Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

Better to be looked over, than overlooked: eight essentials for media advocacy

The news isn’t news, but ‘olds’ with new information. Nickolastock/

I gave my first news media interview in 1976, after publishing a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia about the elderly making up the lion’s share of psychotropic drug use.

In the 39 years since, I have given what must be several thousand interviews to journalists and reporters in all media. I taught a public health media advocacy course for 22 years and wrote textbooks on the why and the how of media advocacy.

I’m often asked for “golden rules” on how to get access in what is nearly always a highly competitive funnel of single-issue advocates trying push their way into the media. So here are eight bare essentials.

1. Help journalists do their job, and they will help you do yours

Reporters and journalists need you just as much as you need them.

Understanding this can develop mutual respect: you will get your issues covered and they will produce stories which get published or broadcast, thereby helping their own reputations and career paths.

If they do not know of your existence, or if they find your cause or the way you usually present it dull and lacking in newsworthiness, you will have no mutually beneficial relationship.

However, if they know and respect you as a regular news source or commentator, they will often seek you out as someone who helps them get their job done.

If your disposition is to see contact from a journalist as a pain or low priority, just forget ever becoming a go-to person.

2. Respect deadlines

We are all busy and media contacts can be unplanned and unwelcome distractions.

But how many of your daily routines carry the promise of getting an important message in front of sometimes hundreds of thousands and occasionally millions of people, including senior politicians who you’d walk on broken glass to talk to personally?

So when a journalist calls, try your best to make room. If you are otherwise engaged, give a time soon when you will call back or recommend someone else who can help. If you promise to send something, do it.

Journalists have their deadlines too, and if you don’t respect these, this will be remembered and a mental note made, no matter how expert you might be. There are always others who will be good enough.

3. Answer your phone

For seven years, I was a regular guest on Adam Spencer’s Sydney ABC breakfast program with a listening audience of sometimes half a million. I once asked him why he called me so often and he told me immediately “because you always answer your phone! The number of people we rang and they missed out because they didn’t realise tomorrow morning was their one shot, was incredibly frustrating”.

I once tried to organise a project for my faculty to get online “talk to an expert” contact details for a media-targeted resource. A depressing number of colleagues refused to have their mobile phone numbers listed as they “didn’t want to be called on a Sunday morning”.

They weren’t, or on most other days either. Charge your phone batteries, and have the phone next to your bed. Breakfast radio has huge audiences.

4. Understand the sub-texts of why your issue is newsworthy and play to them

Any given health problem or groups and individuals suffering from it is not intrinsically newsworthy. Those working in particular health areas eat, live and breathe their topic, but journalists and media audiences are interested in particular health issues, facts or events only because they tick broader newsworthy subtexts.

In my main area, tobacco control, failsafe subtexts include the themes of corporate Pied Pipers leading kids into addiction and danger; corporate venality and mendacity at the expense of public health suffering and death; and the “half pregnant” principle (for example, the inconsistency of banning smoking in every workplace except in high roller rooms of casinos – presumably because tobacco smoke from the wealthy’s cigarettes is non-toxic).

These are examples of reliable shoulders on which the latest data, facts or events can hang. In this sense, the news isn’t news, but “olds” with new information. Learn to think beyond the overt, factual pitch of your story, to understand why these facts are something people might care about. That’s the story that will get a journalist’s attention.

5. Use killer facts and appositions

Photo supplied via Thorgrimur Thrainsson, Iceland.

Every health issue has memorable, unforgettable facts and comparisons well known to those working with that issue.

Try and get these into each media opportunity you have so they become part of every conversation about your issue.

Many years ago, I once repeated poster slogan I’d seen in Iceland:

A non-smoking section of a restaurant is like a non-urinating section of a swimming pool.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that repeated since, I’d be very well off.

6. Target newspapers

Newspapers are experiencing what may be an inexorable decline thanks to digital media, but they remain hugely influential and often set large swathes of follow-up and related news coverage during the day.

In Sydney, it’s been quipped that ABC morning radio is the Sydney Morning Herald for the visually impaired: staff scan the paper for important and interesting stories, read out excerpts and then follow-up some with interviews of expert commentators.

So try to get newspaper coverage and other media are likely to follow.

7. Understand the medium you are appearing in

If you are being interviewed for TV news, your comments will be edited into one or two soundbites or grabs. On Australian TV news, the mean length of these are just 7.2 seconds.

Radio interviews in peak audience times rarely go for more than five to ten minutes, often less. There’s almost an inverse relationship between the length of an interview and the size of the audience for it.

Newspaper interviews for comment on a news story will typically see one or two sentences selected from an interview that might have taken ten minutes.

Knowing these parameters in advance allows you to prepare the most important points you want to make. Often journalists start with a broad opening question which allows you to quickly hone in on the most important things you want to say.

I nearly always sketch out three or four such points in dot point form, and then try to move quickly through each of these. If a journalist disrupts the flow of these with a tangential question, deal with it quickly then jump back to your goals.

Fashion memorable soundbites and use these at every opportunity. With 7.2 seconds on offer, they may be the only things you say that are used, so make the count.

If a print journalist asks me for a comment, I promise to send a selection within the next ten minutes, and always do. The precision with which you can compose a sentence or two is generally far preferable than trusting that a journalist will pull the points out of an interview you hope will be emphasised. Most journalists are very grateful for this. It saves them precious time.

8. Be opportunistic

Saying someone is an opportunist is usually pejorative. But it’s among the highest praise you can give an advocate. Pull the car over if you hear an opportunity to contribute to a radio discussion, note anniversaries of important events for your issue and surf the interest that will arise.

Don’t be put off by the thought of your intrusions being unwelcome. The media relies on them for content and the few that will get you access make the many that don’t quickly forgotten.

This pre-print of a paper in the Journal of Health Communication sets out the thoughts on the importance of news media access by some 35 of Australia’s peer-voted most influential public health researchers.