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Working the Media

In our media-saturated society, it is critical for activists to know how to use print and online publications, radio, television, and other forms of mass communication to further their aims.

This section of Born Free USA's guide focuses primarily on promoting animal-friendly messages through newspapers, since they are, in general, more easily accessed by grassroots activists than radio or television. Advocates should also, however, investigate opportunities to reach the public in other ways, such as radio call-in shows, public service announcements, on-air editorials, community radio, or local public access cable stations.

Letters to the Editor

The "Letters to the Editor" section of your local newspaper is an ideal forum for dispersing your message. More people read this section than any other part of the newspaper, except for the front page.

Writing a letter to the editor is easy. Here are some tips to maximize your chances of getting your letter printed.

  • Check your newspaper or its website for specific guidelines on how to submit a letter, including information on word counts and methods of submission. Find the address of your local newspaper at the USA newspapers website: www.newspapers.com/usa_news.htm.
  • Keep your letter short, clear and to the point — 250 words maximum.
  • Limit the number of points you make, and stay on message. Avoid rambling sentences.
  • Localize your letter. If relevant, explain how the issue will affect animals in your area.
  • Writing on behalf of a local organization or coalition can give your letter more weight.
  • Type your letter. If possible, send via email. Newspapers prefer email letters because they don't need to be manually entered into their computer system and because they tend to be more timely than those received through postal mail.
  • Your letter stands the best chance of being published when it responds to something recently printed in the newspaper, such as a news story, column, editorial, advertisement, or another letter. Refer to that item as a springboard for stating your case. Your letter can support and expand on something already in the news, make a point that was omitted, or disagree with and correct misinformation.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for action: Tell readers what you want them to do. This includes your elected officials, whose staff read letters to the editor. By putting lawmakers' names in the letter and calling for action — a vote, cosponsoring a bill, opposing legislation — you get their attention fast.
  • Encourage others to submit their own, customized letters on your issue of concern.

The Op-Ed

Op-eds (which are usually published on the page opposite letters and editorials) are a great way to have your say in more detail than in a letter to the editor. If your paper editorializes on a subject and you disagree with that opinion, ask for space to publish an alternative view. Op-eds usually run no longer than 750 words.

You need to have a good grasp of your issue before writing an op-ed. You can expect the paper to exercise considerable editorial control, not only on length, but on style and, to some extent, on content. Be sure to follow its guidelines, including deadlines for submission.

Sometimes, national organizations such as Born Free USA can provide you with sample op-eds on a particular issue. You can use these as a stepping-off point in writing your own piece.

You may also want to "ghost write" an op-ed piece for someone in your community who has significant stature. For example, you might ghost write an op-ed about the cruelty of trapping and ask a religious leader to submit it under his or her name. Some newspaper readers may be more open to an opinion expressed by someone who is not affiliated with an animal advocacy group.

Newspaper Editorials

The editorial page is one of the most important sections of the newspaper. Influencing or responding to editorial opinion is key to any effective campaign. You generally will find editors interested in your viewpoint, even if they disagree with it. And editorial writers are always looking for ideas and facts. By providing your editorial writers with information on your issue, you are helping them do their jobs.

Editorials educate the papers' readers on important topics of the day, shape public attitudes, can make or break electoral candidates, and affect policy at the local, state, and national level. Lawmakers are especially sensitive to editorial opinion published in their district's newspapers. Editorials that highlight animal rights causes, such as promoting legislation to ban veal crates, encouraging residents to take steps to prevent conflicts with wildlife, or educating readers about the cruelty of circuses and rodeos, are valuable resources in the fight to protect animals.

As part of any successful media strategy for your campaign, getting editorials published that support your position should be a priority. Once a paper has editorialized on a subject, good or bad, it's difficult to reverse that opinion. Therefore, it makes sense to get the kind of editorial you want early in your campaign.

Large papers have an editorial "board." Each of the two or more editorial writers on the board may develop specialties or a group of topics about which he or she writes. Find out which editorial writer covers the issue you are interested in. Most small, local papers have only one editorial writer.

Meeting with your editorial writer or board may be easier than you think. Here are a few tips for making your meeting a success:

  • When you call for an appointment, let the secretary know who will attend and what you wish to discuss.
  • If you don't go by yourself, keep your group small. There are a number of ways you can put together a group: have several members of your local animal protection group attend; invite a few community leaders from other organizations who share your viewpoint; or ask individuals who can speak to a specific facet of the issue, such as. educators, scientists, or religious leaders.
  • Meet amongst yourselves first to decide who will say what. As in a meeting with an elected official, you should decide who will be the spokesperson for the group and make sure you introduce all the members.
  • Make your case early in the meeting, and then let the editorial writer ask questions. Remember that the purpose of the meeting is to provide the writer with information about your issue so that he or she will consider doing an editorial from your point of view.
  • Take materials — including fact sheets, supporting documents, photographs, or even video — with you to the meeting. It's likely the writer will want to consider some of the material later, as well as gather information from those with opposing views.
  • Never embellish facts or speculate on points you are not sure of. Guard against false statements, even ones made innocently. It's better to say, "I don't know," then follow up later with the answer. An advocate's credibility is his or her most precious asset.
  • Be sure to leave the names and telephone numbers of your group members in case the paper has questions later.
  • When the meeting is over, let the writer know you think the issue is an important one and worthy of an editorial from the newspaper.
  • Follow up with a letter thanking the editorial writer for the meeting. Add any information you promised and repeat your offer to make yourself or members of your group available for additional information.
  • If you can garner a positive editorial on your issue, you've accomplished a great deal. If the editorial really makes the case for your cause, photocopy it and add it to your portfolio of media clippings. Send it with a cover letter to elected officials. Use it to recruit other groups to your coalition.

CASE STUDY #2

Using the Media to Expose Circus Cruelty

Linda Faso, a Las Vegas animal rights advocate, teamed up with Born Free USA's then–Program Coordinator Sharie Lesniak to expose the harsh realities of the circus. Linda paid to have our anti-circus billboard put up right next to the Orleans Hotel-Casino, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was soon scheduled to perform. The billboard, produced by Born Free USA, shows elephants trying to break free of their shackles and urges viewers to stay away from "The Cruelest Show on Earth."

Once the billboard was posted, several people wrote letters to the editor about it, further raising awareness about circus cruelty. One letter read, "While driving east on Tropicana ... I saw a billboard that made me sad and yet glad it was there for us to see. It was an anti-circus message that made my family and I decide NOT to buy tickets to the upcoming circus ... The message and picture was all we needed to realize that we are done going to circuses with animals."

These letters, in turn, piqued the interest of a local newspaper reporter, who published a story entitled, "Billboard targets upcoming circus." The article included Linda's concerns about the cruelty of circuses — for example, the use of bullhooks, whips, and electric prods on animals — and noted that several people said they would no longer go to Ringling Bros. after seeing the billboard. "From now on I'm just gonna take my kids to Cirque du Soleil" one person told the newspaper, referring to a renowned animal-free circus.

For help with media advocacy, or to learn how you can campaign against animal circuses, contact us at 800-348-7387 or info@bornfreeusa.org.

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