Our Local Media Relations
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
Our Local Media Relations: Tips from an Insider
by Dada Orwell
Note: A few months after I wrote the first version of this article in September 2002, local TV reporter Jeff Crilley released a whole book on the subject. It's a much better guide to media relations than I could ever provide. I recommend reading it, especially if you may have something to do with Porcupine PR. The book is "Free Publicity," available at www.jeffcrilley.com. But if free advice is all you can afford, read on!
At some point, if it hasn't already, the FSP will truly dawn on the consciousness of the mainstream press. Since I work for a local TV newsroom and am also an FSP supporter, here are my thoughts on ways we can maximize press coverage and minimize press hostility without compromising our principles. Though this advice is tailored toward our relations with local media, some of it should hold true for dealing with the more liberty-challenged national press.
First, an anecdote. In covering the ultimate "federal vs. state" conflict war in 1991 Yugoslavia BBC reporter Misha Glenny made an observation that I also found to be true when I swung through there a year later. As you may recall, the "breakaway republic" of Croatia was in conflict with "Federal Yugoslav" forces, which were dominated by Serbian hypernationalists.
Obviously this was a much more extreme situation than we'd ever face, since we're not even a secessionist movement. But there is a universal lesson to be learned from flawed yet charming Croatia. Glenny noted that Croats seemed to instinctively understand it was important to be hospitable and accommodating to the press. But Serbs tended to be openly hostile to reporters, often assuming they were "the enemy" and that there was no hope of winning them over. Glenny says this affected early coverage of events, to the benefit of the Croatians. Initially neutral or unsympathetic to them, reporters couldn't help but be a little won over by Croat families inviting them into their bullet-riddled houses for shots of plum brandy while Croatian authorities gave them decent access to the fighting. Positive press coverage eventually, perhaps decisively, helped Croatia win the war.
The media is like the wind, a force of nature. You can either fight it, like the Serbian nationalists did, or you can harness it. You harness it by being kind to reporters, figuring out what they need and getting it to them. They need:
- For you to know just a little bit about how they operate in relation
On a day-to-day basis, newsrooms revolve around what's often called "the desk," or the "assignments editor." This poor soul is, as Jeff Crilley puts it, always in combat mode, barely keeping up with incoming problems and opportunities from moment to moment. She decides when and where to send reporters. She handles incoming mountains of press releases and gives each release about five seconds of attention before deciding whether to throw it out. Your call or news release will likely be routed to this busy person first, and it had better grab their attention fast. Reporters, on the other hand, have slightly more time. More on them later.
In dealing with broadcasters, you may also need to take into account the needs of the "newscast producer." Producers are the folks who organize the newscast timing/structure and write much of what the anchors say, probably including most of what they say about your event. Make sure whoever covers your event in person gets a copy of the press release, so they can if necessary leave it with the producer. If your writing skills are up to it, make the release so brief, so catchy and so pithy that they could almost read it on the air as is.
- A visual story. Reporters do not crave news conferences and meetings
there's usually nothing interesting to photograph or videotape. They'd
much rather see ten of us burning our 1040s in front of the local IRS office on
April 15. Or a flea market benefiting the FSP. Use your creativity to come up
with something even more interesting than these, if you can!
- A local story. Houston TV stations, for instance, don't generally care
what happens in Dallas, and they likely won't cover a national FSP event,
either. The event must occur in Houston's viewing area, preferably in Houston
- Straight talk. They love straight talk
the simpler and straighter
the better. Don't go out of your way to scare them or anything, just tell it
like it is. If they ever sense you're fibbing, exaggerating or even playing
down something negative, they may go sour. If you ramble they may go to
Remember that time a reporter asked John McCain whether campaign donations had ever influenced his votes? And he said yes I have to admit they probably have? That's why reporters love him and why he came so close to winning the presidency.
- Good timing. One way to help assure coverage is to time your event so it
happens at an "easy" time on a slow news day. Weekends and holidays are usually
slow because government offices and most businesses are closed. Holidays work
best if your event is related to the holiday. In both cases it's hard for
reporters to get in touch with anyone, so they are often casting about
desperately for something to cover.
- Time itself. News people are usually short on it and worrying about their
deadline. So whatever you do, make it short and simple, and don't waste their
Ideally, hold your event around 10:30 a.m. Reporters generally get to the office around 10 a.m. and have important deadlines between 5 p.m. and midnight. Ten-thirty events give them the most Time to put together maximum coverage of your event after they've left it around noon. This time frame also enables them to get their lunch on time. One possible exception to the 10:30 a.m. suggestion would be if you're able to schedule something to happen during a TV newscast, live.
Example: Say it's the year 2006, and a convoy of 15 RV owners gathers in Wichita, Kansas to migrate to Wyoming. They announce they are going to burn their Kansas state income tax forms at 5:05 p.m. (during the early evening newscast). They announce they are going to drive off at 6:05 p.m. during the second evening newscast. They also express a willingness to change the time a bit in order to accommodate the needs of the newscast producer.
- Relevance to current events. This is an exception to the "weekend" rule.
When there is a big event that has the media in a feeding frenzy, they will
jump at any story that is even vaguely related to the big event, even if
they're busy. And they'll tend to ignore anything unrelated. For instance,
suppose you run PR for Porcupines in the Dallas area, and the Cowboys go to the
Super Bowl. One idea would be to hold a signing ceremony two or three days
before the game where a former Cowboy signs up for the FSP then plays ball with
some local kids while wearing a Liberty in our Lifetime shirt.
- No spam! I'm happy to report this is one pitfall we have now partly
escaped. I initially heard talk of us sending out mass e-mails as often as
once a month that hit every local media outlet in the country. This would have
done more harm than good, and the plan has apparently been modified to the
benefit of the recipients. Our news releases now tend to go out only to press
outlets in the state where an event is taking place. Not perfect, but it's
only one-fiftieth as bad as the initial plan. Good enough for volunteer work!
However, if you really want to ensure coverage for, say, a Fargo, North Dakota event, don't just rely on e-mail. Contact each major Fargo media outlet via e-mail, plus fax, plus phone.
- Cultivate relationships with reporters in your area whose work you
genuinely like and who are in a position to cover your events themselves.
General assignment and political reporters should be better able to do this
than, say, police beat reporters. Make a point of paying close attention to
their work and leaving them a voice or e-mail from time to time praising them
when they do a cool story.
There are lots of journalists who expose government waste; start your quest with them, if you like.
- Access and openness. You can't stop them from doing a story! Shutting the
media out just makes it easier for them to make you look bad, if that's even
what they're after. Allow them as much unrestricted access as you can to our
public meetings, etc., and return their calls promptly. As a rule, don't
circle the wagons or stonewall when things go bad or we come under criticism.
Since we're an organization of flawed humans, some of us are bound to screw up
and get us bad press we actually deserve. This is sometimes an opportunity to
win public support by being open about our true failings and acting to better
I once worked for a station manager who served on the board of a local charity. The charity discovered that one of its employees had abused a child under its care. The board held a meeting, and a board member suggested keeping the incident quiet. My boss said no, we announce the crime ourselves, give the media nowhere to go. They made the announcement, fired the worker and watched as the wrath of the press fell on the perpetrator rather than them.
One caveat: I am talking about public matters here, not private ones. Declining to answer questions of a personal nature or "party secrets" is fine. Just don't get defensive, and don't lie.
- Be yourself, but pick your words carefully. For instance, if you want to
tell the press we're planning to "take over" a state, hey I can't stop you.
But you're pushing all the wrong buttons without even being accurate.
"Taking over" isn't something the FSP is ever going to be capable of. But "nudging" a liberty-friendly state towards more liberty friendliness that is possible. Passionately supporting and enhancing its existing culture of freedom surely this is doable. And these phrases don't trigger the justifiably negative response that "takeover" does.
Again, only you can decide what you're going to say. But, as Twain put it, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.
- Avoid being overhelpful or nosy. Giving the press what they need without
losing their respect is a subtle act. If you come off as a backside-kissing
groveler eager to please, that's almost worse than being at odds with them.
Nervous obsessing over what they're going to put in their story is pretty
annoying, too. Just be sociable, get them what they need, and let them do their
- Ask! "Is there anything we can do to make this story easier for you to
cover?" News people will never fault you for asking them that! But keep in
mind what helps one type of media, like television, may not necessarily help
radio or print reporters.
- Let the reporter know your objections. But don't forget: It's not her job
to make us look good; it's not her job to do what you want her to. It's only
her job to get the facts straight and steer clear of too much bias. That's the
territory where you have a fighting chance to make your point.
- If you think it necessary, you can also take your complaint to her boss.
The boss of the reporter is the editor-in-chief, the news director or assistant
news director. In big markets you may have to settle for a manager. Use the
phone or written communication; don't confront them in person unless they
- Complaints about bias will get less attention than complaints about
factual errors. Document any substantial factual errors and bring them to the
attention of the reporter's boss without needlessly annoying them. If you get
nowhere with this boss, you can sometimes go to his boss or on up the
chain to the owners until you get results.
- As a last resort, of course, you can sue the station or paper for libel.
This is not to be taken lightly. You can only win if you can prove that the
media outlet reported substantial, damaging falsehoods with reckless disregard
as to whether they were true. Usually the plaintiff loses. However,
reporters, news directors and media corporate bosses tend to fear libel suits
desperately, regardless of whether the suit is successful. They can damage
both careers and corporations, and potential defendants will sometimes try to
make peace rather than face a suit.
But whether "carroting" or "sticking," I wish you all much success in trying out these suggestions!
April 25, 2003
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Free State Project, its Officers, or Directors.