By Jennifer R. Farmer
Editorial-board meetings are a low-cost yet effective way to influence public opinion. If they are not a part of your communications strategy, they should be.
Ed boards publish editorials on a range of topics, including issues in the news, ballot measures, and the policy positions of elected officials and candidates for office.
Unlike a news department that reports the news, ed boards issue editorials that represent the board’s and the publisher’s views. They generally include the editorial-page editor and writers; the opinion editor and op-ed columnists; and the publisher. Their meetings can produce several possible outcomes:
- The paper can publish an editorial supporting your position on an issue.
- It could publish an editorial opposing your position.
- It might elect to remain neutral and not weigh in at all.
- You could land an editorial and a news story on your issue, since ed-board meetings sometimes include one or more representatives from the newsroom.
- You could be invited to write an op-ed articulating your position.
In publishing editorials, ed boards are both stating their position and attempting to influence public opinion. Because they can weigh in on any issue in the news at any time, engaging with them proactively will make it more likely they will consider your perspective before publishing an editorial that could influence the public’s perception of your position and cause.
Well-meaning nonprofit leaders can get bogged down in the work their organizations do and overlook the need to explain the merits of their policy views or policy proposals to the media. Such leaders are often discouraged when they read editorials that, to their mind, totally miss the point on a given issue. Don’t leave anything to chance, or assume that journalists understand a given position.
Here are five specific reasons why you should schedule meetings with editorial boards:
They will weigh in on an issue with or without you. Reach out proactively to discuss your causes and policy prescriptions. If an ed board decides to cover your issue, it will know your perspective. Moreover, once you meet board members, they may come back to you for information before writing about an issue in which you’re involved.
For instance, my former employer, the Advancement Project, met with a representative of The New York Times editorial board to discuss the Voting Rights Act. During the meeting, we discussed our litigation challenging Wisconsin’s 2011 voter ID law. When a member of the board decided to write an editorial about the law, he contacted me to clarify many points. This would not have happened had we not met earlier.
You might get two for the price of one. These meetings often include reporters or even the publisher, particularly at smaller media outlets. This presents a rare opportunity to share viewpoints with media representatives with varied roles. You might land a news story addressing your issue as well as an editorial. But remember that for this reason, editorial-board meetings are on the record unless you explicitly request an off-the-record discussion and the newspaper consents.
You might be invited to submit an op-ed. Editorial boards often publish their opinion and an opposing viewpoint. These contrary views, written by outside contributors, are positioned opposite the editorial page, hence the “op-ed” label. A board may also decline to address an issue in an editorial but invite a guest to do in an op-ed.
In my book Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget you can read about a phone meeting I arranged with the Orlando Sentinel editorial board to discuss disparities in school discipline. The editorial-page editor was considering writing an editorial supporting expanded police presence in schools. After discussing the potential unintended consequences of this policy, the paper declined to write an editorial and instead offered leaders at my nonprofit an opportunity to write an op-ed highlighting the negative effects. This would not have happened without the meeting.
You can influence policy makers. The more publicly available information there is about your cause, the easier it becomes to build support for it. Lawmakers are move likely to vote as you would like on an issue if they better understand it. Moreover, when elected officials consider implementing policy proposals, they often check to see which editorial boards have opined on the issue; it’s one way they measure public sentiment.
You may avoid vilification. Meeting with editorial-board members does not ensure they will agree with your position on every issue. But once you’ve impressed upon them who you are and what you represent, they will usually be less likely to vilify you. A face-to-face meeting can at least neutralize opposition on an issue, or dissuade the board from weighing in against you.
Getting in the Door
Should you decide to request an editorial-board meeting, here’s what you need to do in going about it:
- Research the board you’d like to meet and make a direct approach. Identify the editorial-page editor — he or she will be listed in the outlet’s Opinion section — then email or call that person to request a meeting.
- The meeting request should briefly summarize what you plan to share and why the board may want to meet with you and your team. Provide biographies of each person who will attend.
- Once a newspaper or media outlet agrees to meet, schedule the ed board meeting far enough in advance that you have time to prepare — four to six weeks is a good lead time.
- Keep in mind that the meeting does not obligate the paper to publish an editorial on your issue or guarantee when it might do so. In 2013, I arranged a meeting between the executive director of the Advancement Project’s national office and the Washington Post editorial board to discuss the nonprofit’s work to end the school-to-prison pipeline. The Post published an editorial on the topic — about six months later. Ed boards often hold an editorial until they deem it to be timely; in this instance, the piece coincided with release of new Department of Education guidance on school discipline.
This article originally appeared on Philanthropy.com
Jennifer Farmer is the author of “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget,” a practical guide to generating media coverage regardless of your resources.