An Activists' Guide to Exploiting the Media
By George Monbiot
what we're up against
how to get the press to your action
dealing with journalists
Every battle we fight is a battle for the hearts and minds of other people. The only chance we have of reaching people who haven't yet heard what we've got to say is through the media. We might, with good reason, regard the papers and broadcasters with extreme suspicion, we might feel cheapened and compromised by engaging with them. But the war we're fighting is an information war, and we have to use all the weapons at our disposal. Whether we use the media or not, our opponents will. However just our cause and true our aims, they will use it to demonise and demolish us, unless we fight back.
Exploit the media, or the media will exploit you!
PART 1:WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST
Every media outlet shares the same principal aim: to expand its share of the market. It does this by seeking to grab and hold onto people's attention. This is why the media concentrates so much on events rather than issues, and especially trivial, flashy and colourful events. Most journalists are convinced that people can't concentrate for more than a few seconds. This is mainly because they can't concentrate for more than a few seconds.
On the face of it, this is a major disadvantage for us, as our aim is to make people aware of big and important issues.
Many outlets have a secondary aim: of pandering to the prejudices of their proprietors. As most large news-gathering organisations are run by perverse billionaires whose interests are at odds with those of the rest of society, this makes life still harder for us.
In practice, it means that there are some outlets we simply have to avoid: there's no point in approaching the Sun, for example, unless you're appealing to narrow nationalism or are prepared to get your tits out. Stay well away from the Daily Mail, unless you're highlighting an animal rights issue which doesn't involve a confrontation with big business/landowners/hunters etc.
But there are often a surprising number of opportunities for making use of other parts of the right-wing media: some of the things that occasionally slip past the editors' noses at the Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, for example, are pretty unexpected. While their editors and proprietors may be total bastards, a lot of journalists are not bad people, just weak and cowardly. Many of them want to help, and will look for opportunities to do so without upsetting their bosses.
Newspapers are allowed to be partisan, and expected to be by their readers. But the broadcast media are legally obliged to be balanced and fair. In practice, as we know, this isn't always the case, and there are certain programmes, such as Littlejohn, which you should avoid at all costs. More importantly, their concept of fairness is a narrow one: as long as both Labour and Tory politicians have had their say, balance is seen to have been achieved, even if the view from Westminster represents just a tiny part of the political spectrum.
Most broadcast outlets are also very conscious of the views of their advertisers, and even more trashy than the printed ones. The result is, once again, conservatism: broadcast journalists appear to be terrified of telling their audience something it doesn't know already.
C. The Game
Another way in which we're up against it is that we take our campaigns seriously, while interviewers tend to see their work as a game, whose political outcome is immaterial, but which must be played by a set of rules. These rules are, at first sight, obscure to people without a lot of media experience. If you don't play by the rules, it's a foul and you're sent off. As our only objective is to win, regardless of etiquette, we tend to foul more often than other contributors. As a result, sometimes we come across very badly.
That's the bad news, but there's also plenty of good news: we have several significant advantages over our opponents.
PART 2: OUR ADVANTAGES
We're genuine people, not hired hands defending a corporate or institutional position. This shows when we allow it to: an open and straightforward appeal to commonsense can cut through the clamour of self-interest and spin-doctoring with a powerful resonance. When we keep our message uncluttered and get straight to the point, we can be devastatingly effective.
B. Articulating Public Sentiment
People are increasingly prepared to listen to what we have to say: many know in their heart of hearts that things are going badly wrong, and could be very much better. Activists in the media have often been able to reach parts of the public psyche that no one else can touch, as they articulate sentiments that have never been put into words before. Hard as it may be to believe, a lot of mainstream journalists are secretly sympathetic to the causes we espouse.
C. Inherent media friendliness
We're colourful, fun, outlandish and outrageous. Much as television executives might claim to hate us, television cameras love us.
PART 3: HOW TO GET THE PRESS TO COME TO YOUR ACTION
News doesn't just happen; it is made to happen. News, in other words, is managed and manipulated. And if we don't manage it, someone else will.
Media work tends to be tacked onto actions as an afterthought, with the result that there's almost always too little of it and too late. Invariably, far too much is left to chance, which means that actions often end up alienating more people than they reach or, even worse, get completely ignored. If we built our tree houses with as little forethought and care as we conduct our press work, there would have been some pretty gruesome accidents by now.
Reaching the media is as time-consuming, as demanding and as necessary as building lock-ons or digging tunnels. If we don't start tackling this task with the efficiency and creativity that we bring to the rest of our work, we'll be worsted again and again by our opponents.
This means that every action aimed at altering public opinion must have a dedicated media coordinator, whose job is to ensure that the activists' point of view reaches the wider world. She or he must be responsible for planning a press strategy, drawing up a hit-list of journalists, preparing press releases and briefing spokespeople. Ideally the coordinator will build up a small team, including someone who stays behind to write and despatch up-to-the-minute press releases and people who will meet and escort the journalists who come to an action.
Not everyone is going to be good at handling the press. To do the job well, you need to be confident, sociable and pretty mouthy. At least one person on the team should be able to write well. But media skills, like any others, can be learnt, and surprisingly quickly.
Is critical. You have to give journalists enough notice of your action or initiative, but not so much that they forget about it. A good time to put out a first, advance press release, for example, is about ten days beforehand, with a second one sent out two days beforehand. Journalists don't only have a three-second attention span, they also have a three-second memory, so you've got to keep on their case.
The day of the week is also important. A great day for an action, from the point of view of publicity, is Sunday, as not a lot happens on Sundays, and journalists need something to put in Monday's papers and in Sunday afternoon's news programmes. If you can do it before lunch, so much the better. The later in the day something happens, the less likely the newspapers are to cover it, as they can't get it to press on time.
If you really want your action to be ignored by the press, then do it on Budget Day. In other words, look out for what else is happening that day. If there's a huge story pending, you don't want to be competing with it. Nor do you want to be competing with another alternative event: they won't cover two protests on the same day.
Most journalists are also astoundly unimaginative and cowardly: they don't want to touch an issue unless it's already been mentioned in the press. If you can pull it off (and it's not always possible), it's very useful to get a friendly and trustworthy journalist to flag the action up a week or two beforehand, without giving too much away.
The best way to achieve this is:
D. Press releases
Journalists speak only one language, and that's their own. If you're going to reach them you have to speak that language too. This means that your press release should mimic the format and style of a news story. It's a simple and straightforward formula and (sorry to be dictatorial) it MUST be applied. If it isn't, your press release won't work. Period.
Here's how to do it:
(from top of page)
Here's how to fill it in, section by section:
i. This is the usual format:
EMBARGO: 00.01am, Friday 15th May
00.01 is a good time, as the papers can then keep up with the broadcasters, and it's less confusing than 00.00.
ii. DON'T put on an embargo if you've got some immediate news, that you want on the radio or TV straight away. Generally, you'd embargo a press release giving advance warning of an action (till about 24 hours before the action's due to start), but not a press release which comes out once the action's started.
iii. The headline must be short, pithy and to the point. Avoid mystery, elaborate puns or being too clever. The purpose of the headline is to grab the journalists' attention and give them an idea of what the press release is about. If it doesn't do both of these things, they'll read no further and dump it in the bin. It must be NO MORE than eight words long. Use a big, bold font.
Writing headlines isn't easy, and generally takes a good deal of practice. So practise. Look at how they do it in the papers, then try writing headlines for imaginary actions, or real ones which aren't going to happen for a while. Remember: in this as in all writing, a straightforward, plain style is best.
iv. The first paragraph. This isn't easy either but, like the headline, it's essential to get it right. You've got ONE sentence in which to tell the whole story. If the journalist doesn't get the jist of it, she or he won't read on.
There is nothing so complicated that its essential point can't be summarised in a simple sentence. So work out what you're trying to say, then boil it down to its essence. As before, look at the news stories in the papers and see how they do it.
v. The rest of the text. Must be no more than two or three paragraphs long, each of which should be no longer than one or two straightforward sentences. They should expand on what you say in the first paragraph. Keep it simple and avoid jargon. Assume (and you won't be far wrong) that journalists know nothing. If there is other essential information which you can't fit in, put it in the Notes for Journalists section. (see below).
Above all, make sure that the first and second paragraphs have covered all the five Ws: WHO, WHY, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN.
vi. Your contact details again. Remember: most journalists have a three second memory, are wilfully blind and very, very stupid, so you have to keep on their case.
vii. Notes to journalists. This is optional. Preferably they should be on a separate page. Journalists have got very little time, and the sight of a huge block of text which is hard to digest will put them off. They want to look at the first page and know that the essentials of the story are there. If they want more, they can turn over and read on.
Generally, you'd write no more than four or five paragraphs of notes (and certainly no more than a page). They should give more details about the rationale for the action: eg facts and figures about genetically engineered soya, DBFO roads etc. In other words, this is the place for the complex information which might put journalists off if it's on the front page.
Number the paragraphs in this section, as it makes it them look easier to digest.
E. What makes a press release effective
News, of course, is meant to be all about novelty, so emphasise what's new about your action. This shouldn't be difficult as the DIY movement is so creative and innovative: people are always coming up with exciting new approaches, so all you have to do is make sure the press hears about them.
Take the Birmingham Northern Relief Road protest, for example. A headline like "Protesters occupy trees along route of new road" will consign a press release straight to the bin, as most journalists will imagine they've heard it all before. But "World's longest sermon threatens to stop new road" (telling the story of the vicar who has discovered that it's illegal to interrupt a priest during his sermon, and intends to preach continually in front of the threatened trees) will make them sit up and wonder what it's all about. If you want to mention the tree-sit, you can do so further on in the text.
There might also be a new political aspect of the story you can use to attract the journalists' attention to your protest: "New road could destroy region's economy, experts say" would, for most journalists, be counter-intuitive and interesting (which shows how much they've been paying attention).
If your action's outside London, and you're organizing transport to get there, say so in the press release, pointing out that journalists are welcome to join you on the coach. Many reporters are so lazy that they won't bother turning up unless everything's laid on for them.
F. When to send press releases
The most critical press release is the one that goes out about two days before the event. Without it, you won't get much coverage, if any at all. But it's a good idea to put one out much earlier than that as well - about ten days prior to the event - so that when the journalists get the second one they should be ready to respond to it.
It's also important to send out a third one the moment the action begins, telling them you've succeeded in stopping work on the bypass/locking Group 4 in their offices etc.
If it's a one day action and your press person has still got the energy and resources, it's no bad thing to send out a fourth press release saying how it all went. A journalist's interest is pretty unpredictable, and could be stimulated at any time.
If the action lasts longer than one day, send out a new press release every day, as long as you've got something to say. Once the event's in the press already, there'll be plenty of opportunities for follow-ups. This is the time when you can sometimes get them to cover the issue you're trying to highlight, rather than simply the event.
G. Who to send them to
The secret of all successful press releasing is getting them to the right people - so find out who the right people are. Make a list of:
* Media outlets you want to reach
* Individual journalists who seem to be interested in/sympathetic to the cause
The more you can reach the better, of course, but, unless you're just aiming at the local press, realistically you want to try to press release at least forty places. If it's a national action and you want national publicity, they must include the following:
All the broadsheet newspapers
ITN/Channel 4 newsroom
The Today programme (on Radio 4), plus PM, The World at One, The World Tonight
Radio 5 Live
NB: You should adapt the tone and contents of your press release to the media you're trying to reach. "Road protesters come to Romford" might be of interest to the Newham Recorder, but to get to the nationals you'd need something more like "New front opens in road war".
H. How to send press releases
Faxing is still the best way to send them, and a fax modem is invaluable. Some journalists are beginning to emerge from the Neolithic, so they might be contactable by email, but on the whole the communications industry is the last place to use up-to-date communications (except the Department of Trade and Industry, which runs the government's Technology Foresight programme, yet can't use email). Don't use snail mail: it invariably gets lost/disregarded/placed on the bottom of the pile.
To get fax numbers, simply phone the papers, TV and radio stations in question and ask for the fax number of the Newsdesk. If you also want to send your press releases to named journalists at the same organisation, it's best to get their fax numbers off them: reception will often give you the wrong fax number, or one that's been out of date for months. Keep all the fax numbers you get for future reference. Best of all, load them permanently into your computer, so, once you've decided who should get what, your fax modem can contact them automatically.
I. Following up
One thing of which you can be absolutely certain is that something will get lost in the newsrooms you're targeting: either your press release, the journalist's concentration or the essence of the story. This means you MUST follow it up with a phone call.
Just a quick one will do. Ask: Did you get it? Will you be covering the action? Do you need any more information?
They're likely to be rude, gruff and unhelpful. But don't be put off - they're paid to be like that. Make sure you're ready, if need be, to summarise the story in one or two sentences; the first question the journalist will ask is "wot's it all about then?", and her/his attention will wander if you spend more than ten seconds telling them.
However rude they are, never fail to be polite and charming: at the very least, you'll put them to shame.
PART 4: HOW TO DEAL WITH THE JOURNALISTS WHO COME TO YOUR ACTION
The whole media-exploitation process is about news management, and this is just as much the case once journalists get to the action as it is when you're trying to attract them. You've got to give the best possible account of what you're doing, and provide the clearest possible explanation of why you're doing it. This means:
A. Make sure the right people talk to the journalists.
Different people do different things best. Some are brilliant at building treehouses or digging shit pits, but not much good at being charming to the running dogs of the counter-revolution. Some people will have just dropped a tab of acid or have last night's vomit stuck in their hair. This won't endear them to journalists, who, in most cases, will be having enough trouble crossing the cultural divide as it is.
Talking to the press is something of an art form: you must be charming, persuasive and well-briefed. Best of all, you'll have practised, by persuading your friends to pretend to be hostile reporters.
B. Be careful, but don't come across as suspicious.
Some of them will be there to help you, others will be there to get you. Sometimes the ones out to get you will pretend to be out to help you. The only real safeguards are:
C. Be a tour guide.
Take them round the site, show them what you want them to see, and steer them away from what you don't want them to see. Introduce them to the people who'll get on well with them, and keep them away from the people who won't be able to restrain their contempt. If it doesn't seem like a major intrusion on their privacy, stay with them, in a friendly way, and talk them through everything they see.
D. Be ready to deal with the ones who don't turn up
However good your publicity, lots of journalists won't be able to make it, but might still be interested. They'll want to know what's happening and how things are going, so there should be at least one person on site with a working and charged-up mobile phone whose number has been posted on the press release. Journalists are suckers for on-the-spot reports, so when they ring, put some excitement into your voice. Give them plenty of colour, make them feel they can see it.
PART 5: BEING INTERVIEWED
Interviews and studio discussions are a bloodsport, and you, the interviewee, are the one of the combatants. People watch or listen to them in the earnest hope that one or other of the participants will be gored to death. Like any other fight, you win not through brute force but through skill. And, like any other sport, there are rules you have to follow.
So here are the rules and tactics. Try them out on your friends. Practice, as in any other sport, is absolutely critical. If you haven't done many interviews before, get someone to pretend to be the interviewer a day or two before you're due to go on, and get her or him to give you a hard time. See how you do, and find out which parts of your technique you'll have to brush up.
If you don't practise, expect to be caught out every time. If you do practise, you'll find that all you have to do is repeat what you've been through already, which isn't a scary prospect at all.
Rules and tactics
i. Be informed. This is the golden rule. Remember, this is an information war, and the best warriors are the ones with the best information. Don't go into a studio unless you're confident that you know your subject better than the person you're up against, and can head her or him off if they try to outfox you with some new facts. This means lots of reading. Make sure your information is reliable and stands up to critical examination.
ii. Be calm. However much the issue, or your opponent, winds you up, you mustn't let it show. Generally the calmest person is the one whom the audience sees as the winner. This doesn't mean you can't be passionate and enthusiastic - indeed these are good things - but your passion and enthusiasm must be tightly controlled and mustn't, repeat mustn't, spill over into anger. If necessary, take a deep breath before answering the question. Be polite but firm with everyone.
iii. Be concise. It's amazing how little time you get. You must know exactly what you want to say, and say it in as few words as possible, with clarity and determination. The main point must come at the beginning of the interview: you should summarise the whole issue in just one or two sentences before expanding on your theme.
iv. It's the answers that count, not the questions. When you go into the studio, you must know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. Don't be too scrupulous about answering the question: deal with it as briefly as possible, then get to the points you want to make. You must leave the studio at the end of the interview knowing you've made the most important points as effectively as possible.
v. Don't try to make too many points. You want to have a maximum of three main lines of argument. Any more and both you and the audience will get lost.
vi. Finish your point. If the interviewer tries to interrupt you before you've got to the important thing you want to say, don't be afraid to carry on talking until you've said it. Sometimes it's useful to say "Just a moment" or "If you'd let me finish". Be assertive without being rude. Don't let yourself be bullied.
vii. Simplicity. Make your points as clearly as possible. Use short sentences and simple words. Try not to use sub-clauses (a sentence within a sentence), as you might confuse the listener.
viii. Turn hostile questions to good account. There are several ways of doing this:
ix. Leave your notes behind. If what you want to say isn't in your head, you shouldn't be in the studio.
x. Project. You're not having a casual chat with the interviewer or the other guest. You have come to make some important points, and you must get them across in such a way that the viewer or listener can't possibly ignore them.
This means that you should put more emphasis into your voice than you'd do in a normal conversation. It might sound strange to you when you first do it (and practice it before you do a real interview), but on air it'll sound fine. In fact, if you don't do it, you'll sound flat and boring. TV and radio are all brightness and colour, and you must sound bright and colourful to make an impact. It's a bit of a balancing act, projecting well without ceasing to stay calm.
xi. Use your body. On TV a good rule is that your head and torso should stay fairly still (which makes you seem solid and trustworthy), but your hands should lend emphasis to what you say (they can help to drive your points home). Eyebrows are pretty useful too.
xii. Humour. If you can do it without making it sound frivolous or irrelevant, a bit of humour can help a lot to win your audience over. Gently satirising your opponent's position is often quite effective. ("Well, let's take a look at this Countryside Alliance. Its main funder is the Duke of Westminster, who, as his name suggests, is a horny-handed son of rural toil. Unfortunately, his rolling green acres in Mayfair and Belgravia keep him in town quite a bit, but at least that allows him to fight off the undemocratic tendencies of the urban oppressor from the benches of the House of Lords...").
xiii. Don't hate your opponent. This is perhaps the hardest task of all, but it is absolutely necessary. Whatever you might think about the person you're up against, you must leave your feelings at the door of the studio. If you allow yourself to hate them, you'll lose your cool, lose focus and lose public sympathy. One way of dealing with your feelings is to regard your opponent as someone who has been misled and needs to be told the truth. Think of your role as being to put them right, rather than to put them down, and you'll find that when you go into the studio you'll be a lot less tense.
And remember - when you go into a studio, you are there to tackle one issue and one issue alone, not to put right the ills of the whole world. Concentrate on one task, and you'll make life a great deal easier for yourself.
PART 6: FOLLOWING UP
A. Keeping up your contacts
It's a good idea to write down the names and numbers of all the journalists you meet, and maybe make a brief note of what they're like and how they treated the subject. If you're going to be involved in a long campaign, keep the sympathetic ones informed about it every so often, so that when the next event comes up, they won't have forgotten what it's all about. Share your contact lists and experiences with people in other campaigns: it could help them a lot.
Activists are treated unfairly by the press more often than any other group of people except gypsies, travellers and asylum seekers. The reasons are not hard to divine: we are challenging powerful vested interests, we are prepared to break the law and, above all, we can be discussed collectively without any fear of libel, as we do not belong to incorporated organisations.
So, for example, the Sunday Times could claim that "eco-terrorist" tree-sitters at Solsbury Hill booby-trapped buildings, attacked guards with catapults and crossbows and dug pitfall traps full of metal stakes, safe in the knowledge that, as long as no one was named, no one could sue, even though the whole bullshit story was refuted by the police. Had it, on the other hand, made the same allegations about security guards, Reliance would have sued the pants off it, even if neither the company nor the guards were named, as Reliance was the only security company on site.
Redressing bullshit stories is difficult, time-consuming and often very frustrating, but sometimes it works. If we don't complain, the media will feel free to do the same thing again and again, so it's worth trying, even if it ends in failure. Here are the options:
Cumbersome and slow as it is, complaining about unfairness in the broadcast media can be spectacularly worthwhile, as the producers of Channel 4's asinine Against Nature series found to their cost. Following thousands of viewer complaints, the Independent Television Commission delivered one of the most damning verdicts in its history, with the result that Channel 4 had to make a humiliating prime-time apology and the series director, Martin Durkin, had to resign from the company he works for. With luck, he will never work in mainstream television again.
Remember: if they stitch you up and you don't complain, they'll do it to you again and again.
PART 7: CONCLUSION
All campaigning is hard work, and exploiting the media is just as hard as any other aspect. We've tended to neglect it in the past, and then wonder why no one comes to our actions. Our movement needs specialist media workers just as much as it needs specialist tree-climbers. The more there are, the more clearly our message will come across, and the more people will be attracted to our cause. This is how small rumblings turn into earthquakes. The revolution will be televised, but that doesn't mean that it won't also be live.
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