How to Get the Media to Take Your Story Seriously

August 2012 by Christie Keith

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

Are your efforts to get media attention for your community cat or other animal welfare causes backfiring?

As a pet columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com and a blogger known to write about no-kill and shelter reform issues, Christie Keith says she's received "what may amount at this point to two tons of communications from animal advocates wanting me to write about their cause." Most of these emails, she says, are doomed to fail with almost every reporter or editor who sees them.

How can you avoid that fate? Follow these tips:

What we're getting wrong. "These emails, which the senders often dub ‘press releases,' are usually heavy on indignation, moral superiority, and emotional appeals. They are often disorganized and lack important information. They are also usually way too long, sometimes pages long, containing a vast amount of background information that just doesn't belong in a media release or story pitch.

"Most importantly, because they aren't similar to communications from other advocacy groups and non-profit organizations, they violate a reporter's or editor's comfort zone, and aren't going to be taken seriously.

"If you want to change that, change how you communicate with the media. These tips will help give you credibility with reporters and editors, and lay the groundwork for a working relationship that will pay off for the animals for years to come."

Look like an army. "Even if you are just one person, you need to appear to be an organization. If you don't have a group, see if you can work with one that already exists. If not, create your own. No, I'm not kidding; Anytown Community Cat Advocates can be just you, its president. That way you can sign your emails with your title and the name of your organization; I guarantee you'll get more respect if you do so."

Be prepared. "You need a website. Make sure it has a visible link for the media, and at that link, put a copy of your press releases, along with any position statements, documentation, photos, and off-site links you want the reporters to use if they decide to cover your story.

"You'll also need to list a media contact person, who can be you. You'll need to include your real name, as well as an email address and phone number that you check frequently and respond to immediately. Deadlines in the Internet age are often set in hours or minutes, not days; if you want your cause covered, be available to the media after you write to them."

Hone your message. "Before you sit down to write a press release, think about what angle on your story will make the reporter want to know more. Don't make the common mistake of trying to put the whole story into your release; that's what the media page on your website is for. Decide on the single most persuasive, intriguing part of your message, and focus on that."

Stay in the media comfort zone. "Reporters and editors respond best to press releases that have the same tone and language as those written by other non-profit organizations. That means you need to avoid sensational language, emotional pleas, and anything that challenges the outlet to publish your story if they care about animals. (Yes, I see that one often, usually accompanied by many exclamation points.)

"Go to the websites of mainstream advocacy groups and non-profits - the American Red Cross, the NAACP, Amnesty International - and look at their media releases. Use their format, length, and tone."

Be newsworthy. "Make sure your story sounds like news to the media. You may think what you're telling them is news, but if they don't agree, they won't write about it. Find a way to spin your story as news, and if it's not, then make some news of your own. Do a quick survey, start a petition and report on that, make some calls and get someone involved with the issue to give you some quotes that develop a new angle on the cause - be creative."

Build a relationship. "You may think your cause is so compelling, and your appeal so important, that one press release is all it will take to turn local reporters into Woodward and Bernstein and your cause into Watergate. In today's media environment, no editor will allow a reporter to spend that kind of time on an animal welfare story.

"You have to let go of that fantasy, and focus on relationship building with local media. You want them to not only take this one story seriously, but take you seriously. You want to become a trusted source for them, the reliable insider they turn to for background and comments for all their animal welfare stories.

"If they see you as the animal welfare equivalent of a tree-hugger, you'll be forever relegated to the 'crazy cat lady' files, and not get taken seriously."

Put yourself in their shoes, instead of expecting them to put themselves in yours. "Working with the media is not about being right, and certainly not about being self-righteous. It's about being effective.

"As animal advocates, we need to step down off our mountain of purity and realize that we're competing with organizations, citizens' groups, government agencies, and other causes that have professional PR departments and that play by the accepted rules of media outreach.

"We are also competing with all the other stories reporters are expected to cover, and with pressing demands to focus on stories that draw eyeballs and please sponsors. You must be competitive and skillful in your media outreach, or you won't get anywhere - no matter how good your cause."

Christie Keith

Christie is a journalist, blogger, and columnist who has been writing about animals and animal issues since 1991. She is a contributing editor to the nationally syndicated Pet Connection, a former editor at Bark Magazine, and, until a recent move to Michigan, the pet columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com.

Christie is also a communications and social media consultant for a number of animal welfare and veterinary clients, including "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, The Shelter Pet Project, and Maddie's Fund®. She is a regular speaker on communications and the no-kill movement at animal welfare, no-kill, and pet writer conferences, and is a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance.

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