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Checklist for Effective Direct Action Media

One month to one week before the action

  1. Decide what person or persons will be in charge of media strategy. The benefits of consensus aside, it is nearly impossible to write a press release, focus on a key sound bite, contact key reporters, or accomplish any other media tasks by committee. So empower a media team to make these decisions, and let them do their jobs without second-guessing and micro-managing.

    The most logical makeup of the media team is a media coordinator, an action coordinator and the lead campaigner. During the action itself, each of these people will likely be stationed at a point where they can serve as media spokespersons. If the media coordinator is to be stationed at the action site, you need one more member of the team: Someone to stay in an office and work the fax machine (unless you have on-site fax capability).

  2. Settle on one simple message. Accept it: You're not going to be able to communicate all the points, sub-points and shades of gray about the issue you'd like to. An action is like a freeway billboard, designed to hammer home one - and almost always only one - message. If you can't focus on one issue that's the main reason you're doing the action, you shouldn't be doing the action at all.

  3. Choose a strong image that clearly communicates the message. Remember the freeway billboard: With one glance it is (or should be) unmistakable what product or idea is being sold. Ideally, your action should communicate the message without any words of explanation - and always in as few as possible.

    If you find yourself saying, "They'll understand it when they read the banner," your image isn't clear enough. But the banner, which will probably contain language very similar to the sound bite, must also be capable of communicating the message on its own. You may not pull off the image; or you may not get the banner up; each, therefore, has to be able to stand alone.

  4. Craft sound bites that communicate the message and enhance the image. Assemble the media team. Take out a legal pad. Lock the door. Throw out short, simple, declarative sentences that express your message. (Remember: The average soundbite on U.S. TV is less than 10 seconds.) Write them down. Stay in the room until you have five that might work. From five, choose three. From three, choose one. Shape and refine it until it's as close to perfect as hard work and creativity can make it.

  5. Choose a date and hour for the action that will maximize your chances for coverage.

    Sometimes you have to do an action when it is possible to do it, or when it's safe to do it. But if circumstances permit you to choose the date and time, make your choices with the media's convenience in mind. Again, there's no formula, but there are some general rules of thumb:

    Morning is better than afternoon. Almost no event short of a major catastrophe gets covered on the evening news, or in the next morning's paper, if it occurs after 3 p.m.

    Monday through Thursday are the best days, and Monday's best of all, because the later you go in the week, the greater the chance that some other big story will come along and blow you off the news map. Avoid Friday (lowest TV viewership Friday night; lowest newspaper readership Saturday morning; lots of competing news.). Saturday and Sunday are also not the best, because news outlets operate with skeleton crews on weekends.

    Combining the above guidelines, we arrive at the theoretical best time for a hypothetical action: 10:30 a.m. on Monday, after news crews have reported to work for the day, but before they've got other stories going.

    But that's assuming your action occurs in a news vacuum, which it won't. Try to time the action so that it either anticipates or responds to an event the media will recognize as a story - "the news peg." If the President plans to sign the bill you're protesting on Thursday, do your action on Wednesday.

One week to a few days before the action

  1. Write a draft press release. Circulate the draft release to the media team. Discuss and revise, discuss and revise, until it's perfect or you need to move on.

    Remember: The press release is not the message. It also is not the action. The action is the message. The press release is an advertisement to get the media to cover your action. The first two paragraphs are far more important than the rest of the release; the headline is even more important than that.

  2. Make a list, with phone and fax numbers, of every news outlet you can think of that might be interested in the story.

    If you have time before the action, consult a media directory. The standard national references are the Bacon's News Media Guides, with geographically indexed volumes for print and broadcast. (Bacon's, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60604.) They're expensive, but available in good libraries. Or try to find a directory for your state or region, which may be published by a press club or the like. In a pinch, get out your Yellow Pages.

    Check the phone number and fax number listed in the directory to make sure they're correct. Prioritize this list in order of most important outlets, but remember: The Associated Press is (almost) always first.

  3. Begin practicing sound bites and mock interviews with the media team.

    If someone's never been interviewed on camera and you have one available, videotape each other, play it back and look carefully for anything - words, gestures, expressions, mannerisms, posture - that doesn't enhance effective communication. Practice until you eliminate those things.

  4. Decide what supplementary materials - fact sheets, background papers, maps, etc. - are needed for the press kit.

    Assemble the materials and folders to put them in. Get them all ready to go, except for the press release, which you'll add after any last-minute changes.

A few days to one day before the action

    Gut check: Decide if it's safe to tip off key reporters in advance.

    If there are one or two reporters whose coverage is key, and you decide they can be trusted, approach them now - strictly off the record - and let them know what's going to happen. You may find out they'll be out of town, but they can tell you who will be covering in their place. They may tell you they live two hours away, so they need extra notice. They may want to cover the action from a strategic vantage point. Make adjustments to accommodate them if you can, but never at the expense of a safe, effective, authentic action.

The day before the action

  1. Finalize the press release.

    If at all possible, keep it to one page. Spell-check it. Proofread it. Get someone else to proofread it again. Print it, copy it and add it to the press kits. (An example of a press release for a breaking-news action follows this checklist.)

  2. Alert all media you can trust, and who might possibly want to be on the scene, that the action is going down.

    Obviously, there are times when you can't tell anyone. The local newspaper may be in the pocket of the industry you're hitting. The TV anchor in a small market may not know enough not to "accidentally" break a pledge of confidentiality. But in general, if you approach the news media straightforwardly and make sure that you're off the record, they will honor your request to keep the information confidential.

    Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and take a chance, because if news outlets know what's coming you're almost certain to get better coverage. But do not, under any circumstance, fax them the press release, or anything else except a map - nothing on paper until the action is safely under way. Faxes can be lost or intercepted.

    Ideally, you should speak directly with the reporter who's going to cover the story. If that's not possible, you should ask to speak to the city editor of a newspaper, and the assignment editor of a TV or radio station. Be prepared to tell them in 30 to 60 seconds what you're doing, why you're doing it and why it will make a good story. Make sure they get the exact time and place of the action, and phone numbers where you or someone else on the media team can be reached from that moment until the action.

    The best time to do this round of calls is the late morning or early afternoon before the action. Before 11 a.m., most editors are in meetings; after 4 p.m. they are on deadline and they will not want to talk to you. If you can't call before 4 wait until 7 p.m. and call the night editor.

    If you know you'll have reporters on the scene when the action starts - or even think you might have some - do whatever you can to keep news cameras away from the actual site until the action is underway. Have them meet you at a nearby staging area and take them in once your activists are in place. Or tell them to be there half an hour after you expect things to be in place, if you can control the timing that closely.

The night before the action

  1. At a meeting of everyone involved - action people, ground protesters, support people - go over the press release, emphasizing the main message and the lead sound bite.

    Spend some time with everyone who might possibly be in an arrest or interview situation, letting them practice the sound bite or variations on it. If there are too many of you, partner off and practice in pairs.

The morning of the action

  1. Get on the phone by 7:30 a.m. (assuming it's a morning action, which is almost always best for coverage).

    Call the TV and radio stations again, to make sure someone on the news desk got the message from the day before and knows what's happening. Again make sure they have the exact time, place and the correct phone numbers for contacts. Most newspapers won't have someone on the desk until 9 a.m.; call them if time permits.

  2. Double check to make sure that the person stationed at the fax machine has copies of the release and the prioritized list of news outlets.

As soon as the action begins

You "have an action" at the moment protesters are in place and/or the image and banner are deployed. If you are some distance from the action site, work out a radio signal with the action coordinator, who should notify you the instant this occurs. Then:
  1. Contact the person at the fax machine and tell them to start pumping out the faxes.

    It is ideal, if you have the capability, to use multiple fax machines or to pre-store the list of numbers in your fax machine so you can start the process with one command. Do your best, but anything that gets out the maximum number of faxes in the shortest amount of time will help.

  2. Begin calling, in order of priority, the news outlets on your fax list. Identify yourself by name and organization, and clearly and succinctly, inform that you have a peaceful protest underway, its location and the purpose. Be calm and businesslike, not urgent or lecturing.

    For example: "This is Zazu Pitts with Rainforest Action Network. This morning we are conducting a peaceful, nonviolent protest against Unocal's destruction of the Amazon. Five minutes ago, two climbers scaled to the top of Unocal's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, and they're going to stay there until the company agrees to meet with us."

    At that point, they'll usually say: "Send us a press release." Tell them one is on its way, then say something like: "I just wanted to tell you the protest is going on right now at 123 Main Street, let you know how to reach us, and see if I can answer any questions for you." They'll either say no thanks, or start asking questions. For an action in a major U.S. metropolitan area, these will almost surely be the first few calls you make:

    The Associated Press
    United Press International and/or Reuters
    The 3 or 4 leading TV news stations
    The 2 or 3 leading radio news stations
    The local newspaper
    If you're in a smaller town - one without an AP bureau or TV station - your first calls may be the local newspaper and radio station. But get in touch with the closest AP office as soon as possible.

During the action

  • Do not keep calling back with updates, unless they are truly big and unexpected developments. If the outlets are interested, they will be following the action through the authorities.

  • With cellular telephones, it is now common for action protesters to speak live to the news media from where they are hanging or locked down. News radio stations in particular love this, so if you didn't reach them at the beginning of the action, keep trying and make sure they know they can go live to the site.

  • It's best to let the people who are actually engaged in direct action deliver the message - it adds undeniable authenticity to the coverage. As media coordinator you should of course also be prepared to deliver crisp, on-message soundbites. But your main responsibility is to help journalists do their jobs.

  • Reporters will ask all kinds of questions unrelated to the action's message - How do they go to the bathroom up there? You should be ready to provide a courteous answer that nonetheless quickly turns back to the topic at hand. ("They wear diapers. It's inconvenient, but that's nothing compared to the danger this toxic waste poses to this community.")

After the action

When the protesters are arrested, or leave peacefully, or whatever marks the end of the action, call the main outlets mentioned above (at least, those that showed any interest at all) and tell them that the protest ended, what time it ended, and the outcome. Again, make sure they know where you can be reached the rest of the day - and often the following day. If there were arrests and people are released later that day, call again with that update