Communicating through the Media

Writing Press Releases

Press releases will have much more credibility coming from an organization rather than an individual; if you don’t have an AAUP chapter or conference in your area, consider forming one, working through your faculty senate, or at least forming a committee.

A media (or press) release announces news; a media (or press) advisory lets reporters know of an upcoming event or news story, or provides deep background on an ongoing issue. When you have information that you really believe might interest multiple reporters, send out a release. If you have information that you think might interest one particular publication, you are better off calling to talk about it. Don’t forget your campus’ student newspaper, which may do much to influence the opinions of students, and perhaps of their parents. Articles that run in student newspapers also often trigger the interest of local media and lead to more coverage. 

Releases can be sent by mail, fax, or e-mail. Identify the release as a press release, and either write “for immediate release” or ”embargoed until X date” on your release. Do not break your own embargo. In the top right corner, list names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers of two contacts. Make sure these contacts can be easily reached (often a problem for academics who may be on the go).

If reporters aren’t interested in your headline, they won’t read the release. Make it punchy and use a large font. Place key information in the lead paragraph—who, why, when, where, and how. The most important information is in the lead, with additional paragraphs in descending order of importance. If possible, include quotes in the release; this makes it more interesting, and is a convenience for reporters, who may lift the quotes directly from your release. Avoid the passive voice. Use action verbs and make it lively. Avoid jargon and technical terms. Write simple, declarative sentences and short paragraphs. Your audience members are neither academics nor, necessarily, well versed in the details of higher education legislation, contract negotiations, or financial exigency.

Prepare boilerplate language describing your AAUP chapter or other organization and include it at the end of the release.

It may also be useful to develop a folder of materials that includes basic information about the financial crisis at your institution or in your state, as well as other relevant background information, for reporters. For example, you might include salary data showing that your institution’s compensation is already low compared to peers, or data showing past tuition hikes, or news articles on how similar institutions are handling similar crises better—whatever helps you make your case.

Talking to the Media

Some suggestions:

  • Nothing is ever really off the record.
  • Many reporters are on tight deadlines; return calls immediately or they will move on.
  • If you are not sure how to respond to a question, write it down and find out the reporter’s deadline. Consult with your colleagues and call back before the deadline.
  • If a reporter calls with something you haven’t heard about, say so.
  • Be sure to emphasize and repeat your key points—those are the quotes you want to appear in the paper. When time allows, ask for the reporter’s e-mail address and send a follow-up message reiterating these points.
  • Familiarize yourself with two or three sound bites. Write them down. When possible, turn the question back to your message.
  • Prepare yourself by writing down key facts to look at during the call.
  • For critical quotes (only), ask a reporter to read back your quotes.
  • Be sure of what the reporter is asking you.
  • Be helpful. Volunteer to send background information.
  • Anticipate questions and know the opposing points.
  • Don’t get frustrated by difficult questions. Stick to your message.
  • Tell the reporter you have more to add if he or she overlooks something you think is important.

Writing Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor

An op-ed is an essay written by an outsider and published in the opinion section of a newspaper (as opposed to the unsigned editorials written by newspaper staff). Letters to the editor usually respond to particular articles that appeared in the paper, while op-eds generally do not. Both op-eds and letters to the editor should be kept relatively short and to the point.

Newspapers will not publish a long, thorough treatise. They often edit submissions; by keeping yours short and to the point, you’ll reduce the chance that they will edit out the parts you thought were most important. A rule of thumb is to keep letters to around 200 words and op-eds to around 600, but you should also check the letters and op-ed sections and the website of the paper to which you’ll be submitting and see if it lists more specific guidelines.

If you see an opportunity to respond to an article in the paper, do so immediately. The editors will not be interested in publishing your response to an article that appeared a month ago. Keep the prose simple. Explain clearly in your first sentence why you are writing. Use vocabulary that the paper’s readers and editors will easily understand. Use paragraphs. Don’t denounce the paper or rant.

The smaller and more local the paper, the greater the chance that it will accept your op-ed. Nationally read papers like the New York Times receive hundreds of submissions. Depending on your cause, you might get more mileage out of a couple of letters or op-eds in the campus or local paper than one in a national paper anyway. Consider whom you are trying to influence.

For an op-ed, write a cover letter briefly explaining your subject, why it is relevant, and a little about yourself, especially things that make you seem knowledgeable and/or locally entrenched (I am a professor of economics at Woolly Mammoth College and a twenty-year resident of this town). Make sure you include your name, address, day and evening phone numbers, and e-mail address. The editors will contact you to confirm that you wrote the op-ed or letter before publishing it and may give up if they cannot easily reach you.

Even if your submission is not published, it demonstrates to the editors that there is an interest in stories on this issue, and that knowledgeable readers are watching the stories for inaccuracies and biases.