Making it easy as pie for the media to cover your story
For a fun-filled year I worked as a program coordinator for the Clean Plant Network (CPN).
The program focuses on testing and cleaning up viruses out of fruit trees, hops and wine grapes. Sexy, huh! Well, actually, it is… in an economic impact kind of way.
Let’s say a grower plants a couple hundred acres of new apple trees. It’s going to take five years for those trees to get big enough to produce apples. After the five years the grower goes out to harvest but finds out his apple trees have a virus the impacts the taste and the look of the apple. Goodbye apples!
But we’ve just started with the economic impact. The grower has to bulldoze the virus infected trees out, comb through the soil to pull out any remaining root that can spread the virus to new trees. Then they use chemicals to clean out any leftover virus in the soil. In some cases, the soil has to sit dormant before new trees can be planted.
The grower has lost time and money. And it’s going to take more time and money to get that orchard planted and producing again. (This time, hopefully, with “clean,” virus-free trees.)
News release. Media release. They’re the same, right?
Well, that depends. Some people use the terms interchangeably. In their world the two terms mean the same thing.
Other people differentiate between news releases and media releases. A news release is something you write in hopes it will get printed or posted with few, if any, edits. For this group, a media release entices the media to cover your story.
Terri, can you give me an example to better define the difference between a news release and a media release?
I’m so glad you asked!
The Tri-City Water Follies pulls in a lot of spectators for its annual hydroplane races on the Columbia River. Water Follies public relations might send a news release to outline all the activities for the week. They might send out a news release telling the story of a 93 year old who hasn’t missed a hydroplane race in since the race started in 1966. A news release might focus on what spectators can and can’t bring to the park during the races.
A Water Follies press release would let the media know when they will crane the first hydroplane into the river. It might alert the press about the time and location for a press conference with three of the top hydroplane pilots (drivers). It might let reporters know that about a hydroplane engineer/mechanic ready and willing to share how design changes will make the hydroplanes less likely to crash. (Although, many think the crashes are the best part of the races… as long as no one gets hurt!)
To start, let’s focus on writing news releases
Before you start writing a news release you first need to ask and answer some key questions.
Who is your target audience?
What do you want to achieve with this news release? Is your objective to change the public’s attitudes and perceptions? Or do you just want to increase attendance at your next event?
What’s the WIIFM?
Umm… Terri… you kinda skipped over WIIFM. What the heck is WIIFM?
Thank your for asking, again! Let me start with a little story.
Several years ago a young woman asked if she could talk my the class before we got started. “Sure!” I said. The woman explained she was running for Miss Washington. That year they had too many contestants to fit them all into the pageant. So, the pageant started an online poll. The top ten vote-getters would land an invitation to the pageant. She asked her fellow students if they would go online and vote for her. A young man raised his hand and asked, “What’s in it for me?”
Okay, that’s kinda rude, but it does drive home the point. We generally aren’t interested in stuff unless we know it’s going to help or hurt us. So, big deal if your company released a new product. What’s in it for me? To motivate the reader/viewer you have to explain how your new product will make you smarter, richer, better looking, more intriguing.
Several years ago, Apple developed an ultra-thin hard drive that could hold 5 Gigabytes of data. That’s nice but “What’s in it for me?” Steve Jobs answered the WIIFM when Apple introduced the iPod. Just listen to from 6:41 to 9:55 to see how Jobs lists off WIIFMs.
iPod plays all formats at CD quality level. (Okay, that’s nice but lots of things play music at CD quality level… like my CD player.)
You can load over 1,000 songs onto an iPod. (What? I can load all my music I’ve collected over the years in one place? That’s crazy cool! But this thing must weigh a ton…)
An iPod fits in your pocket. (What??? What did he just say??? All my songs in one place and it fits in my pocket? You’ve got my attention!)
Terri’s writing tip: Don’t start writing until you know the WIIFM
Now that we have the answers to why we’re writing this news release and why people will want to know let’s take a look at formatting.
How to format a news release
Used to be a news release needed to be double-spaced. That’s so editors could easily make changes and edits to the copy. Now we deliver news releases electronically. We can make edits easily using word processing software. So… single-space or double-space. It’s up to you. (Or check with your company to see what the standards are.)
Legible 12 point font. Courier, Ariel or Times New Roman works. Save the fancy, calligraphy style fonts for wedding invitations!
Don’t split sentences or paragraphs between pages. No hyphenated words. (I think this goes back to the snail mail days when pages could get separated from each other.) It’s still a good idea. It visually makes it easier for the reader to read it.
Put a slug on additional pages
Use AP Style
Parts of a news release
Traditional (paper) news releases have six (sometimes seven) parts.
Letterhead from the company or organization you’re representing
A list of contacts in case the reporter has questions.
A headline. Some releases include a sub-head.
A dateline. We need to let them know where this is happening.
The lead paragraph
The body of text
Sometimes, news releases include a short description of the company or organization you’re representing. This gives reporters/editors background. Many times it’s just automatically included in any company’s news release template. The term used to describe this description is called a “boiler plate.”
What’s true for the traditional news release pretty much holds for electronic news releases. Let’s take a look at this news release put out by CWU.
Letterhead? Sure. There’s the CWU banner across the top of the page. There’s the CWU News line. It’s pretty clear this comes from Central.
Headline? Yup. It’s right there for the world to read.
Dateline? Okay, that is missing. If you don’t know what a dateline is, look it up in the AP Stylebook.
Lead Paragraph? It’s there. (Although, I believe the first sentence has too many words. But that’s for another lesson.)
Body of Text? That’s there too.
But what about the Contact info? Well there’s some differing philosophies about where to put the contact info. Some believe the contact info should be at the top of the page so it can be seen quickly. Others, like Central, believe in putting that info at the end of the news release.
Central’s wants reporters to work through public affairs rather than contacting news makers directly. There are advantages and disadvantages to that policy. Trust me. If I start down that road I’ll be ranting for hours.
Now that you’ve learned a bit about the make up of a news release, go back to Canvas and complete this assignment.
How a red-neck Alabama sheriff made hard-hitting journalism possible
Once upon a time, actually covering the news often landed you in court. During the Civil Rights movement Southern government officials had a clever way to control the press. They’d sue them. If the New York Times covered how police set dogs on protesters, government officials would sue the New York Times claiming libel. When a network newscast showed video of police using fire hoses on Civil Rights marchers, local government officials filed libel suits.
While these nuisance law suits may not slow down big news agencies like NYT, the threat of lawsuits could and did influence how or whether news organizations would cover controversial issues. The threat of a lawsuit acted as a chilling effect for some organizations to cover the news. Then New York Times v Sullivan came along.
It started with an advertisement in support of Martin Luther King
In the 1960s Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights advocated for voting rights, the right to ride a bus or go to a restaurant or bathroom without being segregated. Many times MLK got arrested for fighting for these rights. While chilling in a jail cell, supporters created and bought ad space in the New York Times trying to raise money for MLK’s legal fund.
The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South shared stories in the ad describing incidents where police took action against peaceful protestors. You can read the entire advertisement March 29, 1960 ad here. Here’s one of the stories.
“In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truck-loads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus.
When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was pad-locked in an attempt to starve them into submission.”
The ad did have some factual errors.
In one story, the ad said police set up a “ring” around campus. They didn’t.
In one case, the protestors sang the National Anthem, not “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”
Police did not padlock a dining hall, but they did turn away students who didn’t show their meal cards
The Sullivan Suit
L.B. Sullivan, the Police Commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, and several others filed lawsuits against the New York Times.
Sullivan sued the NYT for $500,000 (that’s $4.9 million in today’s dollars) claiming false and defamatory statements.
Sullivan’s name isn’t in the ad, but he argued the police actions described in the ad reflected badly on his reputation.
Only 35 copies of the “offending issue” circulated in his county
The Alabama trial court ruled in favor of Sullivan. The case went to the Alabama Supreme Court. The upheld the defamation award.
Then, the case landed in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). They ruled against Sullivan.
SCOTUS created two tests that make New York Times v Sullivan a landmark case: defining public officials and establishing “actual malice.”
A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves “actual malice” — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.
Let’s say every time the Ellensburg Record publishes an unflattering story about the Kittitas County Commissioners, the commissioners sue. How likely is the newspaper going to print stories about misspent dollars, embezzled money, or other shenanigan’s the commissioners are up to if they know they’ll be sued? That’s called the “chilling effect.” The threat of numerous lawsuits might stop or slow down the number of county commissioner stories the newspaper prints. In the meantime, the commissioners commit their illegal shenanigans without the public knowing.
New York Times v Sullivan gives journalists, like the Ellensburg Record, a chance to share information without a HUGE fear of legal retribution because they got a few minor facts wrong. NYT v Sullivan gives journalists room to cover and uncover what’s going on in government. SCOTUS said public officials must be scrutinized in order for the government to be accountable.
So, what does that mean? President Trump often threatened to sue the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN or whatever news organization he didn’t like that week. He could say he could sue, and he could. The truth is he’d have to prove the news organization published the information “with malice.” How do you prove that? How do you prove a reporter didn’t check sources or showed reckless disregard for the truth?
Now, that doesn’t mean that the press can print anything they want. Let’s say someone walks into the Ellensburg Record newsroom and tells a reporter the commissioners stole money and plan to use it for a vacation in Cancun. If the newspaper printed that story without making an effort to verify the information, they would be showing a reckless disregard for the truth. They would be printing the info with “actual malice.”
If they interview five people who all say the commissioners are embezzling and write the story, they made a good faith effort to confirm facts before going to print. SCOTUS says if what they print, even if it’s false, was printed without “actual malice” the public official has no libel case.
Public official vs private citizen
So, who are public officials? Well, the folks who get elected to office. So, someone like Gov. Jay Inslee is a public official. But you don’t have to be elected to be considered a public official. When Heidi Behrends Cerniwey took the job of Ellensburg City Manager, she became a public official. So is CWU’s president Jim Wohlpart.
Basically, anyone who controls a budget or supervises government employees. So, a school bus driver wouldn’t be a public official, but the person who hires and fires drivers and decides what equipment to buy for the bus garage is a public official.
But it’s not always clear cut. As the advisor to Central News Watch I decide who gets paid and who doesn’t. Does that make me a public official? The answer is it depends on the nature of the story.
When the story is about a Civil Service Commissioner who spent more time at the gaming tables than at the convention she’s out of town to attend, she’s a public official.
The county coroner is a public official. But when another county hires her to do an autopsy, she’s no longer a public official.
How about a story about the fire chief’s personal finance problems versus the city auditor with personal finance problems? In this case, the fire chief is a private citizen, but the city auditor is a public official. (Finance problems don’t directly impact the fire chief’s work versus the guy who’s supposed to keep track of the city’s money has trouble keeping track of his own.)
A New Twist: Public Figures
Since NYT v Sullivan, other cases have created another class of people… the public figure. SCOTUS defines public figures as people who “…occupy positions of such pervasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes.”
But is it power or fame that determines if you are a public figure? I’d say Harry Styles, wh has two songs in the Top Ten this week, and Jennifer Lawrence, one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, are both public figures.
But what about Doug McMillon? Who is Doug? He’s the CEO of Walmart who controls the lives of over 2 million employees. What about the owner of Amazon and The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos? Is he a public figure?
Let’s say you’re Alec Baldwin and you’re pissed about the cover and headline of this week’s National Enquirer. Can you sue the National Enquirer? Sure. Will you win? Probably not. Public Figures have to show the National Enquirer showed reckless disregard and published the story without malice. Once again, how do you prove that. That’s why celebrities generally don’t file libel lawsuits. They may bring attention to the libel, but they won’t win the case.
But what happens if the Ellensburg Record prints untruths about you or me? Well, they’d better get a lawyer. The “actual malice” test doesn’t apply to private citizens. If the newspaper prints that I spent 6 years in prison before coming to Central to teach, I’m going to get rich quick! I don’t have to show malice. I don’t have to show reckless disregard. All I have to do is prove I didn’t do time. BTW – I didn’t!
So, what does New York Times v Sullivan ultimately mean?
If you’re a public official or a public figure, you must prove actual malice if you want to win a libel suit. If you’re a private citizen, then all you have to prove is the information is false.
Where we get into gray ares is determining who is and who isn’t a public official. When does a government employee become a public official? And who is and is not a public figure?
New York Times v Sullivan gives journalists their Freedom of the Press rights to act as watch guards of the government, without the fear of being sued into bankruptcy.
I believe there’s a big difference between hearing someone and actively listening to that person. You can physically “hear” sounds, but you have to actually pay attention and work to actively listening.
I’m not alone in thinking this. You can count me among the wise and wonderful who believe in the art of listening.
Monroe is the genius behind Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, used in business and professional communication to persuade audiences. While there’s no 100% guarantee, I think you can see how following this sequence can increase your chances of persuading others. While in the future you may or may not follow MMS step-by-step, you should identify persuasive elements or concepts you can use in your future speeches, pitches and presentations. (Note: You MUST follow the sequence for your persuasive speech. Failure to do so will cost you BIG points!)
BTW – I had a student who challenged me about Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. He said Winston Churchill did have to follow MMS to influence his English countrymen during World War II. Frankly, I didn’t know if Churchill used MMS or not but I took the student’s statement as a challenge. I analyzed a couple of Churchill’s speeches including his Iron Curtain speech.
While it didn’t follow MMS in lock step, I could identify the basic MMS structure, the use of pathos and logos examples, along with other MMS elements in Churchill’s words. So there, smarty pants student! (I thought about using a more descriptive way of describe my smarty pants student, but this is a PG rated blog!)
At Purdue Polytechnic Institute an engineering professor wanted his students to become better presenters. . He wanted them to get better at pitching the project. He wanted his students to have the tools to persuade future clients to buy into their proposed projects. So, the engineering professor wandered over to the Communications Department and knocked on the door of Dr. Alan H. Monroe.
Monroe took on the challenge and developed Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. It’s basically a template where you plug in the right information and you end up designing a persuasive speech or argument.
The thing is, this happened back in the 1930s. Yet today at Purdue, all students who take freshman communication classes learn Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. Today, Purdue professors expect seniors to use MMS when presenting their senior projects.
“Students are expected to use Monroe’s Motivated Sequence heavily for their final project according to new curriculum in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute.”
Yes, there are other persuasive techniques but I like how Monroe maps out his persuasive method. Also, a majority of the students in COM 345 come from electrical, engineering and safety related majors. I thought if it works for Purdue engineers, it’s good enough for CWU’s engineers!
A man of mystery
Take a look at a speech textbook. You’ll probably find Monroe’s name in there somewhere. Even though he died in 1975 he’s still listed as one of the authors of Principles of Public Speaking textbook. Purdue offers scholarships in his name. Mention Monroe’s Motivated Sequence to anyone who teaches rhetoric and they’ll immediately know what you’re talking about.
I remember listening for my favorite songs on KENE Radio. I even won a contest for the best joke of the day. (I remember the joke. I have no idea how I won.)
Your generation, Millennials and Gen Z, spend about 18 hours a week listening to audio. Like me, your first choice is radio, but you also use audio sources like Spotify and Pandora, in addition to podcasts. Bottom line, in my day you I listened to radio on a radio. In your time “radio” doesn’t have to come from a radio. You can listen to audio on you iPod, your computer or your smart phone. You don’t get to hear the static as you tune a station in for the evening.
They say radio is dying. In my mind, radio is like a cat… it has nine lives. Everyone thinks it’s going to die, but then radio reinvents itself over and over and over again.
A little radio history
There was a day and time where people would actually gather around a radio set and “watch” radio. When radios first moved into our homes they were a bit clunkier. As you can see in this picture, the radio was slightly smaller than today’s big screen TVs.
Whenever your program came on, you ran into the living room, sat down in front of the radio and watched it as you listened to the drama of Little Orphan Annie, the comedy of the Jack Benny Show or the soap opera The Guiding Light.
Question: What impact did the Gutenberg press have on society?
Answer: A lot. A whole bunch of a lot.
When Gutenberg invented the press in the mid-1400s, it made information accessible to the masses. The technology made sharing uncensored ideas with your neighbors, the village down the road, or even the world, possible.
Before the Gutenberg press, only the rich could afford books and manuscripts. In fact, books were so rare that most churches did NOT have a copy of the Bible under its roof.
According to a web article posted by the University of Texas, it’s estimated you could only find around 30,000 books in all of Europe before the Gutenberg press. Fifty years later, 10 to 12 million books circulated throughout Europe.
Before we start studying communication law, we need to understand how the legal system works. Let’s start by defining law.
This is my son, Casey. He studied law at the Knight School of Law at the University of Oregon. He passed the Washington Bar Exam and now practices family law at a big family law firm that stretches from Washington through Oregon. In 2018-2019, Super Lawyers named him a Washington Rising Star and he has a Avvo.com “Superb” rating.
Okay, enough bragging about my son. I mention him because he is someone who studied and practices law. But the legal system also “makes” laws.