Earned Media

Media coverage does matter. It can have an impact on policy makers, university administration, students and staff, the public—and the faculty itself.
By Alice Sunshine

"Earned media” is exactly what you think it is. The people who do the necessary work to earn coverage of their issue or battle are the ones who will get their story out to the public.

Earning media coverage involves giving careful attention to the mechanics of reaching out to news outlets. Most people can learn the mechanics through workshops, collaboration with those who have already done it, and practice.

But you will find the going very tough unless your organization—your union local, chapter, or association—makes certain choices that will clear the way.

The Decision to Succeed

Organizations, like people, can give up before they try. Unions as well as faculty members can be adept at justifying that surrender. Twelve years ago, the California Faculty Association (CFA)—where I currently serve as communications director—seldom issued news releases or called reporters. A little digging revealed that some people held disabling attitudes: News media owners hate unions, so media outreach is a waste of time. Reporters are just out to get you. Reporters and the public don’t care about the faculty; if anything, they care about students, but just barely.

And the feeling at the time was apparently mutual. A Los Angeles Times reporter told me that CFA shouldn’t bother calling him for anything unless we were out on strike.

But change happened. By 2007, in CFA’s toughest contract fight to date, the union was generating broad coverage of its actions and issues in all media formats—television, news radio, newspapers, campus media, and online blogs. That coverage had a discernable impact on policy makers, the university’s management, the students and campus communities, the public, and faculty members themselves.

In the following years, CFA used the relationships developed with California’s news media to garner wide coverage of deep funding cuts to our state universities. The media reported in detail on steep student-fee hikes implemented while classrooms were overcrowded and on faculty members who lost their jobs when course offerings were slashed.

Reporters have written about the impact of the cuts on faculty members, their families, their students, and the quality of the education the faculty can provide. On March 4, 2010, the National Day of Action for Public Education, when educators and students protested to defend public schools and universities, CFA made sure the world was watching on television.

It has been nothing short of a culture change in CFA.

Bypassing Media is Not an Option

There are many good reasons to criticize the news media, and certainly many groups have a member who is extremely well versed in them. And yet mass media, particularly major news outlets, still frame the big stories on the air, in print, and on the Internet. They are a vital part of communicating your story and priorities to the public.

So, by all means, work with the friendly alternative and small media that support your issues. Student news media reach your core campus community. It’s good to “make your own” media, which is exactly what the AAUP does with a publication like Academe. Every local that would have an impact must have at least a website. Social-networking tools are good, too.

At the same time, to reach a critical mass of people who will support us and help us move policy makers on public higher education, we have to engage the major news media. And we have to engage them as they are, not as we wish they were.

Your organization must adopt the notion that it is a high priority to get your story out to everyone—voters, taxpayers, policy makers, employers, and people who work and send their kids to school, possibly your school. It is not enough to reach only the segment of the population that already sympathizes with you.

Therefore, even if a reporter asks an unwanted question, someone is misquoted, or a news report is wishy-washy on your issue, your organization must remain committed to earning all the coverage it can.

Framing Education Issues

The issues we face in higher education are difficult, especially the issues championed by the AAUP. Reporters ask challenging and contrary questions. We need to welcome those questions and learn to answer them. Not every colleague should be subjected to difficult interviews and not every individual needs to be tough, patient, and tenacious with reporters— but your organization does, and so do the colleagues who are guiding your organization’s media work.

Countless faculty members, including some AAUP activists, seem convinced that the public does not care about them, and hence that reporters don’t, either. The question, really, is, what do you care about? Do you care enough about your students, your profession, and our educational system to work to save them?

Most members of the public know that education is vital and are inclined to support teachers and take teachers’ views seriously. I believe that is why those who want to do education “on the cheap” and who would benefit from the privatization of public education are waging a massive rhetorical campaign, using “bad teachers” to shift blame away from funding cuts and weak management.

Our organizations need to frame our response to these arguments in a way that is meaningful to the public. We should not fear this. Yes, that word frame is a hot button. We tend to associate it with spin and talking points, which in common usage have come to mean falsehoods. Let’s not be distracted by that.

Faculty members need to help one another to organize their thoughts in a coherent, concise, newsworthy manner. In this sense, framing is about seeking ways to express clearly what we believe to be true, sharing the facts that we see as important, and asserting the voice of the faculty—a voice some would like to keep out of the debate on the educational issues of our time. Those who successfully keep up long-term connections with reporters find ways to corral news angle, truth, brevity, and openness in delivering a news message to the public.

Over the past six years in California, our message—and our commitment—has been that faculty members and students are in a lifeboat together, trying to save public higher education for the good of all. We have been losing both teachers and students to funding cuts and tuition increases. They are being squeezed out together while managers get promotions and politicians have other priorities than our kids. And the lost investment in education spells crisis for California, today and in the future.

Here are some of the opposition’s media frames: there is a budgetary and economic crisis, so we just can’t afford education as we used to; “bad teachers” are lazy and greedy; all taxes are bad; private enterprise can do it better for less; and students prefer computers over teachers and want online education now. These arguments have big followings, heavy funding, and a cottage industry of consultants spanning the nation to press for them.

But over time we are challenging those messages. The news media do report on quality-of-education issues that faculty members raise when we explain them clearly and in a way they can shape as “news.”

Few parents want their children to get a “cheap” education. Many reporters are parents, too; their viewers, listeners, and readers are parents, and so are union members. The searing examples of students injured by cuts to education are right in front of us.

Furthermore, most Americans are aware that people who work need to make a living to support their families. When you reveal the human side of job loss, pay cuts, and injuries to families, such as the loss of medical insurance, the public is moved. Once professors show themselves not as members of some strange class cloistered in an ivory tower but as people who work, serve, and raise families, they matter to the public. Reporters will tell their stories.

When you care about other people, they are more likely to care about you. When you speak up about issues in a way that shows your commitment to education, to students, and to the society, as well as to your own family, reporters—and through them the public— are inclined to care.

Putting Substance into Sound Bites

Even while framing the issues in a meaningful way, we still have to live within the news media’s constraints. Groups that organize themselves to respond to the media’s needs give their colleagues doing media outreach the support to succeed.

Time is not a minor consideration. Two minutes is an eternity in television and radio news. A typical sound bite on TV is about nine seconds. The interview that garnered that sound bite probably took just a few minutes to record. Your group can train your activists to work within these time constraints. Of course, there will be constant conflict in your mind between the need to be short—indeed, painfully so with broadcast news—and the need to give accurate, truthful information. Reporters are well aware of this tension. They themselves deal with it every day.

Your organization has facts and it has opinions; reporters need help in sorting these out. The organization that works well with reporters commits to gathering solid data, revealing the source of those data, and double-checking them when questioned. You also should make it clear when you are expressing an opinion as opposed to providing factual information.
Reporters need to cover opposing viewpoints. You need to understand that the reporter must interview your administration or the “other side,” whatever it may be. You may even want to help reporters get in touch with the other side.

You and your organization should not fear a question you can’t answer. No one expects you to know everything. If you offer to find out the answer and get back to the reporter quickly, you win appreciation. And you get to talk with the reporter again.

CFA’s leaders made the commitment years ago to help reporters get what they need to do their stories. Our spokespeople may be in meetings, shopping, or on a short break between classes. And yet they return reporters’ calls or e-mails immediately. They have come to understand that in today’s news world, there is no tomorrow if you don’t respond now, before deadline.

And there is more. They go to campus at 5 a.m. to give interviews for the morning drive-time news. They tolerate television trucks arriving at their homes at night. They help each other to devise “visuals,” such as carefully worded signs, to add interest to their events for cameras. They practice their comments until the message comes out clearly.

Beyond News Releases

It won’t take you long to notice that your first few press releases containing important statements about what your faculty leaders think about important issues fail to generate news stories. There will come a time when news outlets will use your organization’s public statements in articles on issues. But it’s not likely to happen until you have proven your organization’s mettle in public action.

Every union has to determine what action means. In CFA, action includes picketing, marching, and jamming the room at policy meetings. Action allows you to invite the news media to observe, take photos and video, and interview participants. It proves that your union cares about an issue enough to do something about it. That’s news.

An action is a great way to jump-start your media program. The mechanics of media promotion for an event involve many tasks, but these are readily doable once the organization takes the important step to get active.

It takes time to build up a media program based on action. You can start by publicizing a specific, one-time event and inviting the media to cover it. In the process, those in your organization will learn a great deal about the media and about themselves. Chances are that some natural “media organizers” will reveal themselves and become an essential part of your group.

If you stick to it, soon you will be engaged in more actions, getting to know reporters, and generating letters to the editor and website comments by your members and supporters about the news stories and broadcasts. These letters and online comments are essential because they encourage assignment editors to continue to follow your story.

Eventually, your organization will develop a strategic plan to achieve some large goal. The goal may be as nearby as getting your local elected officials to do a better job of supporting public higher education or as broad as challenging the trend toward dumbing down college degrees. It may be ending abusive hiring practices or making the university’s finances more transparent.

Your work to get the media to cover the actions you take to achieve your goals will be an essential part of your success. And you will have earned it.

Alice Sunshine is communications director of the California Faculty Association, an AAUP affiliate that represents the faculty on the twenty-three campuses of the California State University system. Her e-mail address is [email protected].