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How Advocates Can Create Pitches That Lead to Media Coverage: 5 Tips from Journalists

For every news story about soaring COVID case counts & devastating pandemic losses, there are countless other untold tales about the long-standing work of public health advocates. Check out these tips from PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group to learn how advocates can best get their stories to the media.

  • Chinyere Amobi
woman reading newspaper 1112

One of the few silver linings of the pandemic is that it has forced many people to realize the immense importance of the press, not only in sharing crucial information but also in influencing what solutions seem possible. In a similar way, officials, the public, and the media are now beginning to see what public health is and how important health departments and community-based organizations are in advocating for policies that protect entire populations from disease and address inequities in health outcomes.

But for every news story about soaring case counts, staff shortages, and other struggles facing public health workers, there are countless other untold tales about the long-standing work public health advocates and health departments have done to earn community trust, dispel misinformation, and meet essential needs.

During a recent event on communicating about COVID, Berkeley Media Studies Group (supported by Public Health Institute’s Together Toward Health project) brought together several journalists—Anh Do, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Maria Eraña, director of broadcasting at Radio Bilingüe, and Nadia Lopez, Latino communities reporter at The Fresno Bee—for a panel discussion aimed at giving public health advocates the skills they need to communicate effectively with reporters. Participants gained tips for crafting compelling pitches about the work they’ve been doing before and during the pandemic; they also learned ways to better convey complex information, think like an editor, and build stronger relationships with reporters.

What was born from that event was a set of valuable insights for advocates hoping to harness the power of the news to influence systems-level change that impacts the structures and environments in which health happens.

Go beyond statistics to highlight the human element of your issue

Do kicked off the conversation by sharing how she and her colleagues seek the humanity behind pitches, rather than only statistics and fact sheets.

“The heart of every health story is the human ingredient,” Do said. “It’s the voices, the experiences, the fears and the daily challenges of people.”

Eraña stressed that that human element helps readers better connect to stories, even after a year of depending on experts for advice on how to live everyday life. “Depending on who your audience is, when people listen to other people like themselves, they connect immediately and feel more at ease,” said Eraña.

The Radio Bilingüe director also echoed a philosophy present in much of BMSG’s work about the importance of also stepping back to highlight the systemic forces and landscape that shape a subject’s experiences. Doing so can highlight the structural factors behind individual decisions and help both advocates and reporters avoid placing the blame on the very communities experiencing disparities and other issues. This can be especially important when reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, where differences in case and vaccination rates can be due to structural issues of exposure and access, rather than just the decisions of individuals. An individual-level story might focus on a person’s concerns or path to getting a vaccine; a systems-level story would also include a focus on systemic barriers to accessing the vaccine or community-led efforts that can eliminate those barriers.

Avoid shallow pitches

In line with tying pitches to larger, systemic stories, panelists advised advocates to avoid aiming exclusively for one-time coverage or event coverage through their pitches.

“Reporters don’t care about name dropping in a press release,” Lopez said. “If you’re a reporter like me that reports on an underserved community or a specific community, [and you propose] an interview with a person because you think they’re important, that’s not going to resonate with me unless you highlight how that’s relevant to my audience.”

Do and Lopez encouraged advocates to highlight within their pitches how an individual, organization, or event ties to a larger issue that impacts their audience. Doing so, while highlighting ways that your story is newsworthy, can increase the chances that your pitch grabs a reporter’s attention.

Tailor your pitch to the reporter, outlet, and its audience

One goal of the event was to demystify the pitching process and give advocates the inside scoop on how to make sure their stories resonate with journalists in a way that sparks meaningful coverage.

Panelists urged advocates to do their homework before reaching out to reporters and outlets. A well-tailored pitch can show that you understand an outlet’s audience and a reporter’s area of coverage — and that you’re interested in more than just one-time coverage.

“Tailoring a pitch to the needs of a specific region or community can really help you better establish a relationship with a reporter,” Lopez said. “It shows that you’re not just sending a broad pitch out to everyone; you’re really trying to understand things on a local level.”

This can also help advocates know ahead of time what additional materials to include within a pitch (such as compelling visuals or audio), based on their target outlet’s medium.

“You need to build that relationship with your regional or local media, get to know the people that are involved in what capacities, and then decide whether this information that you have would be good for this platform or another platform,” said Eraña.

Give the reporter enough time and information to cover your issue

Advocates often put a great deal of time into publicizing reports, planning events, and crafting press releases, only to be disappointed with lackluster media coverage. But what might be perceived as a lack of interest in your issue or event might be a simple matter of time.

“Normally for things that are not disaster-related or crime-related, it’s very hard to get someone to cover your big news when they only have like five or six hours lead time,” Do said. “You don’t have to have a perfectly crafted release. You can just email someone and say, ‘this is going to come up in two or three months; I just wanted to put it on your radar, and I’ll be back with more details.’”

All panelists emphasized that because reporters have deadlines and must justify their story choices with their editors, pitches should be straight to the point:

“The more direct and concise that you are, the better,” Eraña said.

Highlight the newsworthiness of your pitch

Reporters are always interested in answering the “why” or “why now” for the audience.

 

“Think about what is new, what is different, what is the hook I need to provide to call attention to my story,” Eraña said. “You have put yourselves in the shoes of the reader, the viewer, the listener: What stories do you remember, which ones had an impact on you? That can guide you on how you should present your stories.”

To make your pitch as compelling as possible, be clear about why an outlet’s audience should care about your issue, and give reporters everything they would need in a pitch to justify covering your story.

“Especially with health information or complex problems that may be dominating headlines, if it’s lengthy or complicated, explain or provide links to help reporters answer those questions they might already be having in the pitch itself so they can reach out to you for additional details,” Lopez said.

At the end of the day, reporters and public health advocates have the same goal: communicating information that educates, informs, and may spark changes that can save their audiences, through policies and other solutions.

“But it’s really important to always be focused and centered on who the audience is,” Lopez said. “Who are we writing for? Who are we trying to help?”’

The panel was hosted with funding from Blue Shield Foundation of California, The California Endowment, and Together Toward Health, a program of the Public Health Institute.

Originally published by Berkeley Media Studies Group


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