Five Good Ideas

Telling Your Story to the Media

Published on 22/06/2005

Over the last year I have had an opportunity, partly triggered by being out of the media for awhile, by teaching journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, by reading and by working with a number of voluntary organizations and nonprofits, to reflect on the state of the media and on a particular approach to publicity and communications which I call a “public affairs” approach.

This approach to communications is one in which you publicize and promote your ideas and thereby your brand, your organization and your values in an indirect way. You go at it at an angle; by talking about ideas and by becoming a participant in public discourse through the media. You become a “talking head” or an op-ed writer – someone who plays a part in how journalism is practiced today.

From a communications point of view this is a strategy which allows you to benefit from what is called ‘the third party effect’, which means that rather than buying an ad on television, you, your organization and your point of view are essentially endorsed by a third party, a journalistic vehicle – a newspaper or a television or radio program.

This strategy translates into credibility. That’s why an op-ed is worth more than a paid ad in a newspaper; a guest appearance on a good program is worth more than an ad on television. The journalistic organization you contribute to positions you as credible and representing a legitimate point of view that the public should know about. You become a participant in public discourse.

Before I present my five good ideas, I would like to make three broad observations.

First, now more than ever, given the state of journalism in combination with factors in the broader society, there is an opportunity for a public affairs approach to communications and marketing.

The media environment has changed. At one time there was Nightline with Ted Koppel in the U.S. and The Journal with Barbara Frum in Canada, along with Canada AM in the non-prime time morning slot. Now, there are probably twenty times that number of interview format programs on television…all fighting for guests; all looking for ‘talking heads’.

A turning point was the creation CNN 25 years ago in June 1980. It was the first of the all news channels; there are now about 70 around the world. What CNN did was no less than change the nature of news. Instead of the traditional definition of news, that is, a report of an event, news became what had been called in journalistic jargon, current affairs or public affairs, an analysis of news or commentary about news.

Because the all news channels could not really deliver on the promise of real news for 24 hours a day, they turned to the interview format. The ‘talking head’ was born. It was cheaper to produce and filled a lot of airtime. It also worked with audiences; they liked this kind of programming. The ‘talking head’, previously limited to the domain of current affairs, became a mainstay of the news services and the distinction between news and current affairs largely disappeared. As an aside, it is worth noting that traditionally at CBC and the BBC the current affairs programming was, at least internally, recognized as the ‘political’ end of information programming. Current affairs strayed from news values by allowing for point-of-view and opinion and debate. Presented in a fair and balanced manner, it was, nonetheless, always handled with care. You can see how this blurring of news and current affairs may be at least a partial explanation for the loss in credibility experienced by news organizations in recent years.

The expansion of ‘talking heads’ created a great opportunity for people in think tanks, universities, professional organizations and non-profit organizations. The media began calling on them to appear on TV, radio and in print to present their views.

There was also a response by print journalism to these changes in broadcasting. Newspapers and magazines introduced more commentary and op-ed space, as well as more columnists and in some cases, expanded Letters to the Editor space. Opinion and debate flourished.

Along with the proliferation of talking heads and commentary journalism there has been another development that creates opportunities for nonprofit organizations to engage in public discourse. Corporate concentration in broadcasting and in newspapers has resulted in a new pressure for newsrooms to increase profits. Traditionally, in television, the newscast was not seen as a profit center but rather more of a public service. Increasingly news executives have come under pressure to make money. To do so they have cut costs on the editorial side both in the public and the private sector. This spring the BBC has embarked on a round of cutting aimed at substantially reducing staff. Last year, shortly after winning five Pulitzer prizes the Los Angeles Times cut 60 newsroom positions. Cuts at the CBC come in waves. The good news in all of this is that once again it creates an opening for citizens groups and people with ideas and knowledge to “fill the space”.

Second, communicating ideas is no longer a frill or an “add on” to your core business. In an information overloaded age where, unfortunately, perception is reality, communication is core to your business.

Changes in the media have taken place along with a social change in the larger society. Over the last decade or more there has been a demand for more openness about how powerful institutions work; for what is called ‘transparency’; for input from citizens. There has been, to use a series of clichĂ©s, “a rejection of ‘men in suits’ behind closed doors making decisions”; a rejection of rule by elites.

We saw this during the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accord era in Canada. Arguably we have just seen this trend play out again in France and in Holland with the defeats of the referenda on the European Union constitution. So, for a variety of reasons, I think that the opportunity to use the media to put forward your views and participate in public discourse has never been greater.

And, thirdly, the conservative side of the social spectrum has used a public affairs approach to communications more successfully than the progressive side.

In the United States, the big Washington-based foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute began to appear regularly on television and in the op-ed pages in the late eighties. In Canada, The Business Council on National Issues and the Fraser Institute tended to dominate the scene. The Fraser Institute, which began in the early eighties in Vancouver, has grown to be the dominant Canadian ‘think-tank’ in the country.

As a number of recent articles have argued, the conservative movement recognized that it had to fight a battle of ideas while the more liberal institutions seemed media shy. Some say they were reluctant to politicize things and they did not engage in public discourse as effectively as the conservative side.

Lewis Lapham of Harper’s magazine wrote a provocative piece about this, called Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, A Brief History (September 2004).

Robert Kennedy Jr. also wrote a piece in the May 2005 issue of Vanity Fair called The Disinformation Society in which he argues that the Bush re-election can be traced to the American people being misinformed by news media that presented “propaganda disseminated by the right wing machine”.

A recent article, and in my view the best of these, by Andrew Rich in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Spring 2005) argues that the right wing foundations and think-tanks have won the ‘war of ideas’ in the US not because they have more money than the liberal organizations, but because they spend it differently by spending more on communicating and marketing their ideas. The conservative movement recognized that they had to aggressively promote their ideas to politicians, journalists and the general public. To quote Rich: “Conservatives have found ways to package and market their ideas in more compelling ways, and their money is providing more bang for the buck”.

Rob Stein, a source for the Lapham piece, and a former Clinton official now with the Democracy Alliance says, “The right has done a marvelous job. They are strategic, coordinated, disciplined and well financed. And they’re well within their rights in a democracy to have done what they have done.”

Here in Canada the socially liberal voice has not engaged in public discourse through the media as effectively as the conservative voice. When journalists are looking for conservative ‘talkers’ they can always contact the Fraser Institute, the Business Council on National Issues, the Federation of Independent Business or the National Citizens Coalition. The NCC is a successful conservative think-tank where Stephen Harper worked before becoming the leader of the Conservative Party. When a journalist wants a more economically liberal view they can call the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. This organization is not a household name in Canada except, perhaps in British Columbia where Seth Klein, their director, gets a lot of air time.

Who else? There are others from the socially progressive side of the debate who you do see and hear and read in the media – Elizabeth May from the environmental movement and the author Linda McQuaig – but the conservative side seems to be more organized. A new conservative think-tank is now being created, The Institute for Canadian Values with Mike Harris, Preston Manning and others.

So, what is my point?

Well, I am suggesting that the people and organizations engaged in the fight for social justice should join the fray. They should learn to promote their ideas and their values.
They should learn how to engage in public discourse through the media, to reach out beyond their own communities of interest, to talk to people who don’t yet agree with them, to learn to debate, to write and to use the media for the democratic purposes it was meant to serve.

Last December Bill Moyers, one of the great American liberal journalists, resigned from PBS – an institution under attack in the U.S. right now. Moyers said two important things.
He called the decline in American journalism ‘the biggest story of our time’ and he said “the quality of journalism and the quality of democracy are inextricably joined”.

I have no illusions about how the media is viewed by Canadians. One third of Canadians believe that “news reports are often inaccurate” and two-thirds think that “news is not often fair and balanced”. I am sure that this lack of confidence is reflected in the way social service organizations view the media. But I believe you can work with the media and you can build public support for your ideas through the media. The study I was just quoting from – the Canadian Media Research Consortium study, Examining Credibility in Canadian Journalism: A National Study of Public Attitudes about News, (http://cmrcccrm.ca/english/index.html) also concluded that “48% of Canadians believe the news media help society solve problems”. Nonprofit organizations need to be a part of that.

Here are five ways that your organization can become more effective in the media:

1. Invest in content; communicate ideas and study the issues in order to develop expertise.
People who work for not for profits and social service organizations know more than they think they do. They are experts and they’re worth hearing from. Everything you do has a policy issue behind it. One of the most successful US foundation directors, a funder of US conservative think tanks for over thirty years, says that one of their secrets has been their interest in abstract ideas. A typical conference they sponsored examined the legacy of Rousseau. The director says “the ideas have to be tended to; only after that can you tend to the policies.”

2. Train and practice the skills needed to become a talking head; be comfortable debating.
Very often people tell me that they did an interview on TV or radio and they weren’t very good. And often they weren’t. The main reason is that being good on the air is a lot like being good at most things; you have to practice. That means taking the time to think through your messages, research and draft frequently asked questions and rehearse. It takes work to get at the ideas behind the activities, to get at the content that makes your subject interesting and to learn to explain things that you take for granted.

3. Learn how the media works and how you fit into how they do their jobs.

This means following the news: reading and watching and listening. It means learning to think in story ideas. Every day journalists come to work looking for story ideas, for ‘angles’ on events and for guests to book on their programs. They want people who have a thesis; who have a ‘take’ or an ‘angle’ on an event or an issue. And they want new faces, they want what we call ‘diverse’ faces.

4. Jump on opportunities by taking advantage of the news cycle.
One of the most common missed opportunities is the failure to jump on news. There are opportune times in the news cycle for you to get your views and values out. For example, take the recent Supreme Court decision on private health insurance in Quebec. That was an opportunity. Who were the talkers who dominated? It was my impression that the discussion was dominated by the view that we need a parallel private health system and it was often well argued. I didn’t hear, see or read a really compelling solution offered from the pure public health point of view. Maybe I missed it. I am suggesting that your organization invest in monitoring the news of the day in order to flag opportunities. Think about creating a “quick response team”; a system that enables you to drop what you are doing and participate in public discourse when the opportunity arises. News happens at inconvenient times. You need someone in your organization – the person can rotate – whose job it is to flag opportunities.

5. Collaborate with each other in order to stretch resources and assets.
I appreciate the fact that most nonprofits are too small to spend the kind of resources I am talking about on this public affairs approach to communication. But if a group of anti-poverty organizations pooled their talent and efforts in a disciplined and systematic way it could happen. There has been some discussion of nonprofit organizations collaborating to form a newswire service where story ideas would be created to submit to national and local newspapers. Organizations could take turns monitoring for the quick response team. Two or three people could become experts about a particular issue and be prepared to take the lead when that issue is in the news. It will take effort. Start small. Pick a topic that makes news frequently, e.g. refugee and immigration policy. In the wake of 9/11 this topic is in the news in various forms nearly every week. Ultimately, you have to win the war of ideas; you have to explain and defend and bring people onboard or someone else will.

Good Resources on Telling your story to the media

Andrew Rich, War of Ideas, Why mainstream and liberal foundations and the think tanks they support are losing in the war of ideas in American politics in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2005.

Lewis, H. Lapham, Tentacles of Rage, The Republican propaganda mill, a brief history in Harper’s Magazine, September 2004.

Peter Desbarats, Guide to Canadian News Media, Harcourt Brace & Co. Ltd, Canada, 1996.

Beth Haddon

Journalist and former Broadcast Executive

Beth Haddon has held senior positions in broadcasting and journalism in Canada including Managing Director of Programming at TVOntario. She was Head of Current Affairs and Features Programming at CBC Radio, Senior Producer and Ottawa Bureau Chief for CBC Television’s The Journal and a Senior Editor at The Globe and Mail. Her career has involved all aspects of journalism from on air host to daily production, to assignment editor to programme director.

In the past, Beth has taught journalism at Ryerson University worked overseas with Canadian University Service Overseas and served on a variety of nonprofit boards. She remains an active volunteer, serving on the steering committees of Equal Voice both nationally and in British Columbia.

Beth is a member of the Programming Committee of the Canadian Journalism Foundation and of the Advisory Board of the Coady International Institute at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Beth divides her time between Toronto and Vancouver.