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Working With the Media

Your goal is to become a resource on animal rights issues for the media. You can start by letting them know that you exist and by cultivating contacts. You don’t have to be an expert on every issue, but you should be open to learning about animal rights issues when they come up in the news. You want your local media to think of you when anything involving animals is in the news and to know that they can come to you for a timely comment or information.

PETA’s Web sites and factsheets are great resources for learning about various animal rights issues, and our Action Team is available to help if you have trouble finding the information you need.

Now you’re ready to get started. Follow these five steps and you’ll be on your way to getting animal rights issues into the media!  

Step 1: Develop Literature

Step 2: Make a Media List

Step 3: Write a News Release

Step 4: Service a News Release

Step 5: Conduct Media Interviews

Developing Literature

If your group is just starting out, you’ll need to develop some identifying literature. Even if you intend to use literature from larger animal rights groups (which can save time and money), you need to have at least one brochure, factsheet, or flier that identifies your organization and describes its purpose and goals. You will also need some letterhead stationery. These materials are invaluable when working with reporters, who are always interested in the local angle.

To learn more about creating literature, see “Making and Distributing Leaflets” in the Activist Guide, or for inspiration, check out PETA Literature.

Making a Media List

Create a media list and organize it into the following categories. 

  • Wire services
  • Local print media
  • Local radio
  • Local TV

Record the name and title of each contact person (you may have more than one contact person for each organization), the name of his or her publication or station, and his or her address, telephone number, and e-mail address. For print media, get the names of the news editor (also called the city editor, news director, or assignment editor), the features editor, and the person responsible for the community calendar or bulletin board.

Organize media information according to whether the publication is daily, weekly, monthly, or Web-based. Find out the publications’ deadlines and make a list of your local TV news programs’ broadcast times. This will help you plan your demonstrations and actions so that they will best fit into the TV stations’ schedules and will prevent you from calling stations about an upcoming event while they are busy preparing to go on the air.

Try to keep profiles of your media contacts, with comments on whether they are sympathetic or hostile to certain issues and whether they have covered animal-related issues in the past. It’s also a good idea to date your notes so that you’ll know when you contacted them last, what you contacted them about, and how they reacted.

Once you’ve created your media list, send a brief letter to each contact explaining the purpose of your group and offering information on animal rights issues. Include your group’s identifying factsheet or brochure. This alone is probably not enough to get the media to contact you (usually you have to become known in the community), but it is a start.

Writing a News Release

News releases—short announcements about newsworthy events—are sent to newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio stations to interest them in doing stories. Because news directors receive hundreds of releases every day, yours must look professional and present the facts quickly, or it will never be read. The following guidelines will help:

  • Keep it short. One page is best.
  • Write a concise, catchy headline that summarizes the story. It should be written in the style of a newspaper headline, using active verbs.
  • Use the “inverted pyramid” style to write the release. Put the most important facts in the first paragraph and supporting information in descending order so that the least important information is last.
  • The first paragraph should answer the “five W’s”: who, what, where, when, and why.
  • Underline the text that gives the location, time, and date of the event.
  • The final paragraph should describe your group and reinforce your message with a quotation from your spokesperson.
  • Never editorialize. Use quotations to express opinions.
  • Quotations should be attributed to a specific individual, such as the appointed spokesperson for your upcoming event, not just your group.
  • Proofread the release carefully for grammar and spelling. Ask someone else to read it and to give an objective opinion. If you have the time, set it aside and look it over again the next morning. Eliminate redundancy, use short words and phrases, and simplify complex ideas.
  • Make it dramatic and attention-getting, but be prepared to substantiate everything that you say. Double-check the facts. It is virtually impossible to correct a release once it has gone out. But if you do make a mistake—especially in the time or location of an event—call those who received the release as soon as possible.
  • The time you give the media should be the ideal time for them to see your event. If your event starts at 11 a.m., you may wish to tell the media that it’s a little later so that they don’t arrive to see activists who are still figuring out where to stand or are simply chatting.

View a sample news release to get an idea of the proper format. The following guidelines will tell you more:

  • Use white, regular-weight, letter-sized (8.5-by-11-inch) paper.
  • Include your group’s name, address, and Web site (if you have one) in your letterhead.
  • Type “NEWS RELEASE” at the top of the first page. Always refer to releases as “news releases,” not “press releases.” The same goes for “news conference” versus “press conference.”
  • Type the date in the upper-lefthand corner.
  • Type “For Immediate Release” above the date.
  • Be sure to give the contact’s full name. Be certain that the contact is always available at the phone number listed on the release, and include both daytime and evening numbers if necessary.
  • Center the headline, type it in all capital letters, and place it about 2 inches from the heading above it to provide space for editors’ notes.
  • Directly below the headline, type the subhead. The subhead, which should be centered and underlined, gives a bit more detail about the event but, like the headline, is still short and catchy.
  • Begin the body of the release below the subhead and about a third of the way down the page.
  • Leave wide margins for reporters’ and editors’ notes.
  • Don’t use zeroes for times (“11 a.m.,” not “11:00”) or letters after numbered dates (“August 22,” not “August 22nd”).
  • Never continue on the back of a page. Instead, end the first page with a complete paragraph and type the word “more” centered at the bottom.
  • At the end of the release, center and type “-30-,” “###,” or “Ends.”

Creating a Media Kit
A media kit is a packet of information given to reporters who come to your demonstration, event, or news conference. It helps to get your message across and makes you look professional. A media kit can include any or all of the following, depending on the issue:

  • A news release
  • A factsheet
  • Photographs (Type the following information on a sticky label to put on the back of the photograph: what is in the photo, where it is, when the photo was taken, and who took it. Never write on the back of a photograph with a pen. The ink will rub off and damage other photographs.)
  • Background information on or a history of the issue
  • Copies of relevant documents
  • If dealing with legislation, a copy of the bill and a summary of the main points
  • Background on your organization

Package the kit in a two-pocket folder (found in any office supply store) and put a label on the cover with your group’s name and the words “Media Kit.” If you have a photograph, you can put it on the cover, but it is not essential.

Servicing a News Release

Before deciding how and when to deliver your release, establish what you want to accomplish. Do you want something printed or broadcast before the event, or do you want the media to attend and cover the event? Generally, it’s better to get coverage of events such as film showings, meetings, and fundraisers before they occur. In such cases, you should send releases at least three weeks in advance to the “community calendar” or “bulletin board” sections of your local paper. If, on the other hand, you’re organizing a picket or demonstration, you’ll want news coverage of the event itself. In this case, fax and/or e-mail your news release one day before the event.

Regardless of what type of event you’re planning, keep in mind that reporters need an interesting angle. When you make a media call or send out a news release, be sure that it is for something newsworthy. Remember, the media don’t like to feel “used” to promote a cause. Reporters want what they’re writing to be legitimate news, not propaganda. If your information or event isn’t newsworthy, don’t contact the media because you’ll only anger them and waste their time.

Use interesting visuals, such as costumes and props, in your demonstrations. Tie your demonstration in with current events, such as an upcoming holiday or a popular current news story. Focus on local aspects. For example, you might describe how the local company that employs half the people in town treats animals, or talk about local residents who participated in a national demonstration. 

If you are planning a demonstration or something dramatic, call the news desk to inform them. Do not read your entire news release to them; just say, “Hello, I’m calling to make sure you heard about the demonstration that Action for Animals will be holding tomorrow at 11 a.m. in front of the Fur Salon at 1234 Market St. We’ve sent a release to the news desk, and our contact number is 123-456-7890 if you’d like more information.”

If you have an interesting visual or twist, be sure to highlight it in your call as well. Instead of simply mentioning that there will be a demonstration, say, “Hello, I’m calling to make sure you heard about the event in front of the Fur Salon at 1234 Market St. at 11 a.m. tomorrow. Two members of Action for Animals will be dressed in Grim Reaper costumes with signs that say, ‘I’d Rather Be Dead Than Wear Fur,’ while other members hand out information and ask people not to buy or wear fur.” Get them excited about your demonstration!

Note: When you send a news release to more than one person in an organization, let each person know who else is receiving it. Nothing infuriates an editor more than working on a story and then finding out that someone else at the paper is doing the same story for another section.

After the demonstration, assign volunteers to gather the coverage. At least two people should videotape television coverage and check the newspapers for stories and photos. These clips can be sent out with your next news release to show that what you’re doing is newsworthy.

If a newspaper covers your event but the news wires (Associated Press, Reuters) don’t, call the wires to let them know that they can pick up the story from the paper. If your event is of national interest (Supreme Court Santeria ruling, animal-to-human organ transplant, etc.), call the national television news desks in New York to let them know that they can pick up footage from the local affiliate.

Meeting Deadlines
Reporters work against deadlines. If you call editors or reporters when they are rushing to meet a deadline, you won’t get your story in the news, and you may alienate them as well.

The best time to call contacts at a morning paper is between 9:30 and 10 a.m. As it gets later, the staff will be more pressed for time. Call contacts at an evening paper in the late afternoon when the paper has just gone out.

It is best to call radio or TV reporters as early in the day as possible—between 8 and 9 a.m.—if you’re trying to get on an evening broadcast. Don’t call after 1 or 2 p.m. for a 5 p.m. story; the staff is rushing to edit the news that they already have. As a general rule, talk to the media as far before deadlines as possible, then follow up on the day of the event.

Develop and maintain professional relationships with the media in your community by being courteous and responsible. Return calls promptly—remember those deadlines! Be enthusiastic, cooperative, friendly, and truthful. If you make a mistake, admit it promptly. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I can find out.” Then do so.

Working With Wire Services
Wire services are news-gathering agencies that sell stories to newspapers and radio stations around the country. They should be your first points of contact for delivering a news release or making media calls. If you can interest the wire services, your story will be sent to all the subscribing media in your area or even across the nation. The biggest wire services are the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters. Many of the nation’s largest papers—The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times—also have news services, which means that if you interest them in your story, it may be sent nationwide as well.

Getting a story “on the wire” is a valuable accomplishment. It is worth the great deal of effort that goes into developing good relations with wire service reporters. Many TV, radio, and print assignment editors answer calls asking for coverage by saying, “We’ll see what comes in over the wire.”

To find out which wire service bureaus are in your area, look in the telephone book or call your local newspaper office. Any reporter can tell you where the nearest bureau is. If the newspaper is a member of the AP, it also submits stories to the AP.

Send the bureau manager a letter describing your organization, and supply the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of your best contact people. Offer to supply information or the local angle on animal rights issues.

The daybook is a listing of scheduled events for the day. Each evening and morning, AP and United Press International (UPI) send the daybook to their members. Assignment editors use this list to decide how to assign reporters and camera crews. Always send two news releases to the wire services—one for the daybook and one for the assignment editor. Call both the daybook editor and the assignment editor to follow up.

To get listed in the daybook, send your news release about a week before the event. If that’s not possible, you may still be able to get listed by calling the information in to the daybook editor.

You might also be able to get a photograph of your event on the wire. If you’ve just had a demonstration, e-mail your pictures or take your roll of undeveloped film to the photo department of the wire service bureau, along with your news release. If they seem interested, you can come back in a few hours or the next day to pick up the negatives.

Call your closest radio bureaus. Be prepared to do an interview on the spot if they are interested. They’ll tape it for later use.

Writing Letters to the Editor
You can get great exposure for animal rights issues by writing letters to the editors of newspapers or magazines. Make it a point to read local papers and magazines for articles that provide fuel for letters to the editor.

For letter-writing tips, see PETA’s Guide to Letter-Writing.

Conducting Media Interviews

Appointing a Spokesperson
A spokesperson, not necessarily the group leader, should be appointed for each event. Members of your group need to be prepared to answer media questions with a brief sentence and then direct further questions to the spokesperson, who will be prepared with media kits and all the facts. This helps prevent the media from interviewing an inarticulate or unprepared person. Your group must decide ahead of time what the spokesperson should and should not say.

The spokesperson should be well dressed and should not be wearing a costume if the demonstration involves costumed people.

Though you must appoint a spokesperson, everyone at the event should be familiar with the topic because reporters will often want a second comment from others involved.

Conducting Interviews
Never speak “off the record”; everything is on the record. Also, watch out for jokes, which can create misunderstandings. Don’t get bullied into a simple “yes” or “no” answer to a complex question. Give the facts that are necessary to address the issue.

Study the professionals on national interview shows. Develop a few good phrases and examples that will catch a reporter’s ear, and rehearse them. No one becomes an expert overnight. The key is to practice, practice, practice!

State important points clearly and briefly. It’s helpful if you understand what media professionals consider newsworthy. The following are primary characteristics of newsworthy stories:

  • Timeliness: The media are interested in what’s happening today, not yesterday.
  • Proximity: The closer the event is to the media’s target audience, the more likely it will be considered news.
  • Prominence: You may get more media attention by getting well-known people involved.
  • Conflict: The media love covering opposing factions.
  • Novelty: If you’re doing something for the first time, the media are more likely to respond; they get tired of the same old thing.
  • Importance: The more people who will be affected or interested, the more likely you are to receive media coverage of an event.

Your information or event does not have to meet all these criteria, but it should meet most of them.

Doing Radio and TV Talk Show Interviews
You can reach thousands of people through talk shows. Call in to make comments when animal-related subjects are discussed and during “open phone” segments. It’s even better if someone from your group can be a talk show guest.

If your group is expecting a visit from someone with a particular area of expertise, try to get the person on a talk show. Or try to get yourself on one. Contact television and radio stations several weeks in advance. Send a letter to the show’s director describing your credentials or those of your speaker as well as possible discussion topics and reasons why they would interest the audience. As with a news release, be sure to provide your telephone number.

Prepare a list of people whom your speaker would feel comfortable debating in case the show wants to present both sides.

Once you are booked on a show, listen to it or watch it so that you’ll know what style and format to expect. To prepare, do the following:

  • Study the issue.
  • Practice being interviewed. Tape yourself with a recorder or video camera.
  • Anticipate difficult questions and plan your answers. Study PETA’s Frequently Asked Questions as a starting point.
  • Memorize good quotations, anecdotes, and facts.
  • Have a friend ask you hard questions in a hostile, aggressive way so that you can be prepared for a difficult interview.
  • Decide on the five main points that you want to make during the show. Memorize a fact or an example for each one.
  • Try to make your five points, even if the interviewer doesn’t ask the “right” questions. Don’t feel limited by the questions. You can answer them and still talk about your points. Practice saying, “The real question here is …” or, “That relates to a larger issue, which is ….”
  • If you’re doing a TV show, be careful about how you dress. Wear plain, solid colors rather than patterns, but avoid solid black, white, and red. Green and blue film especially well. Smile, and don’t fidget or touch your face or hair.
  • Try to make your point in eight seconds or less. TV news shows look for “sound bites”—statements that can be plugged into a 60-second story. If you take 45 or 60 seconds to make your point, your spot won’t be aired, so use short sentences.
  • Speak slowly and carefully (but not too slowly!), and think before answering the question.
  • Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want edited out and aired separately. The reporter may interview you for five minutes but air only eight seconds of it. Don’t worry about repeating yourself: It just increases the chances that what you want to be heard actually will be.
  • If the reporter is hostile, don’t get flustered, raise your voice, or get shrill. Stay calm and concentrate on making your five points. Remember, the reporter is not your real audience!
  • Talk directly to the interviewer, not to the audience or camera. If you steal side glances at the camera, you’ll look nervous or shifty.

Organizing a News Conference
Holding a news conference is a good way to fall flat on your face … unless you have a really important story. Hold a news conference only when the following criteria are met:

  • The media can get more from it than they could from photographs and news releases.
  • You have important or newsworthy people available to present your story.
  • Experts will be available to answer questions.
  • The story involves something that has to be seen to be understood.
  • The media are inundating you with telephone calls, and rumors must be dispelled.

Use the following format when holding a news conference:

  • Hold the news conference in a location that is convenient for media professionals, such as in a downtown hotel, and provide light refreshments. The best time to have a news conference is 10 or 11 a.m.
  • Start promptly with a concise statement from your spokesperson.
  • Have media kits ready and explain the material to the media.
  • Call on the expert to read a short statement.
  • Answer questions.
  • End the news conference on time. It should not last more than 30 or 40 minutes. Reporters will ask further questions if they wish to do so.   

If possible, issue invitations one to two weeks ahead of time by sending a “media alert.” Explain the details of the news conference and what will be addressed. If you are holding the news conference right away, alert the media by telephone. Call the wire services to get it on the daybook.

Be careful to allow only media professionals, not members of the general public, to enter the room. Assign someone to check media IDs at the door. Courteously refuse entry to all others.

Hand media kits and news releases out as soon as reporters arrive. If a major statement is being made, you may want to issue the news release after the statement.

After the news conference, follow up with media inquiries as quickly as possible. Make every effort to accommodate requests for personal interviews. Deliver news releases and media kits to media professionals who were invited but did not attend. Tell radio stations that your spokesperson is available for telephone interviews.

If you’d like to learn more about working with the media, read Move the Message by Josephine Bellaccomo (Lantern Books, 2004).