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Curtesy of Bob Summersgill, publisher of the New Mexico Rainbow

Exploiting the Media
Media 101: How to Construct a Basic Media Strategy
Getting your story into the Gay & Lesbian press
Tips on writing letters that get printed

Exploiting the Media "101"

Who is the Media? Anyone who disseminates news and information can be considered "the media." In addition to the traditional reporters at daily newspapers and radio and TV stations, include in your media networking local and regional weekly papers and the free "shoppers"; high school and college papers and radio stations; religious, vocational, and organizational newsletters; magazines; cable TV; email bulletin boards; and talk radio. Don't overlook African-American and Spanish-language outlets, the religious and conservative media, and your local Gay press. Also, entertainment journals or lifestyle editors at newspapers are often receptive to Gay news.

Why Do We Want to Use the Media? The media helps bring our issues into the homes of people across America. No amount of money or political connections can accomplish anything equivalent to the power of direct media work. Exposing Middle America in their own homes to Gay issues means a greater likelihood of demystifying homosexuality and advancing our agenda for true liberation. Exploiting media opportunities on Gay issues is essential to the promotion of our potions.

What Constitutes a News Story? The media covers three broad types of news stories:
  • (i) hard news,
  • (ii) lifestyle and human interest, and
  • (iii) announcements.

These are further broken down into subject categories. For instance, hard news could be political, sports, business, the arts, etc. Particular Gay and Lesbian news stories can fall into any combination of the three broad groupings, and can overlap into any subject area. What Kind of Actions or Events Will the Media Cover? Media work involves marketing skills. We want our particular issues covered, so we have to think about "selling" tactics and "packaging" requirements. Our issue, or "product," is a specific facet of Gay liberation, and is competing with lots of other news products for the same column inches and air time. Good marketing of our issues increases our chances of getting covered. A press conference is a "media event," something we orchestrate for reporters to attend. A media event could be packaged as executing a direct action or demonstration, convening a press conference, announcing the formation of a Gay & Lesbian organization, expressing outrage over a Gay bashing, describing what a Gay family unit looks like, looking at a day in the life of a Lesbian executive, or delineating strategies to pass a civil rights law.

Tips and Tactics for Exploiting the Media

Keep an Updated List of Media Contacts: Find out who the news editors are at your local paper and radio and TV stations. Keep an updated list of phone and fax numbers. Record the names of individual reporters whom you meet and seek them out again as new stories develop. Call them with fresh tips regularly.

Take Advantage of the Alternative and "Secondary" Media: As described above, useful media outlets are vast, and include new technologies such as email bulletin boards and cable TV as well as sources such as alternative weeklies, newsletters, and campus papers. Often, these outlets are quite receptive to grassroots organizing. Take advantage of them!

Have a Narrow, Specific Subject and Goal for Each Media Event: Multiple issues or complex material in a single story are hard to understand. Therefore, have a narrow focus for each media event you undertake. Boil down the issues to their essence. Don't assume that the media or their readers, listeners or viewers have any prior understanding of the issue at hand. Your media event should have four components:
  • Lay out the current, specific problem
  • Example: Gay and Lesbian people are being targeted for harassment and violence.
  • Give some background to the problem
  • Example: Gay and Lesbian people are being beaten in the streets and their homes and property vandalized by people who are trying to silence Gay civil rights advocates.
  • Explain your goal
  • Example: Gay and Lesbian people should not fear violent attack in their homes, workplaces, or in public places.
  • Make a demand and identify a feasible way to achieve your goal
  • Example: The New Mexico Hate Crimes Act needs to be enacted to provide a deterrent to violent crimes against all groups and send a strong message that political violence will not be tolerated.

Overcoming the Limitations of the Media: The media are limited by the personal biases of reporters and editors. Don't get discouraged - hard work will definitely pay off!
  • Keep your message simple - Make a few effective points and repeat them over and over. Brainstorm before your media event to come up with snappy, easy sound bites.
  • Don't ignore your enemy - They are providing a service to the Gay community by polarizing Gay concerns and making it easier for us to jump on the media platform. Meet with or telephone conservative editors and journalists regularly, trying to find common ground and engaging in subtle educational work. Don't be offended if these editors explicitly express to you their anti-Gay bigotry. Let them feel comfortable in telling you just what their problems are with the Gay agenda. Calling in to Rush Limbaugh-type radio programs may change the mind of one person who is listening, producing one less foe and one more supporter.

Don't Expect Media Miracles Overnight: Media work is for the long haul. If you organize a press conference and no one shows up, don't give up! Reevaluate the effectiveness of your media marketing tactics and try again. Telephone reporters afterwards to explain the importance of the event they missed and tell them you hope they will cover your organization's future activities.

Appoint a Primary Media Spokesperson: On each given issue, designate a primary media spokesperson. Any one of us is capable of educating ourselves on a particular Gay and Lesbian issue and articulating our views, burdens, demands and strategies. For the specific issue at hand, designate as primary media spokesperson the group member most knowledgeable about it. Rotate the Primary Media Spokesperson Role: Presenting the diverse faces of Gay & Lesbian people and sharing the personal empowerment of media work means that the position of primary media spokesperson should be rotated for each new issue.

Be Pro-Active in Your Media Work: Approach the media. Telephone the political reporters at your TV stations and newspapers. Explain how Lesbian/Gay rights and AIDS issues get short shrift from legislators or policy makers. Explain why covering these issues is important. Tell them that their audience wants to know more on these issues. Find out who the assignment editors are, and inform them of your organization's activities. Follow Up, Follow Up, Follow Up: Media work is grunt work and requires constant follow up. Stay in regular telephone contact with reporters and editors. After a press event, call reporters and place your own spin on whatever happened. Schmoozing with media types provides leads to obtaining better coverage. It is decidedly hard work, but the future dividend is the real liberation of Gays, Lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons. Don't Worry About Lack of Experience Working with the Media-Just Jump In and Do It: You need not have a single preexisting media contact. You need never have uttered a sound bite before. Gay, Lesbian and AIDS news from Gay-positive perspectives is under reported and waiting for a news hook. Your enthusiasm can provide it!

Educate the Media: Just like society in general, many reporters think they don't know a Gay or Lesbian person or haven't thought deeply about our issues. Talk to them one-on-one. Whenever you telephone or give an interview to a reporter, emphasize your own individuality. Say, "I am a Gay cabinet maker who pays taxes and I protest the state intrusion into my right to love whomever I choose."

Offer Yourself as a Guest on Radio Call-In Shows and on TV Public Affairs Broadcasts: Many times, these outlets don't actively seek out new story ideas or new "talking heads." But, they may be very receptive to self-promoters! No one needs to elect you to serve as a community spokesperson. Without more self-promoters, our issues will continue to go unreported. And don't be afraid of the conservative radio talk-show circuit or the conservative press. Any coverage is better than no coverage.

Write Letters to the Editor and Op-Ed Pieces: These outlets are essential for raising public consciousness about the many facets of Gay liberation.

Politicize the Gay Media: Whether your local Lesbian or Gay newspaper is news- or entertainment-oriented, make sure they cover your activities. The unaffiliated Lesbian and Gay population is a powerful lobbying bloc and is the backbone for the grassroots activities of Gay & Lesbian people. Dissemination of the political priorities to Lesbians and Gays nationwide is crucial. Get Gay reporters to attend and speak at your media events. And always write a story that the Gay press can run. To get your story into the press, write it yourself.

Duties of the Primary Media Spokesperson

Way Before the Date of the Planned Action or Press Conference: The primary media spokesperson should become as knowledgeable as possible about the specific issue. Hopefully, she or he will work in combination with other Gay & Lesbian groups to:
  • (1) Ensure that the group's media list is up-to-date, and that specific outlets tailored to the subject matter of the media event are included; and
  • (2) Recruit others to participate in the media event (this can involve a separate press release to Gay periodicals, for instance).

Write a concise press release, announcing your media event shortly before the date of the Press Conference. Email, fax or mail your press release to each media outlet so that it is received 48 to 72 hours prior to your event-allow much more lead time for weeklies and small-circulation outlets-a minimum time is 1.5 times the publications' frequency. The New Mexico Rainbow publishes every other week, so three weeks lead time is recommended. Monthly magazines need as much as 2 months lead time. Call and find out when deadline is. Many publications print their deadlines.

Telephone each assignment editor 24 to 48 hours prior to your media event to (a) ensure receipt of the release and (b) personally market your story. Be aggressive. Summarize the importance of the issue in twenty words or less.

Have someone available the morning of your event to field telephone calls from assignment editors reconfirming your plans. Make sure your answering machine's outgoing message gives details of your press conference or action.

Use the A.P. Day Book: The Associated Press has local and regional "day books," which are wire service listings of political and social events for each day. Just about every print and electronic media subscribes to the day book service, so you definitely want to fax (or mail) your press release to your local "A.P. Day Book Editor." Follow up by telephoning the A.P. Day Book Editor the day before your action or press conference to ensure your action is listed. Use this in addition to your other media contacts.

Associated Press
7777 Jefferson, NE
Albuquerque, NM 87109

The Media
  • Identify key reporters, editors, producers, assignment editors, beat reporters, editorial writers, etc. in your area.
  • Make a list and update it frequently.
  • Keep a computerized database with mailing label printout capability. List should include name, phone number, fax, address, email, interest area.
  • Don't Forget:
    • Major daily newspapers (local, state, metro, lifestyle, national sections)
    • Television network affiliates (ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS)
    • Cable television programming
    • Radio news programs and interview shows
    • Gay and Lesbian press, including cable and radio
    • Campus media (university radio and newspaper)
    • "Neighborhood" mini-papers; alternative press
    • Specialty media (Black, Women, health, legal, trade unions, religious, etc.)
  • "Flak" the media; i.e., call them, fax them, visit them, meet with key reporters for one-on-one backgrounders, schmooze them, cajole them to cover your news.
  • Place spokespersons on radio and TV talk shows. Try to get "advance" articles to appear before the actual event. If it's a public event or demonstration, don't forget the newspaper calendar sections. Arrange for meetings with editorial boards of newspapers and other media. Place editorials or opinion pieces. Often these are the most read items in the newspaper.

The Press Kit
  • Press Release including who, what, where, when, and why, (the five W's) and how, background on the issue, and pithy quotes. This should be written as a complete news story that could be run as-is in a newspaper.
  • Fact Sheets on the issue, including legal/economic impact statement on issue with gee whiz numbers to establish credibility.
  • Fact Sheet on your organization and its purpose/programs
  • Background Sheet on your opposition (if any) with documentation
  • Contact names and numbers of your spokespeople
  • Press clips from previous newspaper stories, editorials
  • Statements of Support, list of endorsements from other groups or officials

Mail or hand deliver the press kits to reporters, producers, editors, assignment desks, wire service managers, "daybooks" (media calendars) for local Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), and other media sources.

Media Advisory. If you are doing a press conference or visibility event (e.g., demonstration, candlelight vigil), send a media advisory out at least one week beforehand to invite reporters. The short advisory should inform reporters and assignment editors of the time, place and purpose of the event (the Five W's).

The Press Conference
  • Schedule your press conference for around 10 or 11 am. Schedule press conferences early or midweek (Tuesday/Wednesday). Avoid Monday, Friday, or on a weekend.
  • Room should be large enough to accommodate reporters, microphones and TV cameras, as well as speakers' table. Set up speakers' table at front with rows of chairs for reporters. Leave space in back for cameras.
  • Have media sign-in table and log at front door; hand out press kits.
  • Have representatives of other supportive organizations back you up. Just make sure you stay in control of the message.

At the Action or Press Conference: March right up to reporters and start talking to them - they needn't make the first overture. When talking to a television reporter, look at the reporter, not the camera. Forget that the camera is there, difficult as that may be. With both radio and television, feel free to start over with your answer if you trip up mid-sentence or blank out. Develop a snappy sound bite. That's what they'll use on the air. The primary media spokesperson should never be the sole spokesperson. The more members who are informed and willing to speak to the media, the better.

Following the Action or Press Conference: Mail or fax a post-event press release to your mailing list, to selected Gay nationwide outlets, and the Coalition for Gay & Lesbian Rights in New Mexico to increase coverage of your action. Describe the action and reiterate the media event's message and demands. Include black & white photographs, if available. Many press stories are covered by reporters who do not attend the media event itself, but who rely on post-event contacts for their information. After the stories are aired or printed, don't hesitate to telephone the reporters with your praise, criticism or clarifications.

Exploiting the Media: Q&A's

Should we be concerned about how many Gay & Lesbian people turn out at our press conference?
Not necessarily. A one-person press conference outlining a legislative strategy can achieve credibility and widespread coverage if the issue is marketed appropriately. On the other hand, if the media event is marketed as a direct action to encircle the state capitol with hundreds of demonstrators and red ribbon, make sure you can accomplish your objective. Otherwise, change the description of the action.

Will we spoil our relationship with the media if our first media event goes awry?
An emphatic no! Did you make a mistake? So what! Learn from your mistakes. Get in the habit of holding press conferences. If a horse rears up and throws you off, climb right back on. Acknowledge to the media when things go wrong (for instance, the primary media spokesperson gets stage fright and doesn't appear). If you can't cover for the misstep, explain the problem, regroup, and try again at a not too-distant later date. If in fact a particular media outlet holds a logistical mistake against you, find other outlets who won't.

I have a friend working at a newspaper. Shouldn't we just rely on her or him for guaranteed positive coverage?
First, journalists are professionals. They should never be considered as "friends," whether they are Gay or Gay-friendly. They have a job to do and if we provide them with a news hook, media coverage of our issue should occur. Second, relying on a single source to get news coverage is the lazy person's way to go about media work. Yes, by all means, contact our friends or journalists we personally know, but also contact outlets whose reporters we don't know. That way we increase our contacts and opportunities for coverage. (Of course, depending on the issue, you may want to offer an "exclusive" on occasion to a particular journalist.) Third, there is no such thing as "guaranteed" positive coverage. Journalists sometimes pick up on side issues that are presented at our press conferences or demonstrations, and ignore our main points. Stick close to the main issue to lessen the likelihood of this happening. Finally, "positive" coverage is subjective. A seemingly sneering or negative take on our press conference or demonstration may reward us merely in the fact that our issue is covered.

How do we start a media list?
Let your fingers do the walking in your Yellow Pages under "NewsOrganizations." Call each outlet to obtain its fax number and the names of its assignment and news editors.

Our media committee needs help getting started. What do we do?
Contact media committees at The Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Rights in New Mexico, local civil-rights organizations, Gay-supportive churches and groups, or university journalism or English departments.

Web Design: Michael Drennan
Created: 4/1/97