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Guerrilla guides: making the news

Want to get your campaign noticed? Symon Hill provides a ten-step guide to media-friendly activism

September 18, 2008
5 min read

1 Make media a priority

Radicalism and effectiveness are not alternatives. Effective campaigning means making media engagement a priority. I have often seen activists organise an event and then think about promoting it to the media. Put media at the centre of your planning from the beginning.

2 Choose the right media

Who are you trying to influence? If you’re aiming to shift local public opinion, the local press is, of course, vital. When People and Planet launched the ‘green education declaration’, they targeted specialist education media. The news was read by fewer people than if it had been in mainstream media, but they included the vice-chancellors and ministers who the declaration was aimed at.

3 Offer news

Something is only news if it is new. Discussions of opinions are not news – but you can make them news. When the University of London Union campaigned on fairtrade, they could not make headlines simply by repeating its benefits. But by conducting a survey that showed that London students were among Britain’s most enthusiastic fairtrade buyers, they made a good news story. Don’t forget to be imaginative!

4 Have a clear message

Decide what you are calling for and keep repeating it clearly and concisely. Don’t dilute strong arguments by getting led off on tangents or trivialities. Relate your cause to everyday concerns. For example, if campaigning for ethical investment, point out the evidence that it is financially viable as well as having a positive effect on the world. If you speak calmly and appeal to common understandings, radical ideas can appear not only sensible but even obvious.

5 Watch your timing

If aiming for a weekly paper that goes to print on Tuesday afternoon, don’t hold an event on Tuesday evening. Be where journalists are, both literally and metaphorically. It’s difficult to get journalists along to a protest outside a company’s offices, but if you demonstrate outside the company’s AGM, business correspondents will already be there. Contact them in advance and there’s a good chance they’ll come over to speak with you.

6 Talk with journalists

It sounds obvious but is often overlooked! Issue a news release when you act or respond to events (you can find advice on writing releases in the sources below), but don’t rely on the release alone. Phone around the journalists who have received it. Be concise and brace yourself for disappointments – most of them will not be interested. But the chances are that you will find someone who wants to know more eventually.

7 Build contacts

Go back to journalists every time you have a story, especially those who seemed interested earlier. If you’re concise, reliable and give them good stories, they will soon be phoning you for comments. When this happens make sure that someone is available. A good relationship with a few journalists is worth a thousand press releases.

8 Keep it human

A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. For example, Disarm UCL is a group of students campaigning for an end to their university’s arms investments. They discovered that a UCL graduate called Richard Wilson had written a book about his sister’s death as a result of the arms trade. By involving Richard in their campaign they made the story more human and made it harder for their opponents to dismiss them as inexperienced and unrealistic.

9 Make it visual

A good image can make or break your chances of coverage. Photo stunts should be original and meaningful but not too complicated. A great example is students who dressed in military jackets and mortar boards to illustrate military influence on universities. With photos of protests, be careful about the background. I’m amazed how often people protest outside a shop or company without ensuring that the company’s name is visible in shots of the demonstration. Specialist media will often use photos provided by campaigners, so it’s worth finding someone who’s good with a camera.

10 Keep going

Media liaison is hard work, especially when you are new to it. But don’t give up! The more you do, the more contacts you will acquire and the more coverage you will get. Keep your press releases and your phone calls regular. It will all be worth it when you see the coverage making a difference to your campaign.

Sources of help

An Activist\’s Guide to Exploiting the Media by George Monbiot

Be Your Own Spin Doctor by Paul Richards is published by Methuen at £10.99

Symon Hill provides training and media support to campaigners and faith-based groups

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