These days I use lessons learned from letter-writing to raise awareness of Down’s Syndrome, as my son Stan has the condition. Here’s my advice on how to get your voice heard with the written media, whether you’re a small charity or just one person trying to change things in society.
Letters straight from the heart
So, back to those letters. Write lots of letters. Editors love them and they particularly like to hear from small local groups, whose members are ‘experts by experience’. I got a letter in the Guardian when David Cameron’s son, Ivan, died. I celebrated the fact that the House of Commons went quiet for a boy with a learning disability, when it perhaps wouldn’t have always done so. The Guardian isn’t the usual place to run items praising David Cameron – so do think outside the box when considering where it is possible to get a result.
That said, it’s a good idea to contact local newspapers as well. This is great for driving up the membership of your organisation, and the papers are usually willing to take content. When responding to a news story, try and do it quickly – even though letters can appear two days to a week later, getting it in promptly means it is on the editor’s mind. Here’s one I had published in the London Evening Standard.
Get noticed on Twitter
I post regular updates about Down’s Syndrome and learning disability and have created a small critical mass of followers on Twitter and Facebook. When the Daily Mirror online reported that a man with Down’s Syndrome in the USA, Rion Holcombe, had got into university, the You Tube video where he opened the letter was a mass hit. I posted a tweet suggesting it would be great if this sort of thing wasn’t reported anymore; that I hoped one day it just becomes the norm. Two minutes later, I’d had a conversation with the Sunday online editor, who had messaged me after seeing the tweet, and I was commissioned to write my thoughts down. Keep up with journalists who tweet and make a twitter list so that, when they are writing about your area of expertise, you can contact them.
Don’t expect to have control over the article
Of course, the stuff above has had your 100% "copy approval". What about when you’re interviewed and you’re concerned about what the journalist will do when they write up their notes? Quite rightly, journalists are proud of their work and don’t want people, including interviewees, interfering. It’s rare to get copy approval, but you can always ask for it, or at least tell the journalist if there are any areas that you don’t want them to write about. But they might. There are no guarantees.
My family has borne the brunt of a copy approval war. When Stan was about four, we were interviewed by a specialist parenting magazine. When we saw what was going in print, alongside our family pictures, it was a shock. They had used the quote "I looked into his almond eyes and with a jolt of the stomach…" about the day Stan was born. Some interesting discussions occurred over this rather dramatic tone, including us threatening to drop our consent for the photos to be shown.
Anyway, we got what we wanted – so do stand up for yourself and for your organisation or cause. Most journalists will understand and won’t want to make factual mistakes or fatuous comments – but it’s difficult because you don’t want to get a name for yourself as a person or organisation that is difficult to deal with. On the other hand, you have to protect your members, your beneficiaries and yourself. It’s one of those fine balancing acts.
Just as important, however, is working out your key messages. My motivation to speak to the media is to raise awareness of the great things that Stan can do, for instance by blogging about his dance night. Yours could be to direct people to a website; it could be to increase volunteers. Speak to the press armed with that agenda.
Always be available
My group’s site isn’t very sophisticated; nor is my blog. But both have links for the media to contact me. Journalism is 24/7 these days, so a mobile number is a must. If you get a call and it’s a good opportunity to advance your cause, then do respond quickly. If you can’t help, then make yourself useful and pass the journalist onto someone who might be able to. They’ll appreciate it and perhaps remember you.
You may also want to warn fellow staff, volunteers and trustees not to be surprised if you’re suddenly on the phone or on email, asking for advice on what you’re about to say to the written media. This means you have access to peer support, but usually it has to be a quick turnaround.
On another occasion I’d love to tell you about how to get your cause onto radio and TV, and then how to perform during a live interview. Who knows; it might even be with Noel Edmonds. I hope he’s forgiven me.