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Independent Living in the News: Practical Tools for Engaging the Media

Community education and outreach most always includes a media component.

Successful, effective communications for a small, non-profit, community based organization is achievable. However, organizations are often too busy or stretched-too-thin to think about communications in its fullest context. The most common approach is to “wing it.” Issue a press release here and there, and hope our topic is engaging enough for the media to pick up our story. This runs the risk of inconsistent messaging, missed opportunities to deliver the right message to the right audience, or worse, communicating something that shouldn’t have been communicated in the first place.

Successful Media Takes Planning Too

The key to effective communications is planning. A communications plan needn’t be complicated or lengthy. Instead, it’s a roadmap or reference guide to use when you need it. A communications plan ensures a thoughtful, consistent message that you can target to specific audiences. Ultimately, most people will form opinions and learn about your organization through information communicated to them – so a communications plan is more than just a handy document. It’s as vital to your organization as good financial recordkeeping or employee policies.

An effective communications plan begins with addressing some basic questions, many of which have been addressed in the development of your community education planning process.

What are our defined goals?
The first step is to identify the most important messages you want to communicate for your audiences. What are your key talking points/facts about your organization? To whom should they be communicated? How often?

Who is our audience?
It sounds simple, but most communications plans consider different audiences. For example, one audience might be the general public, another might be consumers, and a third could be internal (such as employees and volunteers). Identifying your audience is key to tailoring the appropriate message.

How do we get there?
Press release, media advisory, news conference, Tweet, or e-blast? There are numerous tools available in the toolbox today for communicating your message. Each has pros and cons. An effective communication plan should help you choose the right tool for the situation and for the message you’re communicating.

How did we do?
Taking some time to self-assess and rate the effectiveness of communications efforts will help you identify strengths/weaknesses and enhance your communications strategy. A good communications plan is flexible and helps you adapt to future changes, new situations, and changes in your message and audiences.

What Makes Something Newsworthy

News has been defined as “what’s interesting and what affects people.” The most compelling news stories are both interesting and affect a great many people. While negative stories, such as layoffs, often dominate the front page, it’s important to understand that reporters and editors are also looking for stories that are upbeat and positive – stories that will both inform their readers and viewers and provide a “feel good” moment too. Stories can be about people or things that are interesting, inspiring, out of the ordinary, or funny.

Understanding what may be newsworthy for you begins with knowing your organization. Think about the importance of independent living to your consumers: What makes it important? How does independent living, your organization, your staff, or you - make a difference in peoples’ lives? What makes advocates of independent living unique? How are peoples’ lives positively impacted by what you do and the services you provide?

Identifying potential stories begins with looking at those things around you – literally the people and things you see every day – and then thinking about what makes them important, valued, unique, and/or helpful to people. Once you begin asking these basic questions about your day and the people and situations you encounter, what’s important, valued, and unique will begin to stand out. These things potentially are news.

People benefit from independent living every day. Independent living is a terrific source of potential stories because it’s about helping people live better lives. That’s a natural story.

News Organizations are People Too

Most journalists are motivated by a deep sense of compassion and a desire to help others. It’s one of the primary reasons people enter the profession. Thus, you will find that in most situations, journalists want to be helpful and are coming to you with a genuine desire to learn more about you, your organization, and what you do.

Of course, journalists are human too, and sometimes they can be difficult to deal with. Most journalists are persistent in trying to reach people or gather information; do not be surprised to receive multiple emails or phone calls in a short time, particularly if the journalist is working under a tight deadline (as is often the case).

There is no secret or magic formula to developing a positive relationship with the media. That is, as in most situations in life, being responsive and sincere will go a long way. There is no substitute for basic professionalism and courtesy, no matter the situation.

A good start is a personal introduction. Don’t hesitate to call and introduce yourself, just to say hello (and of course, share your contact information), or better yet, arrange to meet for coffee so that you can meet face-to-face. A short meeting over coffee to get acquainted with a reporter and talk briefly about your organization and yourself is a great way to begin building a solid professional relationship.

Perhaps the most important thing - particularly with those journalists with whom you expect to work with in the future - is cultivating trust. On your part, this requires an investment of time, and an effort to be friendly, outgoing, and truthful.

Journalists are bound by a deeply ingrained code of ethics and the norms of the profession prize truth and factual accuracy above all. A journalist who senses someone is being untruthful with them will often resort to asking more aggressive questions and dogged persistence in covering a story. Attempting to mislead a journalist will lead the journalist to question the veracity of virtually anything the person says; the end result is usually phone calls and emails don’t get returned, or worse, a story drawing attention to the perceived dishonesty. For certain, the trust is gone and any pretenses of a productive and cooperative working relationship disappear overnight. In short, it’s not worth the risk. If you are trying to handle a story that portrays your organization in a negative light, be completely honest, but keep comments to a minimum and avoid sharing or commenting on more than is absolutely necessary.

Journalists frequently work under tight deadlines – being considerate of deadlines can really pay off. If you get a call from a reporter and you can’t talk right now, ask what their deadline is. Because many people journalists deal with do not consider the deadline pressures journalists contend with everyday, they will appreciate and remember this small gesture of consideration on your part.

And of course, always feel free to call or email your journalist contacts when you have news to share!

Getting the Attention We Deserve – Hello...Is Anyone Out There?

Independent Living Centers face a critical task as part of their ongoing mission: how to raise sustained public awareness of their cause and, by extension, advocate for changes that help increase the independence of people with disabilities. In general, one primary difference between journalism and good, efficient public relations is utilization of communications techniques geared toward the goal of advocating for a cause.

Cultivating Media Hits and Contacts

Independent Living Centers need to build relationships and cultivate media contacts to effectively tell their story. Here are successful strategies for establishing relationships with news staff, pitching your story ideas, using social media to your advantage, working with local officials to get media coverage
you deserve, and how to talk to reporters.

Establishing relationships with news staf - city desk editors/reporters
The managing editor or news editor directs the newsroom. Under him/her is the city editor who is responsible for the news coverage of the city and environs. The city editor manages the reporters who cover the community.

  • Regularly read the newspapers/online publications that cover the news for your locality and, if possible, competitive sources as well.   Citing a story from a competitive publication can, at times, be a useful strategy when pitching story ideas to your local editor.
  • Note the frequency of and type of newspaper or online source - daily, weekly, monthly/special sections or supplements - and the type of news coverage.  Monthly newspapers typically do more in-depth and feature news.
  • Become familiar with bylines - reporters assigned to a story - when you read. (Oftentimes certain reporters cover specific beats, or news sources, as well as general assignment stories.)  Note the reporters whose beat relates, in any way, to disability issues - health, political activism, human interest, legislative, etc.  Take a few minutes to email, VM or Tweet these reporters to acknowledge their “good work/writing/reporting” on whatever issue they are reporting, while BRIEFLY making a connection to a disability-related topic. Always keep correspondence brief and the disability-related topic should be newsworthy.   Send a press release to the city desk/news editor and follow up with a phone call.  When speaking with news editors, be succinct and identify yourself as an expert or source.
  • When a news item appears in another publication that relates to issues you want covered, send the clip with a BRIEF note.  Copy reporters who cover similar beats.

Pitching story ideas
Example: Your local paper runs a series on the affordable housing crises in your county and how certain municipalities are changing their zoning regulations to broaden urban renewal construction.  

  • Connect this issue to accessible and affordable housing for people with disabilities and contact the reporter who wrote the series and the paper’s city desk. Contact the planning departments of those municipalities cited in the series that are creating incentives for affordable housing and get them to make a statement about addressing the housing need for PWD in their communities.  Include this information in your pitch.
  • Request a meeting with your local newspaper’s editorial board to present your agency’s upcoming legislative agenda and include specific story pitches: inaccessible polling places in your county disenfranchise thousands of voters with disabilities; the expiration of Mitchell Lama housing in certain communities (name them) will displace -- number of PWD - connect this to the chronic affordable housing shortage in your county; your ILC’s Nursing Home Outreach Program has identified -- number of young adults with disabilities in area institutions who say they are “trapped against their will.”
  • Cite stories that have been published in other newspapers to highlight trends in reporting that are favorable to your issues.
  • Create a file of timely tear sheets from all the news publications (local, regional and national) you read for use in pitching story leads to editors and reporters.   

Using social media

  • Social media are web-based technologies and are essential tools to share and/or exchange your ILC’s written and visual files and videos. 

Some suggestions for getting started

  • Create a Facebook page for your ILC and post regularly re: workshops and community events of relevance to your consumers and community partners.
  • Outreach to your consumers who are active social media users and arrange to link your information to their networks for enhanced exposure.
  • Create a YouTube channel for your ILC and use it to for PR to post short videos of events, interviews, and position statements re: current issues in your community that impact PWD.  Send links to your media contacts.
  • Open a Twitter account and encourage staff to use it to post current information regarding projects and events they are involved with.
  • Create a blog on your ILC’s website; be provocative and engaging to solicit feedback and exchange from users and viewers.
  • Social media information needs to be current and immediate and posts should be executed daily, if not weekly.

Working with local officials to get media coverage

  • Ask Assembly and Senate members you are familiar with if they would be willing to assist you in getting news coverage to highlight certain issues of importance (polling place access, your ILC’s Transition Program, building more affordable housing in your community, etc.).  
  • You can arrange a press conference with them; invite them to a seminar or celebration event sponsored by your ILC; invite them to do a photo session with a student, and his/her parent, who has benefited from transition services offered at your ILC; present them with an award for their leadership in supporting disability legislation.
  • Alert your media sources.  Send news releases of all activities and copy pertinent community activists/supporters, etc.

Strategies for talking with reporters - make sure they get it right

Reporters tend to size up people they interview rather quickly and typically direct the course of the interview by asking specific questions in rapid succession.  Some reporters have a preconceived idea of the story they will be writing and guide their interviewees accordingly with a specific line of questioning.

  • Try to set the tone up front with a reporter; give him or her lead for the issue they came to you to cover.  If you feel a reporter is leading you or moving away from the issue at hand, ask for a recap to ensure that they understand the information you want to convey.
  • If you feel the interview did not go well or that the reporter may misrepresent you or the issue in their story, ask if you can see the story before it goes to print. (Most reporters will not do this.  Only press the point if you feel the story will do more harm than good.)
  • Refer the reporter to other stories and sources of information that will assist them in understanding the issue.  Refer them to sources you have personally cultivated.
  • Always correct reporters who use unfavorable words or concepts (e.g., “handicapped,” “confined” to a wheelchair, “suffer” with a disability, etc).   Use this opportunity to affirm our IL objectives - the independent living philosophy, recovery/empowerment model re: persons with mental illness, and so forth.