Bold gutsy action planning tips: Pt 3 of 4 – How to give the media what they want

No 811 Posted by fw, July 17, 2013

“We often go into media outreach thinking: How do I get them to cover me? As if they’re offering us something and they’re doing us a huge favour by covering our work. It’s important to realize it’s symbiotic and we have as much to give them as they do to us. So without the media our campaigns won’t go very far. Without anything to write about newspapers don’t go very far. They need you. They’re thinking about how much they need you as we think about how much we need them.”Dave Meslin

In Part 2, Dave explained why empowering your team members is crucial. He shared three creative ways to supercharge your team: one, micro-mobilize them so that their actions are targetted; two, fight celebrification so your members don’t feel left out; and three, break down big goals into smaller winnable goals to build a track record of accomplishments for your team.

In Part 3, Give the Media What They Want, Dave presents tips on how to exploit what is potentially your group’s most powerful ally – the media. Dave’s tips: One, it’s imperative to see journalists as colleagues helping to get your story out; two, for small groups to succeed they must make their groups seem bigger than they are; three, be fearless, gutsy and creative to give the media a dynamite story they can’t resist. To illustrate point three, Dave tells three stories – The John Street Count, The Smog Hike and The Pee Wee Herman Picture Show.

To watch Dave’s presentation on the Mayfield website, the venue for his lecture, click on the following linked title. Better yet, watch an embedded video of Dave’s 29-minute video below, which includes my transcript with text highlighting of key sections.

Note that the transcript for Part 3 starts at about the 13:22-minute mark and ends at about the 20:01-minute mark.

Five Good Ideas: Campaigning for Social Change, Dave Meslin, Maytree, January 17, 2012.

TRANSCRIPT (Start at the 13:22-minute mark)

Number 3 – Give the media what they want. The media is such a powerful tool for us. Imagine how much it costs to pay for an ad on the front page of the newspaper. None of us will ever be able to afford that. But, if you can get a journalist to like what you’re doing and they put your story on the front page of the paper, you’ve just reached tens or hundreds of thousands of people for free. So the media is worth so much money to us and so much exposure, and relates back to that first topic of getting beyond the usual suspects.

So, how do you do that? A few quick tips.

One is to realize that it’s a symbiotic relationship. We often go into media outreach thinking: How do I get them to cover me? As if they’re offering us something and they’re doing us a huge favour by covering our work. It’s important to realize it’s symbiotic and we have as much to give them as they do to us. So without the media our campaigns won’t go very far. Without anything to write about newspapers don’t go very far. They need you. They’re thinking about how much they need you as we think about how much we need them.

But also, they want you. Right? A lot of people go into journalism because they really care about the issues. No one goes into journalism to get rich. These are people who care about the same issues you do. And, in fact, they might even care about them more than you do. They might be sitting around really wanting to write an article about an issue but they can’t do it until they have someone to write about because that’s journalism. You’re not supposed to just make up your own stories unless you’re a columnist. So you’re actually helping them to be a collaborative activist. Some of them are literally waiting for you to send out the press release so they can write the story that they’ve be dying to write anyways. So it’s not about convincing them to write the story; it’s about helping them, providing then the tools that they need. See them as colleagues, as collaborators.

And a few more quick tips here.

If you have a very small grassroots group, spend a bit of time to make your group seem bigger than it is. Because a journalist isn’t supposed to write about groups that don’t really exist. I ran the Toronto Public Space Committee, which wasn’t a real group – we had no money, no staff, no office. I just made up the name and made a website which was $20 a year for hosting. But because I had a nice business card and a few flyers that looked professional, they felt comfortable saying, “Dave Meslin, Coordinator of the Toronto Public Space Committee.”

If you aren’t part of some group, they can’t quote you. These days they quote people who tweet for some reason, which is really weird. But other than that they can’t quote you just because you say something interesting. Make up a fake group if you don’t have one. If you have a small grassroots group, make something slick so it looks like there’s an office with staff behind you.

Be fearless and gutsy. I was doing some work last year about the John Street environmental assessment. There were a few different proposals about how to recreate John Street. And the one that they wanted to do didn’t have bike lanes and I felt there was room for bike lanes. So I looked at the staff report, and I looked at the modal breakdown of who’s using John Street. And it said only two percent of the traffic was cyclists. I didn’t believe it. I thought their numbers were wrong. In fact I was absolutely sure they hadn’t gone out and counted at all. I could have sent out a press release saying “I challenge the city’s numbers.” I could have done a blog post. Instead, I organized volunteers through Facebook: “Who wants to come out and do a traffic count?” And I bought traffic counters. I announced that we were doing it publicly, and the media acme and took photos and wrote articles about these young activists who on their own were volunteering to do traffic counts because the city wasn’t doing the job well. And we found out that 32 percent of the traffic at certain times during the day was cycling.

If you’re creative with press events — like I said before, they’re dying to cover your work. You have to give them something interesting. A press release on its own won’t do it. A press conference that looks like this won’t do it. This isn’t a photo anyone is going to put in the paper. They need something visual. I’ll give you two quick examples

The Toronto Environmental Alliance asked me three years ago, “Mez, how can we get the number 1700 in the newspaper?” That’s how many people die from smog related illnesses every year – 1700. We want to get the word out. How do we do it? What we ended up coming up with was a smog hike where we would make posters of silhouettes with a little blank kind of thought bubble where people would write in personal messages about how they’ve been affected by smog or smog illness in their life or people they love. That went out through schools. We collected 1700 personal messages. We installed them at the foot of Yonge Street as an art exhibit hanging from strings. It was beautiful, kind of like a laundry line. And we got a lot of print media out of that. And they hung there for hours.

Then we went on a smog hike. We put one poster on each utility pole, each pole representing one death. And we marched north on a smog hike until we ran out of 1700 posters, which took us into Vaughn or Markham, whatever it is, up there at Yonge. It took us two or three days. The media loved it. We had the front page of one of the transit dailies. We had two or three articles in the [Toronto] Star. And the number 1700 was really out there. But if we had just done a press conference or a rally or a protest I don’t think we would have had any coverage because it wasn’t even news. I mean that’s the same number as it was three years ago. This isn’t new data. But we were able to do something creative that put it back in the news.

When we launched the Toronto Cyclists Union we wanted to get lots of members. The idea was to have a funded, membership-based organization with paid staff. So we launched it two and a half years ago. No one knew who we were. We had zero brand recognition because we didn’t exist yet. And what I did for the launch was to organize a big event called the Pee Wee Picture… It was a play on the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I guess the Pee Wee Herman Picture Show. It was a live shadow cast of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. It’s a movie about how someone steals his bike and you have to find his bike. And the people we got to act in this thing were like Indie pop stars from Broken Social Scene and other bands. We did it at the Bloor Cinema. We sold out two shows. That’s about 1500 people. And we had the front cover of Eye Weekly because we were combining cycling, environment and music. We were giving the media exactly what they wanted. I like bikes. They can’t put it on the cover unless someone gives them a reason to. And we gave them the reason to. And we got the cover story. So here’s a brand new nonprofit, no members, their first week, on the front cover of Eye magazine. And now we have over a thousand paid members and an office and two staff.

END OF PART 3 (At about the 20:01-minute mark)

~ Watch for more posts to follow from Dave’s Five Good Ideas presentation ~

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