The Media

An indirect form of patient advocacy that receives little attention is advocacy through the media. Legislators pay particular attention to the media and, therefore, it plays an important role in shaping public policy. Legislators take note of organizations and individuals featured in the media. Legislative staff rank very high the influence of both news articles and editorials in major daily newspapers as forces that influence legislators. Effective public and media relations can be an important means of building support for your issues.

You cannot expect the media to inherently know and understand your values. It is up to you to teach them. Most organizations want their stories covered in the major metropolitan media outlets, but those outlets generally cater to large, general audiences. Your story may have a better chance in a smaller community-sized outlet. You often get more coverage with many small stories scattered in dozens of local papers in lieu of targeting five grandiose metropolitan dailies. Often the larger papers and the broadcast media pick up stories from the smaller local papers. If they are important, they may be picked up by the wire services.

A Guide to Dealing with the Media

The media is an important component to a patient advocacy education program, since it is a powerful tool of persuasion and influence. Letters to the editor, an opinion editorial piece (Op Ed), or an endorsement written by the paper's editorial team, that appear in the hometown papers of key decision-makers, speak volumes.

One of the most effective ways to influence public perception of an issue is to gain favorable editorial coverage in targeted statewide newspapers. You need to identify target publications in key legislative districts, develop regionalized information kits for these publications and work to schedule editorial board meetings with each targeted newspaper.

For this plan, a small-scale media effort will be designed by piggybacking off of the information developed for the legislative efforts. At minimum, an information kit would be available if a reporter calls or attends a committee hearing to cover a bill that affects you. Moreover, these materials will assist you in developing relationships with local reporters to encourage feature stories.

It is said that all politics are local, which makes the media an excellent and powerful vehicle to communicate your key messages. Having the patient community’s message heard in the media is vital to the support of other professional organizations as well as the public at large. This section contains pointers for dealing with all sorts of media, including print, television, and radio, which will help generate a positive exposure for neuropathy patients.

Create a Media Contact List

Identify local media outlets: daily and weekly newspapers, radio and television stations, magazines and journals.

  • Identify key reporters at these news outlets.
  • For newspapers call city and metro desks or track bylines on stories similar to the ones you want.
  • For broadcast outlets, correspondence addressed to Radio News Director or Television Station Assignment Editor is sufficient.
  • Since turnover is high, consider generic labels, such as Features Editor.

Decide what coverage you need: a listing in "Community Calendar" for an upcoming event or a more sophisticated editorial about an impending issue.

Press Releases

You do not have to wait for the media to come to you; you can create an interest in a story with an effective press release. Journalists rely heavily on such releases to generate story lines, and a well-timed press release can greatly aid your grassroots advocacy efforts. You can use press releases to provide specific information about a specific issue, the latest research findings, or to advertise an upcoming event (often referred to as a “Media Advisory”). The information contained in the press release should be both important and new. The press release should answer the five "w"s -- who, what, where, when, and why. You will probably want to add how as well.

The following additional tips will assist you with your next press release:

  • How you write is how you will be perceived.
  • Write so you cannot be misunderstood.
  • Remember, "A picture is worth a thousand words", especially in a small-town newspaper.
  • Use the 4-S formula for releases: Short, Simple, Strong, and Specific.
  • Identify your target audience. Enlist beat writers and television/radio reporters in your area who cover health care issues.
  • The beginning of the release should have a “hook” to grab reporters’ attention. Try to write the release in the “inverted pyramid” format, with the most salient information included first.
  • Observe newspaper deadlines. Unless it is critical, never call a newspaper office before noon.
  • Watch for news pegs. If you can relate your release to current events, it has a better chance of getting into the paper.
  • Double-check your copy to make sure it is error-free.
  • When you use a name, give first and last name in the first reference and last name only in subsequent references.
  • Include a fact sheet whenever possible.
  • Give advance notice along with an exact date of your event. The media is not interested in something that is over. And they do enjoy controversy. Just make sure it spins your direction.

Press Conferences

Unless your issue is particularly timely and important, it may be difficult to get good attendance at your press conference. Have a well-written press statement and background materials available as handouts. Keep the press conference short and leave time for a question-and-answer session.

Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor can significantly increase awareness of your issue. Sometimes letters are used to respond to negative editorials. Your letter should be tightly composed and should use short, clear sentences. Use strong, active verbs. Use specific examples to make your points. Address only one issue per letter. Always sign your name and include your address and telephone number.

The following recommendations should be kept in mind when composing such materials:

  • Call your local papers and ask for submission instructions for letters and Op-Ed pieces.
  • Send your letter/Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in your community first. If they do not print your piece, send it to the next largest publication.
  • Readers are drawn to stories with a “human interest” and local flavor. Use specific examples and vignettes that will spark community interest.
  • Your goal is to evoke emotions in the reader (e.g., pointing out an injustice in health care that needs to be rectified) while at the same time offering an accurate conceptualization of the problem and your rational solution to the problem.
  • Submit the piece on your letterhead, and have someone you trust proof-read it. Include your contact information in case the Editor has questions for you.
  • Follow up your submission with a phone call to the Editor asking about his or her plan to print your piece.

Tips for Media Interviews

  • Allow yourself time to prepare. Before answering any questions, find out the reporter’s organization, his/her purpose in interviewing you, where and when the story will be appearing, what is his/her angle in the story and who else the reporter plans on interviewing.
  • Plan your statement. Determine who the target audience is and prepare for the interview accordingly. Gather the latest information and data to support your position. Try to have at least three “talking points” ready when you talk to the reporter. Think in terms of providing “headlines;” you are stating your conclusion FIRST, then supporting your conclusion with arguments. If your interviewer starts to go in a different direction from your points bring the conversation back to your main points.
  • Explain your points using layperson’s language. Keep your answers short and simple.
  • Ensure accuracy. Do not be tempted to provide an answer to a question for which you may not have the answer. In the same regard, if an interviewer makes a statement that you know to be inaccurate, (politely) correct him or her and provide the right information.
  • Avoid absolute statements. Comments with the words “always” or “never” can backfire.
  • Use statistics sparingly. Too many numbers can confuse the issue and increases the likelihood for inaccuracy. If you must use numbers, round them off (e.g., “over 40,000,” not “41,050”).
  • Be on guard for manipulation by the reporter. Do not answer any hypothetical questions, but be polite about it (e.g., avoid saying “no comment!” because it has a defensive, combative connotation). Be careful if the reporter asks you to comment on some facts and figures or someone else’s remarks; it is perfectly acceptable to ask to see/hear the source of such information before commenting. NEVER make an “off the record” comment to the reporter. In sum, do not say anything that you would not want broadcast or seen in print.
  • Keep the interview brief. Set a time limit for the interview with the reporter ahead of time. A set time limit keeps the questions focused and it reduces the risk of getting into uncomfortable or awkward material. Use highlights to accentuate your key points (e.g., “The real issue here, Mary, is that…”) This gives the listener a clear sense of your priority.
  • Turn down certain types of interview requests. It is advisable to avoid an interview on subject matter that is out of your area of expertise. A simple, polite “no thank you” to an interview request can save you headaches down the road. Do not worry that such a decision will be used against you in the future; there will always be other opportunities.
  • Offer to follow up with additional information. By doing so, you are also sowing the seeds for the reporter to rely on you as a credible source for future stories.