Media: Using What's There and Creating Your Own
No matter what the occasion, a little media attention goes a long way. With effective media coverage, a visibility action that is seen first-hand by
thirty or forty people can suddenly capture the attention of thousands. As a
campaign strategy, our media goals are threefold: to promote lesbian
visibility, to recruit people into the movement, and to persuade more people
to vote on our side.
Our experience is that media coverage is easier to receive in a rural area,
small town, or small city than it is in a large urban setting-for instance,
New York City. When an anti-lesbian ballot initiative is sponsored in a
region for the first time, tensions run high and the controversy is
fresh-it's safe to say that getting some coverage won't be too difficult.
The media thrives on controversy, so we rarely had trouble attracting
attention in small towns and cities like Lewiston, Sandpoint, and Moscow.
The first step in using media is to find or create a media list. This is a
list containing all your media venues-newspapers, magazines, television
programs, and radio channels. It should include a fax number, at least one
good contact name, and a phone number. There are different kinds of media
which can be used in different ways, so you may want to keep the lists
separate. The most salient divisions for our purposes were queer media
versus mainstream, and regional versus national.
Lesbian and gay media outlets in your region (papers, radio shows, on-line
bulletin boards or web pages) can be used to share strategies and organizing
ideas, to educate the community, to publicize actions and social events, and
to recruit volunteers. These press sources should receive all the press
releases you send to mainstream media (see below). In addition, you could
send them entire articles you have written, or pitch stories about your group
to them in the hopes that they'll write their own articles.
You can also utilize regional press in different places around the country to
share strategies and educate communities nationwide. For example, other
communities may be fighting similar ballot initiatives at the same time as
you are. Regional lesbian and gay press are often run by a small, dedicated
core who are happy to receive material to print, and may even print press
releases verbatim. If you send a written article, they may also print that
in its entirety. During our preliminary organizing, we sent out an article
about LACROP to small regional papers around the country to publicize our
strategies for fighting initiatives, and to find lesbian activists who agreed
with wanted to work with us. In the course of our research, we discovered
the Palouse Avengers when we happened upon an article written by one of their
core group members in Diversity, the Idaho lesbian and gay paper. You never
know who might read something once you put it out there.
The national queer press (a forum with national distribution which doesn't
focus on one region) can be used to share strategies and ideas, to educate
the national community about what's going on in your region, and possibly to
solicit financial donations for your work. Obtaining coverage of your
organization in national forums often requires more aggressive pursuit.
Contact names of sympathetic writers/editors will help-if you don't know
anyone offhand, you can scan past issues to try and find a writer who might
be interested in your work.
You'll want mainstream media to: 1-publicize your events before they happen
in order to increase the number of participants, 2-cover your actions and
events, hopefully in a sympathetic way, and 3-to be aware of your group's
presence and importance, so that they will contact you for an interview
whenever a relevant issue comes up, or so that they might write a general
interest story about the ongoing work of your group.
Even when you're in the mainstream press, you're speaking to dykes and fags.
In Lewiston, we got a story written about the Lewiston Lesbian and Gay
Society's "Cotillion" the morning before the event. Dozens of lesbians and
gay men showed up that night for the first publicized lesbian/gay event in
the history of the town-many of whom who had heard of it through the
Steps for getting action and event coverage:
- Write a press release . A press release is designed to
grab the attention of reporters and editors so that they want to attend your
event and/or write a story about your group. It is ideally a one page
(occasionally longer) event description, and is traditionally written in the
voice and tone of an actual article , in the third person, but is livelier
and more clearly supportive of the event than a typical article would be. It
must include who, what, where, when, and why-answering those questions is a
good place to start from when you're writing. The press release can also
include quotes from members of your group. Describe the aspects of the
action that will be most titillating for reporters, although these details
may not necessarily be the ones you find most meaningful. Make sure the most
important information is in the first paragraph, and the least important
information is in the last paragraph . A compelling heading is very
important-it's relatively easy to do this with lesbian and gay issues,
especially in small towns. Be sure to include a contact name and phone
number at the top of the press release. Anyone in your group can be the
contact person, but remember that that is the person most likely to be quoted
by the press at an event-you may want to rotate people for this task.
- Fax the press release to your media list. A fax machine is a worthwhile
investment; make getting one a top priority for your fundraising. There is
also software designed to fax a document to every fax number in your file-it
might be worth looking into the availability and cost of this.
- Follow-up the faxes with personal phone calls to the contacts on your
list, urging them to attend your action or event. This is often easier in
smaller towns and cities as you or someone in your group may have personal
contact with some of these people. For example, in Lewiston a member of the
Lewiston Lesbian and Gay Society made a call to a friend which got us the
pre-event story about the Cotillion, instead of just a listing in the
upcoming events section of the paper.
- "Train" yourselves to speak to the media. When attending actions we
think everyone should prepare themselves in advance to talk to the media and
that this opportunity should be shared by everyone in the community. This
way, we all assume ownership of our actions-and we don't manufacture
artificial lines between "experts" and "volunteers," as if some activists are
good enough to show up and do some work, but not qualified to speak on their
own behalf. There is no one lesbian who can represent every dyke in your
group. Each member should have the opportunity, as much as they want, to
speak to the press and the public. When different lesbians talk about their
own reasons for being in a group, or participating in an action or event, you
will sound like real people. If you all spout the same line, you'll end up
sounding like followers of a cult.
Most people get better at public speaking every time they do it. You can
give each other help by suggesting wording or by working together on a speech
and listening to each other practice. Or a group member can stand with the
dyke on the spot to give her moral support. Also, we do have a general
principle that, unless everyone has agreed to the statements beforehand,
anyone who speaks in public or to the press should make it clear that they
are speaking for themselves and not as a spokesperson for the group or for
Your media training could just consist of a discussion of possible responses
to media questions. It's always helpful if, before an action, everyone can
go around in a circle and articulate to the group what they think the action
is all about. It clarifies everyone's own thoughts and gives them ideas of
what to say if the press does want an interview. Just in case people get
cold feet at the action and don't want to talk to the media, make sure that
at least one or two people are willing and prepared to do it.
- At the action/event: make sure to get names of media people who show up,
so you can keep track of who shows interest.
- Make follow-up calls and send out a follow-up press release or story.
Make sure to call the media people who showed up at your action or event.
Ask if they need more information, how you can be helpful, etc. Also send a
follow up press release including a contact number to other local, regional,
and national mainstream and gay media. Call the local media who didn't show
up. Often they will write a story anyway, using your original press release
as a base, and adding information you provide over the phone. Even if this
doesn't get you coverage, you'll be creating a relationship with the reporter
who might show up another time.
- When you get coverage clip the newspaper stories & tape the TV/radio
shows for your files. You can use these press clips for continued
fundraising, for new leaflets, or to pass on to others. TV/radio show
coverage can be used at events or incorporated at a later time into a video
about the campaign or your group.
- What if you get no media coverage? Sometimes, no matter what you do, the
media ignores you. Sometimes it's because some other major event occurs on
the same day as your action. A kiss-in may not be able to compete with a
3-foot snowfall or a mass murder. Other times there won't be reporters
available at that time and place, and your follow up call won't be enough to
convince them. Remember that actions are not done solely for media coverage;
you will reach people at the venue, and continue to build your own momentum
even without media coverage.
Other Ways to Use the Media
There are many types of media coverage other than straight news stories. If
you are creative, you can get your group to turn up all over the place!
Letters to the editor are a good source of media coverage. The editorial
section will usually print anything, and during heated initiative campaigns,
papers sometimes devote extra space to pro- and anti- proposition letters.
Another venue to try is the classifieds. After the Lewiston Lesbian and Gay
Society had their mammoth pink triangle stolen from the Lewiston Hill, they
placed an ad in the lost and found: "Lost: 100ft pink triangle, last seen
on the Lewiston Hill. If you have any information please call the Lewiston
Lesbian and Gay Society at 208-xxx-xxxx." Insidiousness works, too.
The internet is always a good media area-place information on relevant
bulletin boards; create a home-page on the Web.
Creating your own media
In Idaho we started the Lesbian Avengers Radio Show, which in addition to
being a break from our usual work, gave us the opportunity to get our word
out to the radio-listening college campus crowd. We brought in guest
speakers to talk about Idaho's Proposition One, publicized events, actions,
and parties, and tried to solicit volunteers. College radio stations in your
area, the local affiliate of the National Public Radio, local Pacifica radio
stations, or any other public access radio are good places to investigate
getting Public Service Announcements or your own show on the air. In our
case, two local lesbians in Moscow already had their own shows at the college
radio station and were able to set us up with a time-slot through the station
manager. We didn't have any experience, but they were glad to show us
around the equipment and it didn't take long to learn (although we made our
share of embarrassing mistakes at the beginning).
By federal mandate, there is one station in every cable system that is
designated for public cable-access. Facilities for these stations vary
widely-some towns' public access stations include full production facilities
that are available for public use and have introductory training available,
too. Others don't have such extensive production facilities, but will still
run what you give them as a special or a regular series. You can use these
stations to run a video-tape you make of an action, or start your own show.
Host a talk-show and invite other organizers to speak on a topic. In the
state of Washington, x project produced a series called American Values
which they ran for twelve weeks while the Christian Right was gathering
signatures to place an anti-lesbian -gay initiative on the ballot. American
Values was geared towards "public education" at a time when misinformation
was rampant. In Idaho, a gay farmer produced a 30 minute piece called "Out
in the Middle of Nowhere." This was on the public cable stations several
times in the weeks just before the vote; it was also shown at local
screenings designed to bring people together and get out more information.
There are also lesbian and gay shows with national distribution that are
shown on public access cable or the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS). DYKE
TV is distributed on public access cable and is happy to run segments sent to
them by lesbians around the country. In The Life is a PBS project which may
be willing to cover a story in your area.
It is often useful to videotape your own actions and events. You can send it
to established media sources (mainstream or queer), or play the tapes at
social events, conferences, etc. to motivate new recruits. You can also
promote a video screening as a way to bring people together and raise money.
Super VHS and Hi-8 are consumer-level formats-they're easy to use, look
pretty good, and are far less expensive formats to work with than the
professional standard, Beta. If no one you know has a camcorder it might be
worthwhile to find one to borrow, rent, or solicit a donation to buy one new
or used. Colleges and public-access stations are good places to check out
free equipment. Having a video camera at actions is also a good safety
device: people will think twice about pummeling you to the ground if you are
getting it all on tape.
After the vote
In the craziness of your final campaign hours, don't forget about cultivating
media coverage for after the vote. You can send press releases, story ideas
and articles about your vote analysis and the effectiveness of your
strategies to both queer and mainstream venues. Prepare two versions of your
materials for immediate release-one as if the vote was won, the other as if
it was lost. If you lose, it will be important to keep the momentum going
and bring something positive out of all your work; this will help the
community from self-destructing. If you win, you can celebrate your work and
your strategies through the media.
As the dust settle, plan to share your experiences with lesbians in other
states through regional lesbian/gay newspapers throughout the country.
Again, these venues will often print your stories verbatim. We wrote a
story about the Idaho vote that was picked up by The Nation. For more
discussion of ways to work after the vote, see Section 6B.
Working with media can be as simple or involved as you want. At the bare
minimum, you can publicize your work with fax lists and press releases on an
ongoing basis. If you want to get more involved, you can create your own
media by writing articles, creating a web page or bulletin board, producing a
video, or hosting radio and television shows. These are all projects which
offer opportunities for creative and different kinds of organizing-which can
attract new people to your movement, spur new kinds of visibility actions,
and give organizers a break from one kind of work as they learn the skills to
do another. As we have learned, it is always to our advantage to be working
on a range of projects.
The impact of media work is not always immediately obvious, but in the long
run you may see direct results. As with all of the organizing work we
discuss, if you look at the campaign as a jumping-off point for sustainable
movement building, then you can see the media generated during the campaign
as one piece of that greater visibility. Initiative campaigns are a chance
to capture the attention of an entire town or state-now is your chance to say
what you want, and know that it is being heard.
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