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Battling the media gatekeepers

28 June 2012

Bringing journalists round to an “unsexy” cause isn’t easy, says Emma Jayne Jones of Kizuka. But there are things you can do to sell in your subject.

18 million people are at risk of starvation in West Africa this year, yet it’s hardly been mentioned in the mainstream media. One charity press officer wrote recently about being told “No-one cares about West Africa” by a national newspaper editor.

These editors are the gatekeepers, deciding what is newsworthy and when and how it is reported. Some subjects are “sexy” while others like drug addiction, asylum seekers or the food crisis can receive a cool, sharp reception. It can range from apathy and disinterest to tabloid vilification.

Running this gauntlet can leave charities feeling battered, bruised and understandably wary about dealing with the press.

How to get their attention

Selling your subject
How can you make the media interested in, or sympathetic to, your subject? It’s not always easy but here are a few techniques that can help.

Help them do their job
Suggesting interesting angles or providing strong footage/photos can help sway journalists to your subject.

Can you give them access to a person, place or event they wouldn’t otherwise get to cover?

Make friends
Journalists are not the enemy. Do them a favour, pass on a lead, help them with some statistics and they will be more willing to listen to your story.

Take an unexpected approach
Charities' responses can often be predictable – look for a new or unexpected take on the subject.

Be prepared to say no
There is a saying that “any media coverage is good media coverage” but this isn’t always the case. It’s exciting if a journalist approaches you for a story but you don’t want to expose your charity or case studies to unnecessary negative coverage.

Take some time to research the publication and journalist that wants to run a story. Read previous articles, check them out on Twitter and ask other contacts about their experiences. In some situations you can’t control who writes about you but when you can, sometimes the best thing you can do is say “no”.

Expert comment
Expert comment is a great way to get your message across in the media but it does open you up to scrutiny. Journalists won’t always ask the questions you want to answer. Pick your spokespeople carefully and thoroughly brief them on the subject, context of the story and the journalist involved. Practice questions and scenarios with them and ideally invest in some good quality media training.

Dealing with negative press

Unfortunately, there are going to be times when your charity or the subject you deal with receives negative press. Sometimes this is a one off scandal while other times it can feel like a concerted campaign.

If you are prepared for a crisis then it won’t be such a shock, so plan ahead. Think about what could happen and know how you will respond.

Approach sympathetic media
Counter negative press with a positive story elsewhere.

Reach out to supporters
Contact them directly and explain the situation.

Take responsibility
If it is a problem you can fix then publically make amends.

Fall of the gatekeepers
With the rise of digital media and online communications there are many new ways to get your message out there without relying on traditional media. It is shifting the way news is spread and finally taking some of the control away from the gatekeepers.

Emma Jayne Jones

director of communications, Kizuka

Emma Jayne Jones is Director of Communications at Kizuka, a communications agency working with international NGOs.