Remarks Read at PDA Grassroots Day Panel on Media

PDA Communications
By David Swanson

Tim has asked me to help with developing a national network for PDA communications, meaning a group of people at the national level, and others at the state and local levels, working together to make our voices heard. I’m hoping that this discussion today will produce some ideas for this and some volunteers to help with it.

I’ve worked on some projects that used a network of local volunteers to communicate, including AfterDowningStreet and Kucinich for President, and others that depended more on paid staff, such as the AFL-CIO’s media association and a group that I worked for for years called ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

At ACORN, I drafted national press releases, and local chapters modified them and phoned their local media. I drafted op-eds aimed at African American or Latino or mainstream newspapers, left blanks for a couple of local statistics, and gave them to local chapters to submit and get published. I went around the country doing trainings for spokespeople. I helped the local chapters develop lists of reporters and served as a spokesperson to provide national info. And I kept a database for national use of people around the country who were good at speaking on particular issues, including issues that affected them personally.

This system worked fairly well. We sometimes released national reports that included local info, and got stories on one day in 75 newspapers. Or we staged rallies or protests simultaneously all over the country, and provided local chapters with podium signs and posters and flyers that they could modify slightly and print.

There are few things reporters like better than a local angle on a national story. PDA should have provided a communications person in each chapter with a generic press release about local people traveling to DC this weekend or staging an event locally, and one about local people affected by the new bankruptcy law, and one about local jobs affected by CAFTA, etc. If we don’t provide talking points and generic media materials on national issues, we might as well be separate local groups.

PDA has great national handouts and flyers that can build local credibility with potential members. These should also be used in meetings with reporters and editors. But even once PDA’s identity is well established in the minds of local reporters, you will have to fight to get the name of your organization into the media. Make sure that no one goes to a rally without wearing a PDA shirt. A sticker or button is not visible in a newspaper photo or on TV, and a statement identifying yourself as a PDA member will almost certainly be cut. Negotiate with a reporter ahead of time: if you’re going to help them tell a story, they’re going to mention the name of the organization involved. Their reluctance is not so much dislike for you or your politics, but a desire to look as if they found people on their own without the help of an organization. Do what you can to make them look good, but make them commit to naming the organization.

Of course, working for decent coverage in the corporate media, even the local corporate media, is a little like believing there’s hope for the Democrats in Congress. (So PDAers should be good at it!) A huge percentage of the signs and posters yesterday called for Bush’s impeachment, but I didn’t see that word in any articles this morning, just as we haven’t heard it from any member of Congress.

The impossibility of getting some stories into the so-called mainstream media is one good reason to work the independent media and make your own media. Another is that doing these things usually improves your coverage in the corporate media. So, usually, does aggressively holding the media accountable for its failures. But this needs to be done fairly and professionally. It is always possible to make corporate media coverage worse, and trying to improve it is usually worth the effort.

At ACORN, our coverage in the corporate media improved when we created our own media online. State chapters developed websites connected to the national one, and local Email newsletters. They sent me reports to include in a national Email newsletter, which was read by many members of the media. Each item included local contact info. We sent out the newsletter every two weeks.

Right now, some PDA state chapters have websites. Many don’t. The ones that exist are of very mixed quality. I strongly recommend acquiring a database-driven site that’s easily updatable by multiple people through a web browser, and which includes a mailing system to send messages to people who sign up. The best place I know to get one is from Mayfirst.org. You can expect to pay $100 to $200 per year. It will be well worth it. A professional looking website with clear contact information will result in media inquiries. A link to a PayPal page will bring in donations.

Beyond making your own media, use the media that’s open to what you have to say: the ethnic media, independent radio, public access TV, newsletters of local labor unions and other organizations, church bulletins, bulletin boards. And develop a team of people to call into talk shows and write letters to the editor, identifying themselves as PDA members. Use media calendars to announce your events. Run free public service announcements anywhere that will let you.

When you’ve developed your communications skills and refined your messages, work on the corporate media. Learn which reporters and columnists and editors do what. Read them. Watch them. Know what they’re open to and what they like. Ask for meetings to get to know them. Tell them about stories coming down the road in future weeks and months.

Remember that many reporters are not out to get us. If they are hurried and demanding and almost unbelievably lazy, it is because they are busy and overworked and at the local level often paid poverty wages. If you make their jobs easier, you get better coverage.

Be available on short notice, and always return phone calls quickly.

Make events start on time.

Make every assertion you make reliable.

Never lie or exaggerate.

But remember that being helpful to a reporter does not mean being a reporter’s friend. Never tell a reporter anything “off the record.” Being helpful to a reporter does not mean caring what a reporter thinks. Never worry about pleasing or agreeing with the reporter. You are talking for the media audience, not the reporter.

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