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ReThink Tips: How to Engage the Media During a Pandemic

May 20, 2020
We talked to opinion editors, reporters, and communications professionals for their advice when it came to pitching, writing, and engaging with the media in the age of the coronavirus

The COVID-19 outbreak is affecting everyone around the world, and the news industry is no exception. As prominent examples like Chris Cuomo illustrate, journalists and their families are catching the disease, just like anyone else. They are also hurting economically, just like so many other parts of our society. As of April 24th, “roughly 36,000 workers at news companies in the US have been laid off, been furloughed or had their pay reduced” according to a running list being kept by The New York Times. According to a recent Pew estimate, that’s about 40% of the industry.

To untangle what that means—beyond updating our press lists much more frequently—ReThink talked to opinion editors, reporters, communications professionals, and everyone in between for their advice when it came to pitching, writing, and engaging with the media in the age of the coronavirus. We also shared ideas between our Peace & Security, Democracy, and Rights &  Inclusion teams.

Below are ReThink’s top ten tips on working with the media during the pandemic: 

1. Relationships are key

Given the uncertainty in their industry right now, try to check in with the journalists and editors that you’re already close to, not just to pitch them, but to see how they are. One reporter even said, “Give us a call. Our inboxes are flooded, but being stuck at home, it’s actually nice to talk to someone for a bit.” 

If you don’t have journalists in your network already, that’s OK too. Use this time as a chance to build relationships with those reporters and editors you love on Twitter, but have never worked with. Just like us, journalists are more likely to respond to folks they know. Build out a list of who you want to get to know and then follow them on Twitter. (Check out some of our Twitter Lists to get a head start, and then see how to use Twitter lists more effectively in your work.) But, don’t just be a lurker. Reporters don’t bite and most of them would love to hear from you. If they’re talking about something you find interesting on Twitter, join in the conversation: reply, retweet, or even send them a private direct message (DM).  

Many journalists have told us that DM’ing them is a great way to bypass their email inbox clutter. We recommend using DM for introductions, cool flags, or otherwise short conversations. For formal pitches, reporters still say they prefer email, since it’s easier to flag and come back to.  

Remember, you don’t have to be pitching them a story or an op-ed. Just be kind, be yourself, and talk about the things you find interesting.

2. “It’s kind of all coronavirus all the time”

This quote comes from a foreign affairs journalist at a prominent digital outlet. Overwhelmingly, the journalists we spoke to acknowledged that the coronavirus is taking up much of the oxygen in the news cycle. Other journalists and editors told us the articles getting clicks are the ones about coronavirus. But they are also well aware that it’s not the only thing going on. Even a small coronavirus connection increases the likelihood of an editor approving a reporter’s piece. With much of the world affected by, or thinking about the disease, this isn’t as hard as it may sound.

3. Don’t force the connection

If you find yourself playing six degrees of separation to link your topic to the virus, you should stop. All you are going to do is muddle the story you are trying to tell. Every journalist we talked to acknowledged how hard it was to balance coronavirus coverage and other news. But, that doesn’t mean reporters don’t want those other stories. One geopolitics reporter told us he believes it’s important to “continue covering the issues that existed before the pandemic [...] If not, we'll all be caught short.” Which reminds us, if there is something really important happening, but you don’t see a reporter covering it: tell them. They’ll be very appreciative of the tip. 

If you have a non-coronavirus op-ed to pitch, that’s ok too. But, you’ll need a persuasive answer to: Why does this matter right now? Remember what makes something news. By thinking through what that outlet—and their audience—will care about, you’re increasing your chances of success, while making the editor’s life much easier. And don’t forget, if you’re ever stuck, we’re just an email away. 

4. A lot of people have extra time to write

While some of us just try to tread water, there are many others out there who seem to have taken those “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine” tweets too seriously. Multiple opinion editors told us their inboxes are overflowing with submissions—especially editors from outlets that are furloughing or laying off staff. This means they may be slower to review pieces than normal, less responsive with feedback, and less able to publish different angles on the same topic. It also unfortunately means that editors are more likely to pass over pieces that do not have a time-sensitive hook. 

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. Follow up if you don’t hear back. Keep pitching—and editing—your piece if you get rejected. And don’t forget about all the smaller, more niche outlets that are always looking for thought leaders like yourself. 

If you’re one of the people with less time on their hands nowadays, we see you, too. Don’t stress out if you aren’t cranking out op-eds or writing your new screenplay. Instead, think through small activities that can be just as impactful. Try writing a letter to the editor or tweeting back at one reporter you follow. In fact, here’s a whole blog post of things you can be doing—many of which take fewer than 10 minutes.

5. Break through the noise 

Multiple organizations told us that their web traffic, email opens, virtual event attendance, and social engagement are up. So, if you’ve been struggling to get a piece or story picked up in a news outlet, don’t just stick the draft in a folder somewhere. Instead, use your own platforms to push them out, then amplify on your social media channels. Who knows? A prominent reporter might just see it and be interested! For example, Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez wrote a great piece for The Watson Institute’s blog on why the media cannot allow Trump to normalize coronavirus deaths. Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan saw Anne’s Twitter thread on the topic and ended up writing her entire Sunday column about it. 

If you want to get really creative, some local groups are getting traction by reaching out to regional celebrities to amplify their message. Stay-at-home orders have led to an explosion of Instagram and Facebook live videos—some with audiences measuring in the hundreds of thousands—as celebrities attempt to find new ways to connect with their fans. Just remember that, like a news outlet, they’ll want to know why your issue matters to their audience, and especially why it matters now in the midst of a crisis.

6. Amplify, amplify, amplify

With all the extenuating circumstances we outlined above, sometimes your op-ed or story just isn’t going to get as much attention as it deserves. It’s more important than ever to think through what your roll-out plan will look like ahead of time. 

Before your piece comes out, you can do some advance work to save valuable time as soon as it drops. We recommend creating a dissemination list, aka a spreadsheet of all the colleagues, friends, reporters, policymakers who might be interested in what you have to say. Make sure to draft a Twitter thread, summing up the main arguments in your piece and tagging anyone relevant, ahead of time. Next, draft an email to flag your piece, what it’s about, and how recipients can amplify (e.g. “You can find my Twitter thread on the subject here”). Finally, make sure to tell the newsletters. ReThink has created a press list of newsletter editors to help in that effort. 

If you want more ideas, check out our blog post about what to do after your piece is published.

7. Focus on hope and solutions 

People are looking for good news. At the beginning of the pandemic, the world was glued to their phones. But, now that we’ve been at this for awhile, people have understandably started to disconnect, feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and fatigued by the news. But, not all types of news. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has driven interest in uplifting headlines way, way up. 

Given that most of us don’t work on very cheery issues to begin with, combatting the public’s news fatigue is even more important than usual right now. To do this, ReThink recommends using a positive, solutions-oriented approach when you’re writing. In practice this means: Focusing on a response to a problem—not just the problem itself—using evidence to back up your argument and providing insights that can help others respond, too. 

Put yourself in the shoes of a journalist. What big events, anniversaries, or holidays are they definitely going to be covering and how? If you know there’s an upcoming news hook that may lend itself to problematic angles, now is a great time to think through a counter-messaging strategy. For example, For example, Suzy Ismail authored an op-ed in focusing on how she was redoubling her community service during Ramadan, rather than focusing on how the Holy Month's many communal prayers and gatherings were being disrupted. 

8. Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint 

With everyone underwater, you’ll want to build in more lead time than usual. Try to pitch your op-ed earlier, send an embargoed copy of your report to key reporters earlier, and space out your follow-up more. (That also means looping your comms staff in earlier!) This allows journalists time to give your issue the attention it deserves and can increase coverage. 

It’s easy to get antsy when waiting for a response, especially when it’s about a time-sensitive op-ed. If you’re in a time crunch and want to make sure your piece doesn’t just sit in someone’s inbox unread, send an initial email to the editor with an outline of the idea/argument, instead of the full piece. Also make sure to give a response deadline, so that you’ll be able to move on if you don’t hear from them. 

It’s understandable to feel a bit stuck in your writing right now. To combat that, plan some of those long-term engagements you’ve been wanting to try, and carve out time to be creative. Spend a morning brainstorming, or finally sit down and work out the details to that amazing idea you’ve had in the back of your mind for ages. Don’t forget to use one of ReThink’s editorial calendars to spur ideas for upcoming holidays, anniversaries, and other news hooks. The Peace & Security editorial calendar is here, Democracy’s is here, and Rights & Inclusion’s is here.

9. Keep it simple, smartie. 

The amount of information being thrown at people right now is astronomical, making it even more critical that you put in the work to simplify and clarify your message. When explaining big numbers, make sure to use comparisons people can understand and put into context. Another way to break it down for the reader is by using metaphors and other figurative language. Metaphors help us make sense of the future by using our experiences from the past, so always think through what metaphors your target audience would relate to. 

For breaking down complex issues—like the ones many of you work on—infographics and other visual content can be really helpful tools. But, aesthetics matter. When crafting your infographics, make sure the content is clear, the language is accessible, and the design is clean. If you feel like you’re trying to squeeze too much into one graphic, you probably are. 

10. Tune in to broadcast

So far, broadcast channels have weathered the economic storm better than their print and digital cousins. This means they are a good alternative to drive attention to our issues. But pitching TV and radio is very different from print. While radio can have a lot of variety and idiosyncrasies based on their hosts and audiences, both platforms are driven almost entirely by the news of the day. One prominent cable news producer we spoke to put it this way, “Keep your eyes on the headlines and pitch around those. We are all about coronavirus and US politics, and little else is breaking through. I don’t see it letting up anytime soon.”

While the individual contact information in ReThink’s Radio Book is dated, it’s packed with pointers for targeting the right outlets, crafting an effective pitch, and maximizing your opportunity.

In chaotic times like these, booking producers turn to sources they already know. This means it may be harder to land your first interview, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get your message out there. Watch to see which commentators the networks have speaking on your topics. If those people are in your network (or are conceivably reachable), send them talking points, helpful statistics, or even your most recent op-ed. You may be surprised to find out they’re looking for help. 

On the flipside, if you are one of those lucky ducks being interviewed, always come prepared with the one point you need to make to consider the experience a success. Bonus points if you are able to come up with a strong metaphor to use, as it’s more likely to be remembered and shared by the audience. Once you have the interview, don’t forget to flag the hit for your networks, tweet it from your social media channels, and follow up with a quick thank you to the producer and host. 


This piece was written by Senior Communications Associate John Pope and Communications Manager Allegra Harpootlian. Both work with ReThink Media's Peace and Security Collaborative.