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Pursuing The Press

Tips on How to Use the Media Effectively Featured at the U.S. News and World Reports U.S. News Online. This document holds the 20/20 Vision Education Fund Pursuing the Press series for grassroots activists.

20/20 Vision may be contacted at: 1828 Jefferson Place, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, phone (202) 833-2020, or (800) 669-1782 or e-mail at

Letters to the editor are impossible to overuse. We clip them and circulate them through the office like gossip sheets of what's going on. The press represents an overall buzz in the community. -Congressional Aide

Letters to the editor are an easy way for you to voice your opinion to your policy makers, and to educate people in your community about the issues 20/20 Vision addresses. You can use letters to correct or interpret facts in response to an inaccurate or biased article which has appeared, to explain the connection between a news item and 20/20 Visions priority issues, or to praise or criticise a recent article or editorial. Whatever your purpose, your letter will reach many people in your community without exception, the letters section is one of the most highly read segments of newspapers (and magazines don't forget magazines!).

Writing a letter to the editor is not much different from the letters you write each month as a 20/20 Vision subscriber. The following tips will help you fine tune your letter writing skills, and will increase your chances of getting published.

Steps to Success

Know Your Papers Policy

Find out the newspapers (or magazines) policy for printing letters. Some have requirements for length of letters, some want letters to be typewritten, and almost all require that you include your name, address and phone number. (Of course your address and phone number would never be printed most publications will want to call you before they print your letter to confirm that you really did write the letter and that you want to have it published.)

If the paper doesn't publish their letters requirements next to the letters they print, don't be afraid to call. Ask to whom you should address your letter, if they have any length restrictions, and in what format they would like the letter.

Be Timely

Responding to a recent article, editorial or op-ed is one of the best ways to increase your chances of getting published.(Be sure to mention the name of the article and the date it was written in the beginning of your letter.) You can also capitalise on recent news, events, or anniversaries. For example, 20/20 Vision subscribers can use the anniversary of Earth Day to write about the importance of environmental regulations. Or, after a vote on the military budget, 20/20 Vision subscribers can write to inform citizens how their member of Congress voted.

Keep it Simple

20/20 Vision subscribers know how to write letters to policy makers that are concise, informative and personal at the same time. The same should be true with letters to the editor. Keep your points short and clear, stick to one subject, and as a general rule, try to keep your letters to under three to four paragraphs in length. Make your first sentence short, compelling and catchy. Don't be afraid to be direct, engaging, and even controversial.

Get Personal

Newspapers, at their core, are community entities. Editors will be much more likely to publish a letter, and the letter will have much more impact, if it demonstrates local relevance.

Use local statistics. For example, a letter focussing on a vote on the Clean Water Act should point out how many rivers and lakes are unsafe for swimming in your community or state. Use personal stories. For example, if you or someone in your family has become ill because of contaminated drinking water, you should talk about your experience in a letter to the editor addressing the Safe Drinking Water Act. Use names. As congressional aides have repeatedly told us, if a letter to the editor mentions a Representative or Senators name, they will see it. They care about how they are being perceived in the district, and they will pay attention to a letter which asks them to cosponsor legislation, or to take a specific action in Congress. You should also urge your readers to support your position and to let their elected officials know their views. Use your credentials. If you have expertise in the area you are writing about, say it! Increase 20/20 Visions Name Recognition Letters to the editor are an excellent opportunity to let more people know about 20/20 Vision. As a general rule, you should sign your letter to the editor with your affiliation to 20/20 Vision (i.e., subscriber, Core Group member, Board member) if the letter is the only one (or one of a few) being sent. On the other hand, if you and many other 20/20 Vision subscribers are writing letters to the editor as part of a targeted campaign, you should not include your affiliation with 20/20 Vision. Publications will not print letters which they think are part of a manufactured campaign. In the cases when you are the only one writing to the editor, you may also want to work 20/20 Visions name into the text of your letter. For example, in a letter about the Comprehensive Test Ban you could say that 20/20 Vision, a national organisation of citizen advocates, has made adopting a CTB one of its top priorities for this year.

Don't Forget the Follow-up

Don't be discouraged if your letter is not printed. Keep trying. You can even submit a revised letter with a different angle on the issue at a later date. And if your letter is published be sure to send it to your member of Congress and to the 20/20 Vision national office! While your Representative or Senator will probably have clipped your letter, it carries more weight if it comes from you with a personal note attached. 20/20 Vision will make sure other members of your congressional delegation see it, as well as other organisation's, individuals, and decision makers.

Think Strategically

You should think about letters to the editor as a regular strategic campaign tool to increase the effectiveness of your monthly 20/20 Vision actions. Try to target several different papers in your district at the same time and encourage people to explore different angles on the same issue.

It is especially good if the letters are geographically spread and the issue is repeated in a few areas. It creates a ripple effect. It shows that the issue has reached far into the congressional district which, in turn, gets noticed by the policy maker. - Congressional Aide

Writing and Publishing an Op-Ed

Airing the plethora of viewpoints on a topic is essential to informed, thoughtful decision making. An informed citizen is the bedrock of our democracy and the guardian of our rights. -Peter Kent, editorial page editor, Atlanta Journal Op-eds, opinion/editorials, are articles which appear opposite the editorial page of local, state and national newspapers. They are written by local citizens, experts, leaders of organisations people like you. And they are an extremely powerful and cost-effective way for 20/20 Vision Core Groups and subscribers to both educate a large number of people about our issues, and to influence policymakers.

Steps to Success

Timing is Everything

Timing is the most important factor in deciding to submit an op-ed. Is Congress or the state legislature about to cast a controversial vote? Is there an appropriate holiday or anniversary? Can you tie the op-ed to the release of a new report, a recent article, a popular movie, or event in your community?

The Elements of Style

Writing, editing and distributing an op-ed is easier than you think. Keep your text to between 500 and 800 words (about 3 pages double-spaced). Stay focussed on one issue. Think creatively and try to be original. (Tip: read op-eds before starting so you see how they are styled.) Highlight the issues relevance. Begin with a short vignette illustrating how the issue affects an individual or group of people to drive home why the newspapers readers need to know. Use local statistics. For example, in an op-ed focussing on the Clean Water Act, you should mention the number of lakes, rivers or streams in your state which are unsafe for swimming. Op-eds should, by their biased approach, provoke discussion, controversy and response. If you are trying to get your member of congress to cosponsor a particular piece of legislation, say so. Mentioning the members name guarantees s/he sees it. In addition, op-eds should be informative and provide practical solutions for the problem you have presented. Finally, through an op-ed you can spread the word about 20/20 Vision. Try to incorporate the name and a brief sentence about 20/20 in the text of your op-ed. For example, in an op-ed about fuel efficiency you could say that grassroots organisation's such as 20/20 Vision a national advocacy organisation which encourages citizens to spend 20 minutes each month to protect the environment and promote peace have made raising CAF standards for automobiles a priority this year.

Its the Messenger and the Message

Finding the best author, or signer, of the op-ed is also critical in achieving the publication of the article in addition to maximising its impact. Within your Core Groups you have numerous people with different expertise and experience. Choose from among yourselves, or ask a local doctor, business executive, local elected official to sign the op-ed anyone who may be perceived as having an interesting perspective on the issues. For example, having someone who is a retired military official sign an op-ed on the importance of eliminating funding for the CVN-76 nuclear aircraft carrier would be a more effective way of getting the readers to think about the issue than an article written by a known peace activist.

The Basic Questions

How do I format an op-ed?

Double space your text. Provide a suggested title, the authors name and identification. Make sure to mention the authors connection to 20/20 Vision: subscriber, Core Group member, Board member, etc. You may want to include a short biographical paragraph about the author, including residence and experience relevant to the topic. You can include a short cover letter, highlighting the most important aspects of the op-ed, but it is not required.

When should I send the op-ed?

You will need to allow some time for the media to review and edit the piece, usually about one to two weeks. You will also want to make sure that the ideas in the op-ed have time to resonate with policymakers once the piece is published just enough time for you to clip the article and send it with a letter to your local politicians, U.S. Representative, Senator, Administration Official or Corporate CEO. Where do I send my op-ed?

Identify the largest newspaper in your state or area, for maximum exposure. Call the paper first to ask for the name of the op-ed page editor, or if it is a local paper with a circulation of less than 40,000, you may have to send it to the editorial page editor, or the chief editor. Get the correct spelling and address and send it off. How should I follow-up? After 3-10 days, you should call the editor and ask if your op-ed is under consideration. Think of your follow-up call as an opportunity to educate the editor about the issue even if your op-ed is not published. If your rapport is good, suggest a meeting, or ask if there is a reporter who should get a copy as background on the issue. The result could be a relationship with the editor, which will prove helpful for the future.

What can I do with the op-ed after it is published?

Make sure to clip your published op-ed, make a copy of it, including the name of the paper and the date it was published, and send it to the policymaker you want to influence as soon as possible. Keep copies to use for your Core Groups promotion efforts, and be sure to send a copy to the 20/20 Vision national office. Adapted from Op-Eds: A Cost-Effective Strategy for Advocacy, by Denice Zeck and Edmund Rennolds. This guide is part of the series, Strategic Communication for Nonprofits published by the Benton Foundation and the Centre for Strategic Communications. For more information on the series contact the Benton Foundation, 1634 I Street, NW, 12th Floor, Washington, D.C., 20006, (202) 638-5770.

Taking Action to the Airwaves

Talk radio is the town meeting of our time. It is potentially the most democratic and interactive medium we have. - Mark Sommer, Journalist, Director, Mainstream Media Project According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, Americans average about three hours of radio listening per day. Two out of three Americans are listening to the radio during prime time, and radio is the first morning news source for most people. Nearly half of all American adults now listen to talk radio for at least an hour a week and many name it as their principal source of political information ( Pew Centre for Civic Journalism).

Conservatives have long recognised radio as a powerful method of reaching Americans, and have developed targeted, strategic efforts to market their messages within this medium. For example, 20 million Americans listen to conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh daily (World Press Review, June 1995).

Characteristically, talk radio as a news or research source is not as factual or informative as print media, but there is no better way for you to support particular policies, refute common fallacies, advance overall ideas, or, most importantly, educate and inspire citizens to take action.

Research has shown that the listening audience for this medium is remarkably nonideological, and in fact, tune in just to hear a diversity of opinion. Those who typically call in are ten times more likely to claim an (usually conservative) ideological identity. It is for this reason that your voices and new ideas are of such critical importance. Even more important, however, is the fact that every radio phone call increases the effectiveness of 20/20 Vision Core Groups and subscribers letters and phone calls to policy makers.

Citizen activists can get involved in talk radio by calling in to talk programs, or appearing as guests. The beginners tips below are designed specifically for call-ins, but will make any foray into talk radio as easy and as effective as your letters to policy makers.

What is this Talk Radio Phenomenon?

Since 1990, the number of stations that devote the bulk of their day to talk has almost tripled, to 1,130 from 405, (Business Week, May 22, 1995).

Defining radio is no simple task. Most stations describe themselves as a particular format such as classical, oldies, rock, news, sports, Christian, talk or other. Even with these definitions, just one station can have as many as 20 different programs at different times of the day and week that could run the gamut of these types. FM radio, on average, attracts more listeners. Stations on the FM band are usually more mass-market, and formats tend toward music due to the stereo sound quality capabilities of the band. AM radio usually specialises more, and the majority of the talk, all-news, all-sports and evangelical stations are found here. The much talked about talk radio phenomenon is mostly occurring on the AM dial. Some FM and AM stations are public, part of the federally-sponsored Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and rely upon government funding and listener donations for a substantial portion of operating costs. Commercial stations typically depend on advertising revenue for operating costs. The different programs on a station are either nationally produced and syndicated by a radio network (similar in theory to a television network, but available on a show-by-show, paid basis) or produced locally. In 1987, the Reagan Administration rescinded the fairness doctrine for radio and television broadcasters. In other words, this type of media is under no legal obligation to balance a political issue. When participating in talk radio, you will most frequently be working with talk programs on the AM dial that utilise guest speakers, and question and answer sessions. You will ideally be calling locally produced programs or national programs syndicated to your local stations.

Study the Subject

Knowing the ownership and format of the stations you listen to helps you target your actions to them for maximum effectiveness. Michael Harrison, editor and president of Talkers, the leading industry publication states, Know your show, know your host, know your station. Not understanding where the listeners are coming from could actually hurt your cause. Keep in mind, you don't have to call into Rush Limbaugh your first time or any time. Friendly and neutral forums need to hear from listeners who agree in order to prove to station managers and sponsors that they are wanted programs. Mobilising call-ins to guests sympathetic to our causes is one important way to build support for our efforts. Listen to as many programs as you can, on a number of your area stations. Listen to the types of callers that make it onto the air. Note to yourself which callers grab your ear, and remember their positive qualities. Keep in mind that local stations and programs will be easier to contact than large market or nationally syndicated programs like Larry King and Rush Limbaugh, which have a person who screens calls for the host, in addition to a regular busy signal. When you think you have decided on a station and particular show to target, listen at least three times in order to determine format, style, political leaning. Pay attention to announcements of upcoming guests that will address your priority issues.

In listening to your target, note any patterns the host seems to have. Listen for the length of the initial presentation from the guest, the types of statements and questions that the host views as good lead-ins for a caller.

Define Your Goal

If you concentrate on your goal the entire time you are on the phone, your radio call-in will be much more effective.

You probably only have two minutes for your call. Jot down a quick cheat sheet with your most important fact or sound bite right at the top to remind you. Any call could focus on or include, Your listeners may want to hear about 20/20 Vision, an advocacy organisation that makes it easy for citizens to have input on policies that shape the future of our world.

Some examples of calls follow:

Encourage Participation in our Democracy

A guest is talking about the findings of a recent public opinion poll on citizen satisfaction with government. You call to relate your experiences writing to Congress on a regular basis, encourage all citizens to communicate with their policy makers and give the Congressional Switchboard phone number (202) 225-3121.

Inspire Action on an Upcoming Vote

The guest is talking about the budget. You call to educate listeners about the bloated military budget and to inform them that a vote is upcoming on specific weapons systems that are unnecessary and could be eliminated to save taxpayers money.

Educate Citizens or Clarify Popular Fallacies

The guest is discussing federal regulations and the burden they impose on business and citizens. You call to point out a good news regulation, The Clean Water Act, and how it, like many other important protections for our health, is threatened by most proposed regulatory reforms. Then ask the listeners to take action by calling or writing to their Representative or Senator to ask them to reconsider their stance on regulation.

Pick Up the Phone

Once you have decided that you have something to say, and you pick up the phone, be prepared for some potential delays. You may get through the first time to a small local radio station, but in most markets, and especially on nationally syndicated shows, be prepared to be kept on hold, or to reach a busy signal numerous times. Especially with the larger shows, you may want to begin calling 10-15 minutes prior to airtime in order to get through, but whatever happens, don't give up!

When you get through, you may be questioned about what you are going to say. Offer your main point and identify yourself as a concerned citizen. Don't mention your 20/20 Vision affiliation; save it for your closing point on the air.

With a particularly conservative host, try to agree at least nominally with a recent point when you are being questioned about what you are going to say. The listening audience will also be more receptive to ideas more directly related to the hosts since they tune in for that hosts program.

Although some disagreement will gain the hosts attention. Crafting your message in populist terms, keeping in mind compassion, common sense and understanding, will help your message be well-received.

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