Thinking strategically to ‘Catch’ the Media’s Attention

8 May 2015
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Arushi Sen,  Media Coordinator with the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP). CSTEP publishes Aditi, a digital newsletter focusing on issues faced by the Think Tank ecosystem.]

“Hello, may I speak with the Editor please? I am calling from a Think Tank. We would like to submit an Op-ed for publication in your newspaper.”

“I’m sorry. We already have a long back log of Op-eds. I’m afraid we won’t be able to accept anything right now.”

This is a conversation with a media house that occurs ever-so often. How does one ‘catch’ the attention of the news media? And why is it so important for a Think Tank to publish with the news media?

The word ‘media’ is the plural of medium, implying a conduit of transportation. However, from a Think Tank’s perspective, the news media plays two roles, that of an audience and a medium of communication. It is important to keep both in mind when planning media strategies for research communication.

Word of Caution: politics matter, too

Often, in the whirlwind of activities to successfully connect with the news media, one forgets that the news media is also a business venture –and often a political one, too. And like all business ventures, they have their profits to think of, and corporate heads to answer to. This aspect brings in an element of politics that is beyond any outsider’s control. In this context, some important considerations to keep in mind would be that the news media:

  • Have their own agenda
  • Are not answerable to anybody, except their bosses –certainly not the think tank
  • Treat news as a marketable commodity
  • Picks-up the ‘Sensational’ to boost their ‘ratings’

Therefore, even if one dutifully meets all the demands of the news media, there is still a possibility of not being successful in ‘catch’ing their attention. In a situation like this, it is unwise to lose heart and give up. The engagement with the news media must continue. And when an article is rejected by one media house, there is always ‘Plan B’ – send the article to another editor, for there are so many other options to choose from.

It may be, too, that the Think Tank dutifully meets the demands of the news media only to see their research and ideas used to forward a cause they themselves oppose. Their data could be misused and their statements misquoted.

In fact, as shown in the figure below, the news media, first and foremost, plays the role of an audience for a Think Tank, and they form a very important audience group. That is because they play the role of a vehicle that further disseminates a piece of research communication they receive from a Think Tank to a wider audience. In addition, they wield the power to influence public debate through the messages they construct before dissemination.  This message is intrinsically political as it has the power (and the intention) of affecting the public agenda.


Researcher-Media Nexus

In answering the question: why is it important for a Think Tank to publish with the news media, what evolves is a ‘researcher-media nexus’. This is a relationship between researchers and journalists that can yield benefits for both parties. By cultivating such a nexus, a Think Tank can become the news media’s partner in knowledge generation. The various activities and outcomes of such a relationship are shown in the figure below. In the long run, if Think Tanks are able to establish a working relationship with the news media in ensuring that credible information is disseminated to the wider public, then the quality of public debate improves, which in turn enhances the quality of public policy.


Some of the key benefits of establishing a good relationship and network with the news media, for a Think Tank, include:

  1. Bringing visibility to the impact on public policy that is resulting from the work that is being done by a Think Tank
  2. Providing expert opinions on the government’s actions in public policy framing and implementation
  3. Actively participating in public debates that play an important role in shaping public policy in today’s information age
  4. Becoming a knowledge partner for the news media to turn to when they need detailed information about certain technical aspects of public policy.

Attention Please

While attempting to catch the news media’s attention, the first step would be to conduct an audience analysis so as to understand their characteristics as an audience group. Some of the key categories of analysis to include should be:

  • Understanding the organisational structure of the news media
  • Identifying specific positions within this organisational structure, especially important audience members, such as Op-ed editors, Chief reporters, beat reporters, etc.
  • Putting names and faces to these different positions in different media houses

The next step is to establish contact with them, either via an email or phone calls and then making physical visits to their offices. This brings the Think Tank you represent into their ‘spectrum of existence’ of journalists. It is also important to maintain constant communication with them through activities such as regular organisational updates, press releases, etc. even when there is no specific publication goal to be achieved. Establishing visibility with the news media circuit is very essential if one is to use them as a vehicle for bringing visibility to a Think Tank with a wider audience, be it policy makers, donors and civil society.

Key aspects to include in an article written for the news media:

  • Novelty factor of the information that is being mentioned in the article
  • Topicality of the information
  • Relevance of the information – to the news media, policy makers, collaborators and funders, and most importantly the general public.

Therefore, when writing for the news media, Think Tanks should:

  • Un-pack the information so that it can be easily understood
  • Write using simple, short sentences. Avoid using jargon
  • Focus on one or two key messages in the article
  • Remember that most journalists are not domain experts. You need to convince them that your communication is important, thus don’t use hi-fi, technical language

While writing an article for the news media, such as an Op-ed, it is important to ensure the relevance of the topic for the general public because the news media serves the interests of this particular audience. That is why one of the most common reasons given by an editor for not publishing an article is that the article does not match the interests of their audience.