Back in the 1990s, when Akhila Sivadas was part of a growing women’s rights movement in India, she and other activists, frustrated with the lack of attention to their cause, recognised that their movement needed effective engagement with the media to grow and succeed.
Akhila now leads the Centre for Advocacy Research in New Delhi, which helps civil society organisations to craft media strategies. They also track and monitor the media on behalf of their stakeholders across India.
‘Akhila reminded civil society partners that they needed to take “media advocacy” as seriously as their policy advocacy goals.’
Akhila, alongside Ambika Raja, a reporter with disabilities at The New Indian Express, led a session on media engagement at a recent Foundation learning exchange on disability rights. In the presentation, Akhila reminded civil society partners that they needed to take ‘media advocacy’ as seriously as their policy advocacy goals.
Participants at the exchange expressed scepticism about whether to trust the media, given the current political climate and a tendency toward distortion. There was also understandable confusion over the dizzying array of media channels to choose from.
Here are some of the strategies and tactics that Akhila and Ambika shared in response:
- Find kindred spirts in the media. They are certain to exist, but it takes time and research to find the journalists and bloggers who share an interest in your advocacy issue. Interact regularly with reporters whose work you like and understand the kinds of stories they want. This knowledge can be helpful when crafting story ideas.
- Clear, confident messaging. A single, compelling idea is more likely to attract attention. Be ready with background information and data to back up your points. Remember that journalists and editors want to get to the heart of the issue, so do not overburden them with all the issues and causes you are working on.
- Pique their interest. Remember that media houses have a commercial imperative. They want to feature important stories, but they also want to increase their readership. Prepare your stories and press releases with attention-grabbing titles and clear, well-written messaging. Present an interesting angle to your story—one that discusses not just the issue at hand but also how it might affect the everyday person. Journalists and audiences in particular like ‘human interest stories’: so move beyond events and look for stories.
- Track the issues covered in the news. Journalists will be encouraged to write about your issue if you can show evidence that it is under-reported. Providing that evidence takes time and research but it will be worth it.
- Social media influences mainstream news. If the mainstream media is ignoring your cause, consider ramping up your social media output, or using alternative media. Journalists are constantly trawling through social media for stories and to identify trends. Create a short video about your cause and tag relevant media and influencers. This may grab the attention of those who can get your story out to a wider audience.
- Don’t give up if ‘breaking news’ drowns your story. Let the dust settle on the big story of the day and go back tomorrow—or next week—and try again. Revamp the story, refresh the title, add some new quotes, and continue to nurture your relationships with journalists.
- Try newsjacking. If there is a compelling story that has dominated the news, show how the issue you are working on connects to it. For example, if your organisation is working to advance the rights of persons with disabilities and there has been a natural disaster somewhere, build a story on persons with disabilities affected by the disaster, or how you are trying to help them. This is a clever way of amplifying your voice and showing how your issue is relevant to current events.
- Choose the best spokesperson for your story. Ensure your spokespeople understand your issue thoroughly and will not distort your message. The best spokespeople are often those with a lived experience of your issue who can articulate it clearly and concisely. Different mediums might require different spokespeople – or a range of different people with different viewpoints.
- Data and evidence improve credibility. In the print press, a local story will go to the national bureau and then to the chief editor for final approval. When you pitch your story, include key data and evidence in your pitch. This makes your story more credible and likely to grab the attention of editors. Citizen data from scorecards and audit reports are good sources of local-level data.
- Run a fellowship programme for journalists. If there is a lack of sensitivity and awareness of your cause, you need to build the media’s awareness yourself. Consider running a fellowship programme or providing support for young journalists to write about your cause.
- Track the work of journalists you like and have worked with already. If a journalist has featured a story on your issue in the past, keep track of their work. You may see the opportunity to interest them in a follow up story to review progress made over the year on your issue.
- Use politicians and celebrities to attract newsmakers, but also invite journalists who focus on substance. Inviting Ministers and high profile public figures to your events can attract the mainstream media; however, their presence can eclipse coverage of your issue. The media is likely to be more interested in what the Minister or celebrity has to say than what you have to say. While this is frustrating, civil society can use these events to invite a range of journalists—those focusing on the sound bites as well as those focusing on more in-depth pieces. Both give your issue coverage and reach a range of audiences.
In summary, Ambika reminded us that journalists are doing their best in a challenging climate and that there are journalists out there dedicated to just causes; it is simply up to us to build a relationship with them. Akhila encouraged participants not to give up: ‘Our issues are a struggle and if you start from that premise, you’ll be reminded to just keep at it until you find success.’
Gillian Cooper is Programme Manager of Knowledge, Learning, and Communications at the Commonwealth Foundation.