Earned Media

Earned media is not free media. The cost is planning, persistence and creativity, together with an understanding of what will make the news.

A candidate forum hosted by Community Voices Heard earned their project some mediaWhen many of us think of earned media, we think of press conferences – straightforward gatherings of beat reporters held in spare rooms that feature one or several speakers, behind a podium, reading from a written speech about, for example, a new 501(c)4 coalition of community organizations or the release of a report on public housing. They have their place in community organizing, but it’s not necessarily in integrated engagement work. Why? Because press conferences, while they may get media attention, do not allow you to connect with voters and they fail to make use of your most valuable asset: your volunteers and supporters. There are better tools in the earned media toolbox: written opinion pieces in the local newspaper, “bird-dogging” candidates with pertinent questions, and staging media events and candidate forums, like the one seen in the photo that was hosted by Community Voices Heard in the 2004 New York City mayoral election.

Put it in writing

A letter to the editor is a simple and surprisingly effective way to earn free media coverage of your issue. A good letter is timely, concise and clear; it should respond directly to a recent article in the newspaper and, in four paragraphs or less, lay out what’s wrong with what was said and what’s right about your organization’s point of view. Involve membership by asking them to write the letters or sit down together to write them (it’s worth developing a good letter with a key member). The three or four short paragraph structure (150-200 words) recommended by SPIN Project’s Loud and Clear in an Election Year goes like this:

An op-ed piece takes a similar structure but is one step up from a letter to the editor. The editorial page is frequently the most-read page in the newspaper (after the front page) and an op-ed piece is usually about twice to three times as long as a letter, allowing the writer to present a persuasive point of view and really drive the message home. Be prepared to pitch the article to the op-ed editor; call before you fax or e-mail the piece, and be available for follow-up. As for the piece itself, SPIN Project recommends that an op-ed:

  1. Be both personal and timely: the right voice at the right time
  2. Hook readers’ attention with a compelling opening paragraph
  3. Include an anecdote that illustrates the message

Ask the tough questions

“Bird-dogging” is a relatively easy, increasingly popular method of presenting key issues to candidates and the media that may be overshadowed or ignored by the continuous loop of talking-points-and-sound-bites. The format is straightforward: members of your organization, either alone or as part of a team, show up at a public event where the candidate or candidates are appearing and present them with a prepared question or questions. Check the candidate’s website to learn when and where to find them; town hall meeting, candidate forums and stump speeches are great opportunities for bird-dogging.

The most effective format for the question is to present several facts about your issue, citing the finding and assessments of relevant, respected sources, and then asking the candidate about their position. To avoid confrontation or charges of partisanship, SPIN Project advises that the questions be the same for every candidate and use balanced language. The experienced bird-doggers over at Peace Action recommend that if you send a team, all should be in agreement about the line of questioning and that they split up so as to be called upon separately. Prepare the team to answer questions about the issues by the media after the event and/or hand out press packets.

Make it an event

Media events and candidate forums bring the issues to life, as we’ll go into in a moment.  But first, a few caveats: events and forums present many planning hurdles and as such may consume more organizing time than they’re ultimately worth. Don’t get bogged down by chasing the media; don’t let it come between your base-building and leadership development priorities. And when you decide to go ahead with an event, pick a day most likely to be a slow one in the local newsrooms and be prepared; before you can stage a successful media event or candidate forum you should have:

  1. A good list of media outlets to target (preferably including the appropriate editor’s name and contact details). You have to make pitch calls before an event in addition to sending out a brief but detailed press release that could serve as the sole source for a short story in a local freebie paper if they’re too lazy to make it to the event (which probably won’t happen, but it has).
  2. To cultivate a relationship with sympathetic reporters in order to feed them tips.
  3. Professional-looking press packets with fact sheets and previous clips.
  4. The capacity to answer media calls fast. Reporters almost always need a comment immediately (and yesterday, if possible). If it takes them even a couple of hours to reach you, they may move on to the next story. This is a particular challenge for community organizations; you may assign one media-savvy staff person or very dedicated volunteer to be the all-hours go-to person for media requests.
  5. Trained members (not community organizers) that can serve as spokespeople. They should be ready to talk, on message. Sincerity and interesting personal stories win the day.

Media Event

As SPIN Project points out, there’s a big difference between a media event and press conference – and it’s no secret that the average reporter (not to mention supporter) would much rather attend the former. A successful media event combines elements of the traditional press conference as well as street theatre, protest march and rally. As you might imagine, the cost of a media event is relatively high, both financially (for signs, equipment and the like) and in terms of organizing effort (planning, contacting the media, the time of many volunteers). A media event should not be undertaken casually, but the results can be excellent.

Like a press conference, a media event must be aboutsomething newsworthy; it must tie into current events and add something new to the public debate. The message is the central thing, but it alone isn’t enough: media events that make the six o’clock news feature dramatic action, compelling characters and an interesting public setting, like good street theatre. To that end, invite leaders of your community – not politicians – to make short speeches that relate their personal experiences with your project’s core issues. Present an unusual visual image by staging the event in a location that is appropriate to your message; put up signs, hand out placards and ask volunteers to wear your organization’s t-shirts. Much of the dramatic action of the event will be generated by the crowd; there should be a sense of urgency, as in a rally or march. Not only will this increase the overall effectiveness of the event’s image, it will foster solidarity and a sense of purpose among your volunteers, supporters and, hopefully, the public.

In the video, Bineshi Albert describes a media event that the Stop Tax Waste campaign put on in a blighted neighborhood of southwest Albuquerque. The event checks all the necessary boxes: it was timely, spot-on the message and presented compelling visual images that underscored the importance of the campaign’s position. It’s no surprise that it made the news.

Candidate Forum

A candidate forum is a good thing for an integrated engagement project on many levels: it engages voters directly, presents a non-partisan platform to compare candidates’ positions, provides an opportunity for your members to inform the candidates about your organization’s core issues, builds a foundation for a relationship between your organization and the person who may, after the election, represent your community – and it just might get your organization and your message in the paper.

The challenges of a candidate forum is first, to get an hour or more of a busy candidate’s time, and second, to ensure that it is an educational, illuminating and strictly non-partisan event for both the audience and the speakers. It may be the only way you can get a candidate to attend is to have shown that your organization is plugged into a community that is crucial to the outcome of the election. As Bineshi Albert has observed, getting politicians to take your work seriously doesn’t happen overnight – the Native American Voters Alliance has been steadily holding candidate forums for several cycles before they really began to garner interest.

As for maintaining non-partisanship in the forum, SPIN Project recommends that you “let the candidates speak for themselves.” An introductory speech should communicate your project’s message but remain neutral toward the candidates, ask that volunteers refrain from wearing election buttons or t-shirts (although ones that identify the project’s issues are fine), and discourage comments from the audience that could be perceived as especially critical or challenging toward one of the candidates.

With an eye toward building a relationship with a candidate (and potential elected official), SPIN Project also recommends that you record what the candidates say, especially about your key issues. This information will later prove valuable in accountability sessions, as Community Voices Heard has found.

Click to hear from an organizer

Often times the most valuable media is free – but you have to be creative to earn it, as Bineshi Albert’s account of a SAGE Council press conference illustrates

Bineshi Albert: earning media exposure requires creativity