it often seems that no matter what
we do the mainstream media will trivialize activists and ignore legitimate democratic
concerns and democratic process. sometimes the "alternative" media
don't give us the space and consideration we expect from them. this leaves many
activists wondering if the media are worth any effort at all. it's also annoying
when people we meet say things like "the only way to be effective is to
get mainstream media coverage" or suggest that if an event was not covered
in mainstream media it was a waste of energy. these attitudes can make us feel
like we want to completely avoid media work. that's a totally reasonable response.
this section of the handbook is designed to help you take control of your relations
with the media and think of creative and satisfying ways to engage it.
why do media?
if your group is very visible (with costumes, carrying puppets, etc.) it is very likely you will get a lot of media attention and you will need to be ready for it. that's good if you're trying to attract media, but it's a hazard to be prepared for if you're wearing costumes for some other reason.
this section is organized as follows
when we decide to do media work or to include a media component of an action, we want to think about the many different kinds of media that exist. a media strategy includes a lot of choices about which media to engage and which to disengage. these decisions should be made in relation to the GOALS of the action. here’s a brief topology of the media landscape in most towns:
l the “mainstream”/corporate-owned media
l the “alternative”
l activist media
l local organizations’ media for members
l popular/street media/“working class art”
no media group can do everything (or even everything they want to do). which engagements are possible with available (or gettable) resources? which of these are most likely to be successful in reaching the ACTION GOAL? media activists working on an action need to be very clear with themselves and other folks about what they are NOT willing to be responsible for. here are a few examples of what the media group might take responsibility for:
l the media team will only be dealing with the mainstream media and major alternative media through press releases, designated spokespeople, and press conferences.
l the media team will focus on setting up a dispatch system with indymedia reporters
l the media team will focus on ensuring all actions have good media messaging (banners, stickers, leaflets) and liaisons standing by to intercept reporters.
l the media team will focus on direct outreach with posters and fliers to designated neighborhoods and community organizations.
l the media team will aim to protect organizing spaces from media pressure through media handlers stationed outside the gathering/action space
along with deciding what to take responsibility for, the media team needs to make clear its expectations from and services to other working groups in the action. will the media team expect people from the legal team to make statements/provide statistics? will the media team be “representing” activists? if so, how will diversity be represented? will the media team endeavor to deliver mainstream media to each action? most importantly the media team needs to understand that other activists may be very concerned about helping to shape the message. messaging needs to be developed jointly and outside the media working group!
don’t forget that “engaging” the media landscape doesn’t have to mean conveying your message politely to corporate-media reporters. it can also mean
l disrupting live tv news reports (or holding your message behind the reporter’s head). see we interrupt this empire video.
l targeting the media by blockading their doors or making a lot of noise until they agree to play/print your message in its entirety.
l tricking or manipulating the media (hinting at breaking windows to attract them to a very different kind of action).
l refusing interviews with mainstream media (just faxing/handing to them the call to action, informational broadsheets, action guidelines, and referring to them to the local indymedia website)
l putting all your interviewing resources into activist media.
There are lots of ways to get your message out. There is a temptation/tendency for groups to sometimes spend tremendous amounts of energy on planning and going to an action while neglecting (or paying less attention to) getting the word out about what they are doing and why.
whether you are a media working group for a large mobilization or a 2-person media team for a small rally, you can do some incredible media work. in choosing a tactic, your first consideration should be the GOAL of the action, your second consideration should be your resources, and your third consideration should be your own good judgment about how you can honor the tone and intent of other activists while doing something that sounds fun and empowering to you. don’t forget that doing something hard for the first time (like writing a press release) can end up being a really good experience! large media teams can do multilayered, complex strategies involving hundreds of contacts. a small media team for an affinity group action or a local event might choose smaller tactics like these:
l recruiting an indymedia reporter to cover the event for the local site and making sure s/he has a digital camera to take photos for the feature.
l acting as an indymedia reporter…
l identifying one seemingly progressive reporter in the local newspaper and building a connection with them, providing them with information about the event, setting up interviews, greeting them when they arrive, thank them for coming, doing follow up with them after the event (particularly if they can’t make it), and thanking them for the coverage they do.
l writing an opinion article for the local “alternative” weekly or radio station.
l organizing graffit, stencils, chalking, or banners announcing the event in the days prior.
l making a leafleting run to the local farmers market, plaza, or other high-traffic location
l writing a brief report on the action for publication in newsletters of local progressive organizations.
l faxing out press releases to a list of local mainstream and alternative media before and after the action.
There are lots of different ways that you can do media… and even if you don’t actually go the action! Doing media strategically means starting your media work before you go to an action, doing media work during the action, and following up with the media after the action is over.
We like to think about these distinct ‘roles’ or ‘teams’ whose work should hopefully complement each other: an ‘at home’ media team, a media liaison as an affinity group role, the ‘action’ media team, and independent media or the IMC.
l help activists get ready to talk to the media
l media watch
l pressure local and national media to cover the events accurately
l send updates on the mass action and your local action to your local independent media center (imc). to find your local imc, go to the main imc page and scroll down the left hand side
affinity group media liaison(s): it is likely that many people in your group will not feel comfortable talking to the media. most of us are not used to speaking in front of cameras and microphones so they make many of us nervous (which in turn makes us sound less sharp or pithy than we might actually be!).
we recommend making sure your group has a media liaison. this person should be very familiar with the talking points (find these online or maybe your group has prepared its own) & feel comfortable speaking to the media. however! everyone in your group should also be responsible for being able to intelligently answer the question "why are you out here today?" if a microphone is stuck in their face. after that, people can feel free to refer media inquiries to the group's media liaison. this is an important role and a good media liaison really, really needs to practice! it is a great role for someone who wants to sharpen their understanding of the issues because you will have to practice with the talking points and you will get very good at explaining complex issues in a concise way.
some tips for being a good liaison [from Spin Works! by Robert Bray]
l you have something important to say and you want people to listen. Build up your self-confidence and command attention
l have your messages in mind before the interview!
l don’t be thrown off by their questions. Turn the question back to your key messages
l don’t try to explain everything in your soundbite or interview. stay on message.
l if you goof, it’s OK. ask the reporter if you can start over, unless you’re on live (very rare)
l practice, practice, practice. and if you do mess up don’t worry; the movement won’t collapse
independent media (imc): be the media with the imc! If there is not already an imc in the city where an action is taking place, a temporary imc will usually be set up locally by imc’ers from out of town. Find out (at the convergence center) where the imc is set up and stop by to get involved. there are many roles to take. assess your skills, maybe you aren’t excited about being a media spokesperson but you have important computer tech skills or are good at typing. The imc may need you!
l join a team producing a video segment or a daily local newspaper
l work security
l do tech support for the imc computers
l answer the phone, take street reports, and put them on the newswire
l translate documents and reports into another language, e.g., Spanish.
l be a video “runner” — dash into the action so videographers can unload their tape and get it back safely to the imc
action media team: this is not the same as the imc. usually the organizing committee for the direct action sets up another kind of media team to deal especially with press inquiries and stage press conferences. they act as ‘media handlers’ and communicate with the mainstream media. they need help with:
l media analysis
l setting up & promoting press conferences
l writing press releases
l media appearances on phone or video
l contacting and following up with reporters
l finding a diverse collection of articulate activists willing to give interviews
the media working group needs to make a stark evaluation of its resources.
l are there folks skilled at giving interviews with corporate-owned media who are likely to twist words? if so, which of the following media are the media spokespeople comfortable with: print, radio, tv?
l are there folks willing and able to do other relations with mainstream media such as organizing press conferences, writing press releases, making follow-up calls with reporters, logistics like arranging interviews, etc.
l do people have strong connections with workers in the local “alternative” media? which ones?
l is there a functioning indymedia center or activist radio station?
l what sounds fun to us? what do we have energy for?
l does the media committee have access to funds to create its own media?
your message is central to your media strategy! you will need to decide what is the core of what you want to say. the goal of a message is to capture the very essence of your issue, stated in an accessible way. great messages will capture how you are framing the issue, what your position it, and a call for action. amessage is not, "that full truckload of information and issues that you want to dump on the American people" as Jim Hightower insists. instead, it is what this truckload boils down to, articulated in a provocative way so that people will get it, remember it. be imaginative about how to display and convey your message. the possibilities are endless. sometimes people focus messages on large, highly visible things like banners or signs.
l don’t answer reporters’ questions, RESPOND to them
l speak in soundbites
l repeat your messages
l stay ‘on message’
l make ‘key messages’ your mantra
l good messages will be consistently conveyed to your audience in multiple media, including banners, signs, posters, stickers, soundbites, song, radical cheers, chalking, and so on
l if you are going to be on the street, you might consider yourself a walking message so that even if you don’t speak with passers-by, your message will be expressed (imagine the impact of your group while taking the subway to an action). Visible messaging is also great in case photographers take your picture and add it to a poorly written story because they neglected to talk to your well-prepared media liaison.
Talking points are a good investment because they can be used over and over again in letters to the editor, press releases, posters, flyers, and interviews.
l Never wing it. and don’t make up stuff. if you do, you are likely to say something you regret.
l translate your message into soundbites and into language that wide audiences will understand.
l a soundbite is a short, pithy version of your message that you can say in 8 to 10 seconds. good soundbites don’t come naturally for most of us so you will need to spend time thinking up and practicing them
l the longer you speak, the more likely the media is to make you sound stupid. soundbites should be pre-written and preferably memorized.
it’s hard to emphasize how important it is to practice your talking points, your soundbites, and speaking coherently under pressure. some of us have been to trainings where activists used real videocameras to practice & then critique themselves. it is harder than you might think! and most of us aren’t ‘naturals’.
l practice in front of a mirror
l practice with a friend, role play being interviewed
l practice with a pen, use it as a ‘microphone’ and get your friends to stick it in your face while asking tricky questions
l if you have visible messaging on your body or as part of your costume (highly recommended!), practice moving with it in place. how will it show up on camera? is your message legible?
l when you are practicing, keep in mind 2 fairly easy types of answers to press questions.
o When you're really not prepared or motivated, refer them to the press liaison, either your local one or the one at the action.
o go almost immediately into your message. You don't even have to be very tactful about the transition -- listen to your elected officials sometime.
when speaking to the press, you don’t want to accidentally incriminate yourself or others and you don’t want to jeopardize any criminal cases that may be related to the events you’ve witnessed.
MAKING YOUR STORY PUBLIC—cautionary note from Miami Activist Defense
It is normal for
people who have been victims of police violence or had their rights violated
to want to publicly tell their story. MAD supports activists telling the truth
about what happened and forcing the media to acknowledge police brutality and
government repression. This can often be helpful both to the victim (cathartic)
and to the "cause" (giving evidence and plausibility to widespread
police abuse claims). However, there are certain problems inherent in divulging
one's story to the public that may affect criminal cases (possibly more than
just the victim's) and any civil rights claims made in the future. Once your
story is out there or shared in the public domain (newsprint, on the internet,
etc.), it no longer has the confidential privilege that it may have had when
you told it to MAD or your lawyer. This information can come back to haunt you
Press Releases also called "news releases" are the main way we alert the press to our events. The hope is we end up with some sort of article which serves to inform people and get them interested (or there!). Other ways to do this are to get on the community calendars around town. Locally-focused newspapers and radio often have community calendars. Teach-ins are more like a public service and so "public service announcements" are a good way to publicize them. Media often treat PSAs specially, and it can be a way to get 30 seconds of radio time several times on a station.
l before you write a bad press release (which is easy), try to find a good sample first. [the ‘activist guide to exploiting the media’ has a lot of good tips—link here?]
l books recommend telephoning reporters after you send the press releases.
l compile and maintain a list of media contacts so you know where and to whom your press releases should be sent. We are indebted to someone in our local Green Party for our list of media contacts.
l Groups which have been in the community for a long time and/or who are used to doing press outreach are good people to get to know.
organizing a good press conference isn’t too difficult but you do need to think it through and plan it out.
l choose an accessible location (courthouse or library lawn is good)
l choose a reasonable time (within a couple of hours of the event being discussed)
l send out press releases of the event
l organize a sequence of speakers who can articulately address the issues. if there are “victims” of the issue you are covering, see if any are willing to talk to the media
l encourage speakers to write down their statements and read them
l appoint an mc type person to run the show and field questions from reporters
l make sure all speakers are clear about any legal issues at stake
l re-package your talking points with some art and the specifics of your event and distribute to the obvious places.
l Stacks of flyers or quarter-sheets work well on counters in stores and such. Many venues allow posters or flyers to be posted.
l sometimes wheat paste (link a wheat paste recipe? http://www.radio4all.org/aia/comm_postering.html) is a good way to hang up your posters
l College campuses are good spots for posters. Be sure that your listed contact is prepared to talk about the issues and information before the posters are up because sometimes reporters call based on seeing posters.
be sure to cover the basics and if at all
possible include contact information so people who are interested can discover
anything crucial you may leave out. Try to answer "who" (who should
come, who is sponsoring the event, who to contact for more information), "what"
is the event, "when" and "where" is it (don't assume everyone
who sees your poster knows what "
l don’t forget to double-check all this information several times before moving ahead. You'll also use it on other forms of outreach so it needs to be accurate.
books we like:
l Jason Bray’sSpin Works
l Jason Salzman’sMaking the News
websites we like:
l George Monbiot's Activist Guide to Exploiting the Media
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