA

►    Invite the media. For daily publications, send out a media advisory via email and/or fax three to four days before the press conference. Make sure to include wire services (such as the Associated Press and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency) that have daybooks. For weekly publications, it is helpful to send information a few weeks ahead. And for all media, be sure to place a reminder call one or two days before the event.

►    Prepare take-away materials. Prepare a press kit to hand out to media representatives at the event. Contents of this kit could include fact sheets, a press release (if appropriate, or the media advisory), materials from coalition partners, biographies of the speakers, charts, etc. Avoid overwhelming the media with too much paper — include only vital information that a reporter must have to write his or her story.  And be sure to include contact information for someone who can be reached after the event to answer any follow-up questions.

►    Greet the media. Secure a table where you can welcome media representatives and have them complete a sign-in sheet with their contact information. This sheet will help you track which media outlets attend and provide easy access for any follow-up. It is important to have everything ready at least 30 minutes prior to your press conference. The media will often arrive early to set up equipment and review the press kit.

THE PROGRAM

►    Use a moderator. You should select a moderator who can introduce the speakers and facilitate a Q & A session with reporters. The moderator can also control the process and keep reporters on the subject. If a reporter digresses, the moderator can return the focus by saying such things as, “That is an interesting point, but we are here today to discuss…” The moderator should also be prepared, in a subtle and polite manner, to ask speakers who run past their allotted time to wrap up.

►    Prepare your speakers. Usually, you should select no more than two to four people to speak. Each speaker should relay a specific part of the message — reporters do not need or want to hear multiple speakers repeating the same things. Speakers should practice prior to the press conference so they are well prepared and able to stay on message. Speakers should share their statements with one another in advance if possible.

►    Have an agenda. Start promptly. It is unprofessional to keep the media waiting. The moderator should introduce the speakers, and then each speaker should talk for two to five minutes, depending on the number of speakers. Keeping the speakers to a short amount of time will help ensure they stay on message. The moderator should then facilitate a short Q & A session with journalists. The entire press conference should not last more than one hour, including the Q & A. Therefore, the presentation portion should be 20 to 30 minutes long.

►    Arrange individual interviews after the conference. Reporters often want one-on-one interviews with speakers after the Q & A period. This is a chance to clarify or cover information not brought out in the Q & A.  However, speakers need to continue to stay on message and keep their answers short and direct.

►    Follow up. Make sure someone is available to respond to questions that reporters might have after the press conference ends and that you provide reporters with a phone number that they can call if they have any additional questions. Send thank-you notes to attendees, reminding them whom to contact for further information. And distribute press kits to key media representatives who were unable to attend.

Sell the News: Pitch a Story to a Reporter

Perhaps you have been in this situation: You have a great idea for a news story — but the prospect of convincing a reporter to cover it is daunting. The following tips will help you to identify opportunities for pitching the story about your issue, select a pitching target, develop and deliver a pitch, and follow up successfully.

MAKE SURE THE STORY IS NEWSWORTHY. Reporters are busy, but they are always looking for a new or fresh angle on an existing issue. Reporters do not want to cover the same old story that everyone else is covering or that they themselves have already covered unless there’s a new development. It’s a good idea to track the work of the reporter you are targeting, gauge his or her interests, and note the kinds of stories he or she has done recently. Think creatively about ways to present your story.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Delivering your pitch to the right person enhances your chances for success. Identifying that person depends on the medium, as well as the kind of story you are pitching. Find out if you know someone with connections to any of the reporters just in case you can find a personal “way in.”

►    Print Media. Small community newspapers tend to have small staffs. The best person to receive your pitch is likely the news or features editor. At larger papers, you will want to find the reporter covering the appropriate beat for your story, or even consider a columnist. For a story on the federal judiciary, it might be someone covering politics, business, or the courts. Again, the best approach is to read the paper and track the coverage — after a few days or weeks, it will be easy to recognize who covers what. Beyond a single pitch or story, it’s a good idea to know the reporters who tend to cover similar issues so that you can build a relationship with them.

►    Radio. Consider pursuing news coverage at a National Public Radio affiliate or local news/talk station. For a public radio station, you may want to target a specific reporter who covers a beat related to your issue. Some stations may have an assignment editor, and you can always go to the news editor. If there is a particular show that you want to target, direct your pitch to the show’s producer. Be sure to listen to the program to which you are pitching beforehand, in order to get a good sense of the kinds of stories that are likely to be covered.

Daytime news coverage on music radio stations tends to be minimal. If you have a breaking story, you can pitch to the news director to include it in the station’s regular news briefs. Keep in mind that many stations have weekend or late-night public affairs shows that explore news and community issues. These shows, generally produced and/or hosted by the news or public affairs director, are good targets to pitch an in-depth look at your issue.

►    Television. Television stations are interested in breaking news stories with strong visual angles. Sometimes they also air investigative features that expose injustice or take a close look at community issues. If you know that news is going to break sometime soon, pitch to the futures editor. (Providing the media with advance notice almost always increases your chance of getting coverage.) If your story is already breaking news, pitch to the assignment editor. For a feature story that doesn’t concern breaking news, identify the most appropriate reporter or producer by paying attention to the beats they cover. Then you can make contacts directly.

CRAFT A CREATIVE PITCH. Reporters are constantly besieged by phone calls, emails, and faxes from people trying to convince them to write stories. You need to stand out from the crowd. This means deciding on the best means of contact — usually email or phone — and developing a pitch that is attention-grabbing and brief.

►    Phone. If you’re going to pitch by phone, plan what you will say in advance. Most reporters will give you 15 seconds — maybe 30 — to make your case. Make those seconds count. Avoid overwhelming them with jargon. Use a striking fact, or mention the name of a prominent person available for an interview. If they’re interested, they’ll keep listening.

►    Email. 
The same rules apply for an email pitch — except that a reporter can delete it without ever reading it. Create an interesting subject line and make sure the first few sentences of your email are attention-grabbing. Be short and sweet — one to three brief paragraphs will do it. Let the reporter know that you will call to follow up. Do not leave it up to a reporter to contact you. Avoid sending documents as attachments. Many email accounts are set up to block emails with attachments. Even if the messages do get through, many journalists will not open attachments from unknown email addresses. Try to include anything that you need to communicate in the body of the email. If you are trying to share a lengthy document with a reporter, post the document online and provide the reporter with a web address to view the piece or fax it to them.

PLAN A STRONG DELIVERY. Whether you are pitching to the reporter by phone, or following up on your email pitch, consider your timing. Do not call a reporter in the late afternoon when he or she is likely to be on deadline. If you reach a reporter who sounds harried, ask when would be a better time to call back. Plan and practice your pitch and deliver it with confidence — but don’t read it. Ask if the reporter is interested and offer to share additional information. A reporter will rarely agree to do a story during your first call, so your goal should be to start the conversation. Be prepared to leave a brief, to-the-point voicemail (30 seconds or less) if you do not reach a live person.

FOLLOW UP — BUT DON’T PESTER. 
If you’ve spoken to a reporter, shared additional resources, and haven’t heard anything, give a call or send a follow-up email. Ask the reporter if he or she is going to do the story or if anything else is needed to help reach a decision. Even if your pitch is rejected, ask if you can stay in touch as things develop. Your efforts now may pay dividends later. If your pitch is accepted, offer to help in any way that you can (identifying spokespeople, providing background information, etc.). After the story runs, send an email or note of thanks.

How to Write a Press Release