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Handling the Media for Activists: by Rodney Croome and Gai Lemon

(From last post...) Well, time for lunch. The Student Union's pizza cafe was open, so I had a double-garlic, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese (mozzarella) and cheese (fetta) pizza, washed down with a small bottle of Beez Neez honey beer. Damn, we activists do it tough.

After lunch it was time for the 'Working with the Media' workshop, led by
Rodney Croome (G) and Gai Lemon. Croome played a leading role in getting the Australian state of Tasmania to change its laws which made homosexual activity a crime. Lemon is a 'professional lesbian' who has been dealing with the media since the late '80's. And between them they gave a workshop crammed with useful facts and tips on dealing with the media.

An early media release that Croome helped to write was a good place to start talking. Back in the '80's his gay law reform group in Tasmania wanted to set up a stall at the Salamanca Markets, but the local council (which controls the markets), refused permission. The plan was to defy them, and Croome spoke of the 'essay' he wrote about his position. He showed it to (now-Senator) Bob Brown, who drew a big blue line right through it, and wrote instead:

Shock Council Ban

Gay Activists to Defy Hobart City Council

Which is good advice. As Croome said, a media release is about grabbing people's attention with ONE idea and writing about it in the way that you want to see it in the media.

Early on in the session came another crucial piece of advice: go into an interview knowing what you want to say, despite any questions the interviewer might ask you. In fact no matter what they do ask you, keep coming back to your point:

So, how about that local sports team? "I hope the Crows win, just as much as I hope the workers will throw off the bosses and build a new society without them".

You usually have to find a human angle if you want to change attitudes with your stories. People usually don't identify with the cause of "gay rights" (for instance), they identify with a person who is being unjustly treated. (Follow those two links and see which one has your blood boiling in the first ten seconds).

When you have people who are willing to talk to the media about how your issue affects their lives, you'll probably have to give them some coaching on how to deflect 'political' questions and keep things at a soft level. Discuss the issue with them, and draw out their own words that will sound good in the media.

Sometimes it can be a good idea to invite people who MIGHT change their mind to see your cause. For instance, Croome talked about when he invited an Anglican [Church of England, Episcopalian] bishop who was wary of same-sex parents to publically visit such a family. The media footage of the bishop playing with the men's children was very valuable indeed.

If you think of appearing on TV as a performance, instead of something that is natural, you will probably do OK. You may be asked to do the same thing four or five times, so the media can get the correct shot. Play along - unless they are actively trying to sabotage you, all they want is for their story to look as professional as it can.

Never look bored or angry while being interviewed, the TV magnifies things like that. Also don't wear too many ornaments, badges, bright objects etc, that will make your picture on TV look 'busy'.

And here is a nice trick if you are being recorded and you say something dumb that you don't want on air: swear right at the end of what you say:

"Well Jane, most same sex parents seem to have a lot of trouble raising childrenF**K!"

Its very difficult - almost impossible - for the media outlet to edit this so it sounds OK to go on air. Sure they can cut out the swear word, but the rest of the sentence won't sound right. So they won't use it. Nice...

And if you suspect a journalist is trying to sabotage you, its OK to not answer questions, to firmly change the topic and talk about something you want to, or to end the interview. And don't trust the journalist who want to be your friend, especially if you are or have been friendly with them. Act as though EVERYTHING is on the record, even if you are 'just chatting'. That 'chat' might turn up in the media the next day.

Remember, "they" are not the big bad media. Well somethimes they are, but we often overestimate their weaknesses. They need stories or they die, and they will publish yours if they are good enough.

For example at last year's BSF, News Ltd (that is, Murdoch (G)) journalist Elizabeth Wynhausen, author of 'Dirt Cheap' (Amazon) spoke, and explained that she was working on articles about human rights abuses in the sex trafficking trade. She was under the impression that the chance to win human rights awards (scroll down to the very bottom of the PDF file) was one of the big reasons that News would let her do these stories. She was prepared to make that compromise to get a story out that she thought was worthwhile.

I really enjoyed this session, as I have had a couple of wins with the media in the past. I have an article about my own media promotion in the pipeline, which will be a step-by-step guide to media releases. One thing I said at the BSF seminar that I will say again in my article is this:

You MUST not just send out media releases and hope the stories will come rolling in. You MUST follow up your release by cold calling the newspapers, radio, and TV, for a start) and asking them point blank if they think your story is newsworthy.

Next planned articles - some more background details from Humphrey McQueen's seminar last week, and a report of a visit of an Israeli peace activist to Brisbane late last year that I did the local media promotion for, which will include full copies of media releases, tips on how to write them, how to cold call the media without fear, and advice on just what size of poster is the best for getting attention on the street.

Keep your feeds open.

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