National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Media Relations: Proactive Strategies
Proactive media strategies are inclusive of activities in which a press release, statement or pitch is delivered to a standard "media list" or member of the media, including a key editor or reporter. Contact can also be initiated by phone or e-mail with one or a few specific reporters who may be interested. Information, tools and templates in support of a proactive strategy are provided to enhance advocacy success.
The most basic tool is the Media List. Without one, you won't know who to call or where to send press releases.
It used to be that press releases were sent by regular mail or fax. These days, they need to be sent by e-mail- although some newspapers or reporters may still prefer faxes. (Reporters will tell you if you ask).
E-mail media lists can be organized as "group lists" to send ("blast") press releases all at once-or press releases can be sent individually, sometimes with a personal message.
Important! The text of a press release should be pasted inside the actual e-mail. Don't send attachments. Reporters guard against viruses by not opening attachments and some newsrooms have virus screens that strip them. If there is a lengthy document you want to send to a single reporter, ask first if it is okay.
Don't send e-mails in which many different names from different news organizations (i.e., competitors) are listed as addressees ("To: Larry, Curley, Moe, etc."). Instead, set up a group list with a single address that indicates in some way that it's news-related. For security purposes, make sure that only one or two people (e.g., executive director)are programmed as moderators to use the list and send releases
Here are some fictitious examples of group list addresses for otherwise real NAMI state organizations or affiliates.
Besides e-mail group lists, keep copies of printed lists with the names of news organizations organized by media type (i.e., newspaper, television and radio), the names of editors and reporters, their telephone numbers and email addresses-as well as regular mail addresses for special uses when time isn't urgent. Each time you make "pitch calls," names can be checked off and notes made for each call.
Researching local media
Take a close at daily and weekly newspapers in your community. Watch the local TV news and listen to local radio. Get a sense of who reports what kind of stories Go online and explore the Web sites of newspapers and radio and television stations.
Once you have identified a variety of outlets and contacts you would like to include in your list, as well as their basic contact information, you may want to organize contacts by outlet type: print media, television and radio. Within each group, it is also helpful to alphabetize by organization and then, within each organization, alphabetically by individual contact name.
Reporters want facts and figures, but they also want to talk with people who have experienced a policy issue firsthand-who can provide illustrations in real human terms.
This example of an effective use of a personal story illustrates how this can be used for advocacy success.
Press releases are the most basic tool when a person thinks about media relations. There actually are several forms:
Writing a press release
When sending the press release via e-mail, remember that subject lines are headlines. It's what causes a person to decide to open the message and read it at all. Choose email subject lines carefully to reflect the topic.They need to be attention grabbers, but not be exaggerated. Don't waste space by spelling out NAMI's name. Some examples:
Following-up on a news release by phone to focus an editor or reporter-particularly to encourage coverage of an event or action-is called "pitching." It's a lot like selling. Timing is important. It involves building credibility as a source and forming relationships with reporters.
To get a person's attention you may have to approach them more than once, in different, incremental ways. Generally, the best way to pitch is to first send a press release to your target person-and then follow-up by telephone.
Write your script before you start making pitch calls. See sample below.
Sample script to use when pitching
Pitching a local story out of a national story:
"Hello, this is _________ from NAMI Baltimore, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I'm calling to follow up on the story that was reported in your paper yesterday about the proposed mental health budget cuts in Maryland. Did you see the press statement with our response to the Governor? May I e-mail you a copy now? Would you be interested in speaking with a local family that could share how budget cuts would impact them personally?"
When a Reporter Says No
When reporters say "no" or respond rudely, try to find out why. Don't press too hard, but ask "Is this a bad time?" or "Is there someone I should send the release or talk to instead?" Be courteous even if they are not. Everyone has bad days. They may be swamped with assignments or working under a tough deadline. If necessary, send an email to apologize for the interruption.
Press conferences are media events that require much preparation and involve high stakes. They convey "hard news" information to the media. They allow you to decide to decide what information is presented, how it is presented and who presents it.
You may want to hold a press conference to challenge proposed mental health budget cuts in your state. You can bring media attention to the fact that these cuts will impact some of the states' most vulnerable residents by reducing coverage for and access to adult and child mental health services.
Why hold a press conference?
Before you plan a press conference decide:
Use the Press Conference Check List to help you prepare for and host a successful media event.
Letters to Editors
A Letter to the Editor is a short letter sent to a newspaper or magazine to present NAMI's position, make a correction or comment on a previous story-or a previous letter. They are a very good way to raise NAMI's profile, publicize NAMI's positions and influence decision-makers. Use the sample letter to the editor as a template to support your efforts.
Letters appear on the editorial pages of newspapers. To submit a letter, call the newspaper and ask for the editorial page-then ask what the word limit should be for a letter and how it should be submitted.
Letters by a NAMI spokesperson (e.g. president) should be unique to each newspaper. Don't submit the same one to several papers. NAMI members can be encouraged to write letters individually-but should not send identical letters. They need to be in the sender's own words.
Op-Eds or Guest Articles
"Op-eds" are short for opinions "opposite the editorial page." Use the Sample Op-ed as a template for your own op-ed or guest article.
Op-eds represent personal views, submitted sometimes on behalf of organizations. They are longer than letters to editors and different in nature-more like essays on a topic and often taking a position on an issue.
To submit an op-ed, you can call the newspaper and ask for the editorial page editor-or the op-ed editor if the paper is large enough-to find out the word limit and how it should be submitted.
Meeting with Your Local Newspaper Editorial Boards
FAQ and Checklist
Background: A key strategy for preserving and enhancing community and Medicaid mental health budgets is to receive media attention, particularly on editorial pages, regarding the budget crisis and the impact on people with mental illness, our communities and other systems. Editorial page coverage is important because policy makers read and rely on them to determine what issues are important and require their attention.
Meeting with your newspapers' key editorial staff will help establish a line of communication, provide them with a perspective on the mental health crisis in your state and pave the way for future contacts. Editorial staff should become familiar with both mental health issues and NAMI, and provide media attention in response to events of your state and local efforts.
Following are answers to frequently asked questions and a checklist for an effective editorial board meeting.
Q. What is an editorial board?
A.Most newspapers have a group of high-level editors who make decisions about which issues are timely and important for the newspaper to publish. They also make decisions about which opinion editorials ("op-eds") will run in the newspaper.
Q. When should I meet with an editorial board?
A. Before state legislative sessions begin is an ideal time to approach the editorial boards of your state and local newspapers to raise the alarm on the budget crisis as it relates to people living with mental illness and mental health services in your state. Major events, like a federal investigation or tragedy or hospital closure, can also be successfully used to prompt editorial board interest in a meeting.
Q. How do I get an appointment to meet with an editorial board?A. First, e-mail a request to the editorial page editor of the newspaper. Explain the topic you would like to discuss, why this issue is important, what is timely about the issue (e.g. governor's budget proposes cuts to mental health) and why it is worth a meeting to discuss in-depth. If your policy position involves any controversy or opposition, let the editors know. Then, follow up with a call to the editorial page editor and highlight one or two key points.
Q. Who should I let know about the meeting?
A. Inform coalition partners and, if appropriate, engage them in your efforts. Inform your Board leadership. As a courtesy, be sure to inform any local NAMI affiliate(s) that may be affected by media coverage.
Q. What should I provide to the editorial board?
A. Prepare and mail a "press kit" to the editorial board staff and to your participants prior to the meeting. Bring extra press kits to the meeting to be handed out as needed.
The press kit should include your talking points and supporting materials such as a "one-page," bulleted statistics and fact sheets. Use the most recent news, studies or data to support your talking points. Other materials such as your state's Grading the States score card would be helpful. Include a list of supporting organizations (coalition members).
Q. Who should represent our issue in the meeting?
A. Three to five effective spokespeople for you and the budget issue. Often, this is the executive director and/or coalition chair, an individual who has experienced first-hand difficulties with the issue to be discussed and/or a well-known, respected ally. A personal perspective is always compelling, but with this audience you will also need individuals who posses expertise about what is happening, what has happened in the past, any complexities of the issue and relevant data or facts, as well as why this issue is relevant and compelling to the public.
Q. How should I prep meeting participants?
A. Provide them with a press kit. Prepare a draft op-ed in advance in case you receive a request for one. Meeting participants should meet in advance to clarify roles and talking points. The goal is to be natural and aim for a normal, comfortable conversation flow while providing a brief personal perspective, sending a clear message and providing key facts, data or news to support your position. Offer to serve as a resource on mental health issues and ask for an editorial that outlines your case. Practice!
Q. What is my "ask" of the meeting?
A. Ask the editorial board if they are planning to write a future editorial or a story on the issue. If so, ask when and offer to be of assistance. Ideally, you will walk out of the meeting with a commitment for a lead-supporting editorial or a request for an op-ed. Even if you do not secure any commitment or request, you will have established a positive environment for this to happen in the future. If asked, provided your Prepared draft op-ed.
Q. How should I follow up?
A. You should follow-up the meeting with a thank-you letter and regular updates. Keep the editors and reporters aware of all progress, including dates for events such as rallies, press conferences, other press or e-media activity, pertinent meetings, etc. Keep your connection alive.