Below are the basics of interacting with the press.
The Press List
Every organization should maintain a press list—an up-to-date list of information for media contacts that is kept in a digital spreadsheet and sorted in a way that is useful to your organizing. If you do not have existing relationships with reporters just yet, building a basic list is simple! Check out the websites for campus newspapers, news websites, blogs, and television and radio stations you would like to reach. While it’s easy to forget local media, keep in mind that reporters at local papers are always looking for a juicy story and that local and campus news is sometimes picked up by big national publications.
For campus outlets, find contact information for a reporter who is in charge of student life or has written about these issues before. For local outlets, find a contact for a Higher Education reporter. (If you cannot find specific reporters, look for a News Editor or a General Editor). For both outlets, find the contact information for the Opinions Editor, for later use. When compiling these contacts, consider researching specific reporters to see if and how they have covered sexual and domestic violence before—it’ll be useful to know whether they can provide favorable coverage or how they have handled the issue. Put all of this information into a spreadsheet to make your Press List.
Build Relationships with Reporters
Eventually, you’ll want to reach a point where you have professional relationships with the reporters on your Press List. Start by following up with reporters after they cover your action and thanking them with an email or a tweet. Share (positive!) coverage by reporters on your group’s social media. Reporters want people to read their stories, so if lots of students read and share their piece, it will encourage them to cover you or the issue again in the future. If you’ll be breaking news online (for example, your school is interfering with an action and you’re tweeting about it in real time) consider @-ing friendly reporters who may use it for a story.
Once you have established working relationships with reporters, they will likely appreciate personal emails and/or phone calls to let them know about upcoming actions or issues. Keeping reporters in the loop about your upcoming actions will help you build closer relationships and ensure better media coverage in the future.
Media Advisory vs. Press Release
Media Advisories are notices written to alert the media of an upcoming action and are usually sent out up to a week before an action. Media Advisories should include only the essential information about the action—who, what, where, when, and why—in order to allow reporters to plan ahead to cover the action. Include a time for press availability on the day of the action (for when reporters can speak with activists), and contact information for the Press Coordinator. Press Releases communicate greater detail surrounding an event and are usually released the day of.
Press Releases are usually released the day of an event. Releases should include essential information about the action, contact information, context for the action, quotes from activists. Send releases out to reporters a few hours before an action or immediately after it concludes so that they can use information and quotes from the release in their coverage. Some reporters may just use your Press Release as their story (especially if they are unable to attend your event), so it’s important to send this out! Keep in mind quotes in the release do not have to be said at a real place and time—they can (and likely will be) quotes that you write specifically for the Press Release. See below for an example Press Release.
Best Practices for Press Releases and Media Advisories
- Make sure to end Media Advisories and Press Releases with three pound signs at the very end of the document. This is a press formality which signals the end of the document.
- Become friends with the “BCC” field in your e-mail! BCC allows you to send an e-mail to 500 people without giving away individuals’ contact addresses to the other recipients—reporters will appreciate this!
If you’re worried about maintaining secrecy in the lead up to an action when contacting the press, consider setting an embargo. Embargoes are bans that prohibit reporters from publishing specific information before a stated time. Set an embargo when you have sensitive information about an action that you want to share with the press, but do not want the administration or public officials to know about in advance. When doing so, clearly communicate to the reporter which details are embargoed and until what time (provide a specific date and time). Remember that reporters can always choose to ignore an embargo—it’s highly unprofessional, but it could happen—so do not send out any information that you absolutely need to remain private.
Press Timeline for Large Demonstrations, Actions, and Protests
Use this timeline as a reference for how to work with the press for large events—think protests, rallies, and demonstrations where you’re expecting a large turnout.
One Week to Five Days Before the Event:
If you have preexisting relationships with reporters, give them a call or email them to let them know about the event. Provide details about your action and let them know that you will be sending a Media Advisory over in a few days. Remember to clarify if any information is embargoed!
Four Business Days Before the Event:
Send the Media Advisory to your Press List. When sending, place text of the advisory in the body of the e-mail, in addition to attaching as a PDF. Your subject line should start “MEDIA ADVISORY: [INSERT CATCHY TITLE]”. Remember, only send to contacts you think may cover the event. If you’ve never spoken to these individuals before, give them a follow up call the same day. If on the phone, ask: “Will you or someone from your publication be coming to cover our action?” They might respond saying they haven’t seen the release yet, and will get back to you. Ask for a best number to reach them by and make sure they take your number and e-mail as well. If you don’t have a phone number for reporters that you have not spoken with before, send them a follow up email the next day. Again, remember to clarify if any information is embargoed!
One Business Day Before the Event:
For press contacts who you have not heard from, call or email to confrm that they’ve received your Media Advisory, and ask: “Will you or someone from your agency be coming to cover our action?” If they don’t confrm by today, don’t count on them to be there.
Day of the Event:
Send your Press Release out to your media contacts either a few hours before or immediately after your action.
Press Timeline for Small Actions
Use this timeline as a reference for how to work with the press for small events—think letter deliveries and actions involving few activists with a small or no audience.
One Week to One Business Day Before Your Event:
Sometimes small actions come together at the last minute, making it tough for you to alert reporters a full week in advance—this is fine for smaller actions! Call or email one or two reporters (preferably ones you already have relationships with) to let them know about the action. Describe the event and send over your Media Advisory. Remember to clarify if any information is embargoed!
One Business Day Before the Event:
If you have not heard from the reporters yet, call or email them to confirm that they’ve received your Media Advisory. Ask: “Will you or someone from your agency be coming to cover our action?” If they don’t confirm by today, again, don’t count on them to be there!
Tips for Handling Press on the Day-of
Get there early. Arrive at the location of the action at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the Press Availability or, if you will only be answering questions after the action, 30 minutes prior to the start of the action.
Be prepared. Bring Press Kits, a clipboard that has a list of which organizers will be speaking to the press, as well blank paper on which to write down the contact info of all the reporters who show up.
Greet reporters. Introduce yourself to reporters as soon as they show up and hand them a Press Kit. Say something like: “Hi, I’m Allie, and I wanted to be sure you have a copy of our press release. Myself and other organizers are available for interviews.”
Have your cell phone handy. Reporters will likely call you throughout the course of the action if they are having trouble locating it or finding an organizer to speak with. Consider keeping your Press Coordinator(s) free on the day of an action so that they can focus on fielding calls and helping reporters.
The Press Kit
A Press Kit is a physical printed packet of materials to have on-hand at your action. It includes:
- The Media Advisory and/or Press Release
- Any letters or other materials being delivered to your Target
- Fact Sheets or other handouts that educate reporters on the issue
- Contact information for people from your group who have volunteered to speak with the press and/or share their story as a survivor
- Contact information for your group’s Press Coordinator
Journalists will contact you for interviews if they were unable to attend your events as well as for future stories covering sexual and domestic violence activism and related topics. Here are some tips for handling interview requests:
Respond as soon as possible. Journalists typically work on very quick deadlines, so respond promptly, even if it’s just to say you are not available to talk. It helps to designate a point person within your organization to respond to all press emails—they should set their email to forward to their phone or be prepared to check it multiple times a day to stay on top of press requests.
Do not immediately agree to an interview request. If a reporter calls or emails you and wants to interview you for a story, always ask for more information first. Consider asking them for: more details on the story they are writing, their angle or goals for the piece, any deadlines, and what they’re hoping to talk to you about. You can also ask them if they have covered gender violence before and any links to previous work. If you decide you do want to speak with them, let them know what time would be best to talk (this can be as short as “in 10 minutes” or later in the day depending on their deadline). You can also connect them with another student organizer or ask for them to send their questions via email. Some reporters will be willing to conduct an interview online or via email.
Be mindful of who is speaking with the press the most and work to incorporate more voices. The media typically focuses on white, straight-presenting, cisgender female survivors. While these survivors should certainly be sharing their stories, make sure your group encourages and supports folks from a variety of backgrounds to speak with press. Rather than have the person fielding press requests give all of the interviews, spread out interviews between multiple members of your group so that they all gain experience working with press.
Who Speaks to the Press?
Speaking with press can be intimidating! And it is unlikely every member of your group will be comfortable speaking with reporters. To prepare members of your group to speak with press, discuss talking points in advance and use some of the following tips.
Give attention to which voices are speaking most. People speaking to the press should represent a range of experiences of survivors and activists. LGBTQ survivors, people of color, and survivors with disabilities face a variety of unique challenges in seeking support and justice, but are rarely offered media visibility. Fight rape culture by intentionally highlighting experiences that counteract misrepresentative, limited, or harmful narratives about gender-based violence.
Make sure your group has been prepped to speak with the media before any action or interview. Taking some time to review talking points and practice answering questions will go a long way in making sure you are fully prepared to speak with reporters. At actions, prepare as many members of your group as possible with basic talking points in case they are asked, and create a system to direct press toward your designated speakers or Press Coordinators. Make sure all of your members know: 1) There is a Press Coordinator and their name is _____, and 2) No one should speak to the press if they haven’t been prepped.
For actions and for your group, it’s essential that you have Press Coordinators. These people will be responsible for managing all tasks related to interacting with the press. This is a big role so consider assigning two or more organizers.
The Job of the Press Coordinator is:
- To be the main person managing the Press List, including sending e-mails and phone calls;
- To write or manage the writing of any Media Advisories, Press Releases, Talking Points, or the Press Kit;
- To train the people who will speak to press, and coordinate volunteers at the event to direct press to the Press Coordinator;
- To be listed, with their contact information, as the Press Contact for the day of the event;
- To manage press at the event;
- To do follow-up with press immediately after the event and collect stories published about your event.
Preparing for Interviews
Plan what you want to speak with journalists about and set boundaries. It is up to you to tell reporters as much or as little as you feel comfortable sharing. If you want to speak about experiences of assault or harassment or identify yourself as a survivor to the press, it can be helpful to think about how much you want to share, what words you want to use to describe your experiences, and how you will feel about that information remaining available online in the future. Journalists can be very pushy so setting boundaries can help. These can include:
- Choosing not to speak about experiences of assault or harassment, whether or not you are already public as a survivor;
- Choosing only to speak about certain aspects of experiences of assault or harassment;
- Only doing in-person interviews;
- Only doing interviews when you can see their questions in advance;
- Only doing interviews if you are allowed to check the draft of their story or your quotations prior to publication;
- Only doing interviews that are recorded to ensure that the journalist quotes you directly, does not misattribute your words, or does not use them out of context.
Think about how you want to frame the discussion. Successful campaigns are able to focus on how sexual and domestic violence at colleges is a systemic and structural issue rather than something involving a handful of individuals—one survivor, one assailant, one bad administrator. Framing the story as systemic rather than individual requires some planning. Points of emphasis in your interview might include: highlighting the breadth of the problem, positioning yourself within a broader movement of survivors and student activists, focusing on administrative failures in addition to the details of particular cases, and describing policy goals for the future.
Think about sharing information on and off the record. There are three ways to share information with journalists: “on the record,” “off the record,” and “on background”. If you say something on the record, everything you say can be used and quoted. Points made “off the record” cannot be published by the journalist (you might want to do this to give a reporter context or an idea for an investigation). A quote given “on background” can be published only under certain conditions that you negotiate with the journalist in advance, usually that they will not print your name. You might use this if a survivor is willing to share their story publicly but would like keep their name anonymous. You should establish whether you want things on or off the record before sharing information with a reporter and communicate that clearly.
It is easy to forget what information you decided to disclose, what information you decided not to disclose, and what information you are willing to disclose off the record. Think through these before an interview and keep them on hand. Remember, the default is that everything is on the record—unless you clearly declare that something is off the record or on background before you say it, it can be used and attributed.
Think about how you want to present yourself visually, especially if you will be appearing in photographs or on television. The media typically has problematic expectations of self-presentation, which can be especially damaging to survivors, women, and trans and gender nonconforming individuals. (Just Google “how to dress appropriately” for some icky examples.) Think through whether (and to what extent) you may want to meet these kind of guidelines while conveying your message. Whether or not you choose to is entirely your decision—remember, do what feels comfortable and truthful to you.
Create and practice talking points as a group prior to your interview. It is important for your group to outline your stance (or lack thereof) on tricky policy questions before members are in front of a reporter. What is your group willing to say about alcohol, Greek life, law enforcement, or any other major issue a typical reporter might raise? Look to the Sample Talking Points section of our Campus Organizing Toolkit PDF for suggested talking points and practice your group’s points with fellow organizers, friends, or by yourself ahead of time. Your group might decide they do not have an organizational response to some of these questions. In that case, figure out whether and how you’ll want to respond individually.
Remember that most reporters do not know much about how colleges handle sexual assault. Be sure to explain things in basic terms and ask them if more clarification is needed.
Try not to feel nervous about making mistakes—we all make them. Speaking with journalists can be very stressful even if you are not speaking about personal experiences. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable. Remember that you have the right to end an interview at any time should you feel otherwise.
If a journalist asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, tell them! You don’t have to answer every question and it’s better to acknowledge that you don’t know than to make an error. If other organizers might know the answer, offer to connect the reporter with them after the interview. You can always say, “I want to make sure I have the most accurate information for you—can I get back to you on that?”
If at any time you are uncertain whether you are speaking on or off the record, ask the reporter for clarification. If you would like to switch between speaking on the record to speaking off the record or vice versa, make sure to explicitly state the change to the reporter and wait for the reporter to acknowledge that change. Remember: Nothing is ever truly off the record. If you really don’t want it printed, it’s always safest not to say it.
For TV: Look at the reporter asking you questions, not at the camera. If you are saying sound bites to a camera with no reporter, look at the camera person, not right at the middle of the camera. Speak slowly and at normal volume. If you’re comfortable being emotional or animated, TV loves personality!
For print: Remember to speak slowly! Watch a reporter’s hand as they take notes. After saying a sentence, wait until they catch up. This can be tough even for very experienced speakers, but if you talk fast and they have to scribble, they’re likely to misquote you. Print reporters, especially during phone interviews, will often leave long pauses in between questions. It’s a tried and true tactic to get you to keep talking and talking. Don’t give in! Say your bit and end crisply.
For radio: Speak at normal volume and a little slower than usual so people listening can really hear you.
At the end of your interview, thank the reporter and get their card or contact information. You’ll want to add them to your Press List if they are not already on it. Ask the reporter if they would like to speak with anyone else and offer to connect them with other organizers and/or survivors who are willing to speak with the press.
Creating talking points prior to speaking with reporters will help you stay on message during interviews—and be more confident too. Talking points should be very clear and concise; focus on the major points of your campaign. What are the most important messages you want your audience to walk away thinking? In order to be the most compelling communicator you can be, your talking points should cover four critical pieces of information:
1) The problem, as you define and understand it (not how the reporter or anyone else wants to situate it). For example: “Survivors on our campus don’t feel safe reporting violence to our school.”
- Offer statistics and anecdotes to support that this is a problem. For example: “Time and time again survivors here tell [your student group name] that they don’t trust the administration to take action against their perpetrator.” Or, “[Your group’s name]’s survey found that 9 in 10 survivors didn’t report because they were afraid they’d be punished for drinking under age when they were assaulted.”
2) Your proposed solution. How can we fix the problem you identified in #1? What do you want changed? This often lines up with the demands of your organizing campaign! Obviously these are complicated issues with complicated solutions, but to be an effective communicator in an interview, you need to pick one (or at most two) fixes and speak only to those.
- For example:“What we need is transparency from the administration.” Not: “Here are the twenty six things the administration needs to do to make change…”
- Explain it in language your audience can understand: For example: “[School name] should publish non-identifying aggregate information about how rape cases are handled each year. That information should include how many people report, how many people go through a disciplinary hearing, how many students are found responsible, and how many people are expelled. This transparency will build students’ trust in the process and will also expose where we can make it better.”
3) Your ask. What do you want your audience to do? Sign a petition? Call your college president? Think carefully about who your target audience is, based both on the outlet with which you’re speaking and on your campaign goals. Is it current students? Community members? Alums? Faculty? Parents?
- For example: In an interview with your school’s alumni magazine, you might say, “To everyone who cares about this campus and this community: pledge to divert your donations from the university to [your student group name, or a national advocacy group] until [school name] starts treating survivors right.”
4) Why it matters. Why should your audience care about this? Depending on who your target audience is, you might appeal to:
- Safety: “This is a matter of campus safety.”
- Equity: “Education is the great equalizer in our country. Rape shouldn’t keep one in five students on our campus from pursuing the American Dream.”
- Family values: “No one’s children should have to be afraid to go to school.”
- Consumer protections: “The cost of a college education shouldn’t include rape.
Keep your message tight, crisp, and clear.
Throughout the interview, keep hitting your talking points. Don’t stray from them. The more your audience (and the reporter) hears your key messages, the more they’ll remember and internalize them. If you bombard your audience (or reporter) with too much information, they’ll come away either retaining none of it or remembering a point that wasn’t all that important to begin with. Know that reporters like to include lots of sources in their story, so it’s not unusual for only a sentence or two of what you say to make it into the piece. That’s another reason why you should re-emphasize your key messages again and again throughout the interview, and try not to stray from them.
You can help guide your audience (and the reporter) to the important messages by flagging them with key phrases such as:
- “The most important thing to remember is…”
- “What’s most important here is…”
- “It all comes down to this…”
- “It all boils down to…” “The key here is…”
What if the reporter doesn’t ask me the questions that my talking points respond to?
It doesn’t matter! 90% of the time, you’re not going to get the perfect question. Think of an interview as an opportunity for you to communicate the points you want to make, not a time to speak to what the journalist wants to hear. You’re there to make your campaign’s points; you should be in control of your message, not the interviewer. When you get a question that’s off your talking points, you should briefy address the question and then pivot to your message. Phrases that can help you pivot are:
- “The fact is…”
- “The real issue is…”
- “That’s part of it. What’s really important is…”
- “Another key problem/issue/concern is…”
- “The thing that really matters is…”
Practice, practice, practice.
Feeling nervous about an interview? Sit down with your organizing group, identify your key talking points, and practice. The more you get used to hearing lots of different questions and bouncing responses off of each other, the better you’ll get at addressing them in real life interviews and knowing how to pivot to your message.
Media interviews can be nerve-wracking but remember that, at the end of the day, they’re a gift—an opportunity to get your message out to your target audience on your own terms. Give it time and effort, and soon you’ll be giving interviews like a pro, and will have gained a lifelong skill too.
Visit the PDF version of our Campus Organizing Toolkit for a selection of talking points on common issues.
For some, deciding whether to go public with your story is an easy and obvious yes. For others, it’s a tough call and one that change over the course of a few weeks, months, or years. For all of us, it’s a decision only we can each make for ourselves.
If you have family or friends with whom you feel comfortable talking about it, do so. They may anticipate concerns that could be important. However, while your loved ones may want what’s best for you, they may not fully recognize the reasons motivating you to go forward or your desire to stay out of the press. They may also have their own reasons for wanting you to make a particular decision: regret for not having gone forward themselves, fear that your assault will reflect poorly on them as parents, or concern that it may alienate some of their friends.
At the end of the day, this is your experience, your activism, your life, and your decision.
If you are deciding to “go public” while organizing for change on your campus, consider asking yourself: What are your personal or organizational goals? Will going public help you accomplish these? Is sharing your story publicly key to your personal healing? Are you hoping to get your rapist expelled? Make sweeping policy change at your school? Increase awareness about violence on your campus, or in a particular community on your campus?
Take time to identify your goals and evaluate whether your “going public” will help accomplish them. Will sharing your story put serious public pressure on your school to shape up? Will it help you heal personally, or win the accommodations to which you are entitled? Would a campaign based outside of individual narratives of violence be more effective? Easier?
It’s important to know that regardless of these organizational goals, sharing your story can help people you don’t even know feel less alone and pressure your school to make change. You might even help yourself: going public with your story can help connect you to other survivors and organizers. Many of us have made some of our very dearest friends doing this work—people we might never have met had we not spoken up in the first place. We’re ready to become your friends and fiercest supporters too.
But there is no right way to be a survivor: sharing your story publicly is not the right decision for everyone. Some people choose not to share for religious or spiritual reasons. Others are concerned about potential legal risks, or that being publicly identified as a survivor might affect their future career prospects. Some people don’t want the attention, in person and online, that sharing publicly can sometimes bring. It’s a decision that only you can make—but whatever you choose is the right thing for you!