If politics were for wallflowers, government buildings would look like bungalows and politicians wouldn’t need to give speeches. So for the sake of simplicity let’s start from an understanding that politicians expect to be seen and heard. They would like it to happen at their convenience and on their issues, but they will adopt an issue if you capture their attention, if they can make it serve their needs and if they think it will have resonance with the public. This description may make them sound opportunistic, but keep in mind that as public figures, they need to be, well public. If you never hear from or see your legislator again after you elect them, then you might begin to wonder what if anything they were doing for you. Also keep mind that a representative in parliament who can’t seize an opportunity when one is presented isn’t going to do you a lot of good in the long run.
What this preference for press means for you and your issue is that you have to think of ways of making it sexy or at least ensuring that elements of it have broad appeal. While working in the public interest is a great starting point, it doesn’t necessarily capture headlines much less passing media interest. The media likes conflict, sex appeal, violence and sensation, or more to the point, the assumption is that consumers of media like those things. If you’re lucky on a slow Friday in the summer, you might get them to pay attention to human interest stories. Again, this isn’t a commentary on the personal peccadilloes of reporters, but a reflection of the corporate demands that now plague journalism and what you and I as a members of the public have indicated we are willing to pay for. This is what bumps online ratings, sells papers and raises television audience numbers.
As a start test its appeal with family and friends. Do people start to glaze over when you tell your story? Do they get angry, do they laugh, sympathize? Do they appear shocked? If you can get a reaction from them that isn’t bored indifference you’re on the right track. If your audience is glazing over halfway through your story, then you might want to take a slightly different approach to telling it. For instance, you can take your issue and consider the worst-case scenario. What could possibly happen if nothing is done? What are the implications of leaving things at the status quo? Don’t stretch the bounds of believability, but try to follow through on what might happen if things did not change. Stir in a few experts. Consider the plight of those impacted and suddenly you have a news story. It also helps if you can think of a catchy way to express your concerns. The catchier, the more likely it is to end up as a sound bite on the news. This may seem crass, but it works.
Then of course there is social media. There are volumes written on the many ways you can generate attention on your issue by blending traditional and social media campaigns or simply taking the social media route. I would say though that unless you already have a strong online following or are about to start an active campaign to get that following, then you will want to look at blending. Although it can sometimes seem that anything can be made popular online from screaming goats to funny dances, it’s harder to do than it looks. It’s also true that not all coverage is necessarily good coverage.
Timing is also critical to the successful launch of a story.
Any number of things can obliterate a good story, from bad weather conditions to a single but memorable violent act. A sporting event that has captured the attention of the public can make your story go from leading to pleading for coverage. You can manage some things, like avoid launching a story around an important holiday unless you can tie your story to it. Elections are tempting times to launch stories too, but do it with care. If you cost a party a drop in the polls or even a temporary setback during an election campaign, they will remember you and it won’t be fondly. Take a look at the local events calendar, not just to avoid conflicting activities but to look for opportunities.
Whatever approach you adopt remember, media is a blunt tool.
There is little purpose in using the media strictly as a way of getting a legislator’s attention. If you use it, it must be with the understanding that you are trying to get a message out to a broad audience, including those who may disagree with your perspective.
Do you have any media success or failure stories? Any news you saw that you knew wasn’t true or received a revelation by watching the news? I’d love to hear your stories.