Stack of newspapers in a Kiosk, London, United Kingdom
Stack of newspapers in a kiosk in London

How to get media coverage and influence people

2020 was a brutal year all round. But for those of us who work on international issues and campaigns it had an extra kick.

With the dissolution of the Department for International Development, and swingeing cuts to the UK aid budget, “Global Britain” made clear where its priorities lay, and they weren’t with the development sector.

As we dust ourselves down for the challenges ahead, it feels like it could be a moment to go back to basic principles when it comes to making the case for British leadership on aid and development. I hope the short film I made with Olly Buston for the Future Advocacy series of 6-to-8-minute MiniMasterclass videos can contribute to this thinking in a small way. It’s about how to use the media to drive change.

There are some huge UK-based campaigning opportunities coming up this year, including the G7 in Cornwall in June and COP26 in Glasgow in November. Ahead of these, and in the context of growing challenges to our work, it is perhaps worth returning to the basic rules and tips around how to use media and comms to advance our causes and make the world a better place.

Think about the why, the who and the what

At di:ga Communications, we encourage our clients to approach every piece of comms or media work in the same way: starting with the fundamental strategic questions of why you are communicating, who you need to reach and what you want them to do as a result. Without starting here, the risk is you have no criteria for choosing between possible tactics, or you fall into the trap of pursuing media coverage for the sake of it.

Then get onto the how

All organisations will have things to say, but how you say them will determine whether you get coverage that persuades your target audiences to act. You need to think about what your target audiences are interested in and motivated by, not what you think they should care about.

Put yourself in the shoes of the people you are trying to reach. What do they care about? What are they motivated by? What are the obstacles to them doing what you want? Then you need to consider how to develop and package up the arguments, research, and evidence in a way that will make your targets sit up and take notice.

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There is little point rehearsing arguments about the benefits of aid that will resonate within the charity sector, or with people who are already sympathetic. To make the case against cuts to UK overseas aid, NGOs need to use arguments that will resonate with decision makers in the Tory party, and with their voters. We need to understand their reasons for cutting aid and hone arguments that counter these.

Making the perfect pitch

Just as we need to think about how to frame and package our content for our target audiences, so we need to think about how to convince journalists and their editors to feature it.

Understanding what makes news and why is key here. Content needs to come across as new, timely, and relevant to the publication or outlet’s audiences. It helps if it is controversial, counter-intuitive, or unexpected. It also helps if you can illustrate what you are saying with killer facts, or compelling human case studies. Who carries your message matters – do they have credibility on the issue or are they particularly well-known?

Different outlets have different editorial stances and cater to different sorts of viewers and readers. You need to understand this and be prepared to tailor your pitch accordingly. You also need to think strategically about which outlets are most likely to reach and influence the audiences that matter: there is little point defending aid in the Guardian if the people you need to convince read the Telegraph, Times and Spectator.

The importance of language

The strategy behind any piece of media work is critically important, but so is the language you use. My go-to essay and guide on how to write is George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but for the quick crib-sheet summary, the essay includes six rules on how to write well:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a scientific word, or a jargon word, if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright outrageous.

It may have been written in 1946 but it is just as relevant today as the development sector gets ready for the big communications opportunities and challenges of 2021 and beyond.