Working with the Media: Activist Milestone #2
Write or Generate an Op-Ed and Send Your Published Op-Ed to Your Member of Congress
Op-eds are opinion pieces that are usually published opposite the editorial page in a newspaper. They are written by columnists, leaders of organizations, public officials, and community members. At most papers, anyone can submit an op-ed to convey a clear point of view about a topic of public interest. RESULTS activists with access to up-to-date, accurate information on our issues are perfect candidates for writing a powerful op-ed or for generating an opinion piece signed by a member of Congress or influential community member.
Tips for Generating an Op-Ed
- Check the editorial page or the paper’s website for instructions on submitting an op-ed. The preferred length is usually in the range of 500–800 words.
- Scan your paper’s opinion pages to get a sense of what people are and are not writing about. Opinion editors often look for pieces that cover issues they are not yet covering.
- Try composing your op-ed using the same EPIC format you would use for a letter to the editor or laser talk. While an op-ed is considerably longer, EPIC can be a powerful and effective formula for organizing and presenting your thoughts and ideas. Remember, anybody can write; the difference between a published and unpublished piece is in the number of rewrites you are willing to do and your openness to seek and receive help if you need it. A good rule of thumb is to have an opening paragraph (engage), three paragraphs of content (problem and inform), and your closing paragraph with a strong call to action.
- Get in touch with how you personally feel about the issue and feel free to use personal examples, relating your message to your own experiences. As op-ed expert Margot Friedman says, “activate the heart before you activate the head.” Here is an example perfect for an op-ed about hunger:
- “The Advocate’s front page (Feb. 21) has reminded us that childhood hunger persists in America. Stamford’s Bethel AME Church and the local chapter of the NAACP paid all lunchroom debt at Roxbury Elementary School. Thank you, Rev. Robert Jackson and all involved! Now all children at Roxbury will eat with their peers.” (Examples taken from “Hunger persists among American children” by Bill Baker. Printed February 26, 2020 in Greenwich Time.)
- It’s often helpful to open with a story or anecdotes and then circle back around to it by referencing it at the end. An example:
- As part of the opening: “Nationwide, one of every five American children will go to bed hungry tonight. And this is nothing new. I once met a man who told me that, as children, he and his siblings always knew when the SNAP money came, because they had milk on their cereal instead of water. SNAP, formerly food stamps, left an indelible positive mark on his psyche and on the direction of his life.”
- As part of a closing paragraph: “The social safety net, with SNAP, the Child Tax Credit, and the Earned Income Credit (among other programs), works. Without it, poverty in the United States would double.”
- Because an op-ed is longer than a letter to the editor, resist the temptation to cover more issues or ideas and instead go deeper on the issue you want to cover. Tell an illustrative story, give a detailed example, include a bit more data, or highlight other people’s points of view. Keep it simple.
- Make sure there is a call to action for your members of Congress and/or your readers. An op-ed is a prominent piece that will be read my many people; use this opportunity to be bold in what you want.
- Make your piece current and relevant. Have it relate to something that is going on now.
- Once you have drafted your piece, send it to your partners, other RESULTS activists, or grassroots staff members for feedback. This is a critical step. Feedback from others helps ensure that you have a piece of publishable quality.
Tips on Pitching Your Op-Ed to the Paper
- Find out who makes decisions about op-eds for your paper. Sometimes this is different from the editorial page editor.
- Submit your piece and then call him/her to confirm that it was received within 24 hours of submission.
- Once you’ve confirmed it was received, call the editor or writer back again within 48 hours to see if they are willing to print your piece. Feel free to tell them who you are and a bit about RESULTS and why you are submitting the piece at this time.
- If you learn the editor does not plan to run it, find out why and determine if a revision would improve its chances of being published. In some cases, the paper may give you the opportunity to shorten it and have it printed as a letter to the editor. Alternatively, you can call another paper and ask if they would be interested in your op-ed.
- When your op-ed is published, follow up with a thank you to the editorial page editor.
Sometimes an op-ed carries more weight if it is authored by a member of Congress, a high level expert on an issue, or a prominent member of the community. However, these individuals are often too busy to draft their own pieces, even if they’re sympathetic to RESULTS’ issues. In this case, you and your group can offer to ghostwrite an op-ed for someone else. This means that you and your group, as experts on the issue, would write the op-ed as if it came from a prominent personality, get him or her to approve your draft, and work with the individual to get the piece placed.
If you are looking to ghostwrite something for a member of Congress, here are some simple guidelines:
- A good way to start is to call the legislator’s office and ask to speak to the press secretary or communications staffer. This would likely be the person to whom you would pitch your idea, as if you were pitching an editorial to a journalist.
- Introduce yourself, let the staffer know about the issue, and help the staffer understand why a piece from your member of Congress would be a powerful tool in making effective change.
- Offer to send a draft within a few days. If he/she wants to work with you, draft your piece according to the instructions above, and then send the staffer your draft for approval by the member of Congress.
- Decide with the staffer if he/she wants to pitch it or would like your help. If the staffer wants to pitch it, make sure to stay in regular contact so you know the status of the piece until it is published.
If you wish to ghostwrite a piece for some other influential person, but don’t have a direct contact, call his or her office and ask who to speak with about the possibility of authoring an op-ed. Assistants and communications staff should steer you to the right person. Follow the steps outlined above and you are on your way to getting your issue in the news.
Be Attentive to Exclusivity Rules
Some papers have strict rules that prohibit submissions that have previously been published in other places. Other outlets may frown upon re-publishing a piece, but may allow it. Still others may have no problem with it. If you are interested in trying to run an op-ed in multiple outlets, make sure you know their policies and be upfront about exclusivity. Ask if you can offer the piece on a non-exclusive basis, and if the piece has been published before, be clear about this. As a general rule, national outlets (the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) will not run a piece that has been published elsewhere. Smaller outlets may be more lenient.
Send Copies of the Op-Ed to Your Representatives’ and Senators’ Offices
Our main goal in getting media published is to influence our legislators to take bold and effective action on our issues – to create political will. Your members of Congress and their aides will pay attention to opinion pieces deemed worthy of publishing because they know that hundreds, perhaps thousands of other readers are seeing your call to action. An op-ed carries substantial clout!
- Look for all the necessary contact information for elected officials on our website.
- Send the op-ed to your members of Congress. Due to delays from mail screening in Washington, we recommend you e-mail a copy of your letter.
Share the news and inspire others!
Speak Out to Community Members. In addition to contacting your legislators, send copies of your piece to other influential members of the community with ties to your issue.
Keep Your Issue in the News. Make sure to let your RESULTS partners, friends and family know that you’ve been published so they can respond with a letter to the editor and keep the issue in the news.
RESULTS Wants to Hear About Your Success! Send a copy of your op-ed (hard copy or scan, if possible, along with the link) to the RESULTS staff and share it with the rest of the RESULTS community via the listserv so we can congratulate you and benefit from your inspiration!
Sample Op-Ed on RESULTS Advocacy
Channel that caucus excitement into activism
By Jos Linn
So, the caucuses are over. The candidates, the commercials, the phone calls, the media — all gone. What now? Does our place in the sun have to dim so suddenly? Must all the energy, passion and activism disappear as quickly as a CNN news van?
The answer is no. We Iowans can take this unique opportunity to build on what we’ve started. And we can do so right here and right now.
Despite the excitement they brought to Iowa, presidential candidates have little actual power to impact our day to day lives. The candidates can talk about the economy, Iraq, health care, the gap between the rich and not rich, global warming and taxes, but only members of Congress can legislate on these issues.
So why don’t they? The problem is will — political will. There have always been good ideas and powerful resources available to deal with big issues. But without the will to act, nothing gets done. Fortunately, that’s not where the story ends.
I have the good fortune to work and volunteer for RESULTS, a nonpartisan, grassroots advocacy organization that is dedicated to creating this political will. Our goal is ending poverty. We do this not by donating money, hiring lobbyists or endorsing candidates. We do this by harnessing and channeling the power of the true sovereigns of our republic: We the people. RESULTS educates everyday citizens on the issues and then trains them to effectively lobby Congress, the media and their communities for change. Our volunteers meet monthly in groups all over the country to learn, train and act.
And we are not alone. Many groups like RESULTS are out there every day, working to engage and empower citizens to act on the issues they care about. This is what being a citizen means. Voting is essential to our democracy, but it’s not the pinnacle of civic participation, it’s the starting point.
Active citizenship — consistently calling, writing, meeting and working with legislators, the media and others in your community — is what makes the difference. Silence on our part simply perpetuates all the things we hate about politics. The American democratic experiment does not work if we don’t play our part. If not us, who? If not now, when?
Beyond the caucuses, Iowa plays a critical role in formulating national policy. Both Sens. Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley are immensely influential on issues such as hunger, education, health care and taxes, and all of our representatives play key roles in a closely divided House, where every vote counts. But legislators cannot know what we want unless we tell them. And tell them. And tell them. It is not their job as public servants to read someone’s mind — it is the job of a citizen to speak it.
So if you are feeling at loose ends now that the caucuses are over, make it a resolution this year to stay or get involved. Continue using the energy and time you put into the presidential campaign by being an active citizen for the issues you care about.
Tell our representatives at the federal, state and local levels what you want by calling, writing and meeting with them. Influence public opinion by writing letters to the editor and op-eds and getting to know your local newspaper’s editorial board. Organize and work with your neighbors, friends and colleagues to make your collective voice heard.
Trust me, it’s the sure-fire civic cure to the post-caucus blues.
JOS LINN is a Manager of Grassroots Impact at RESULTS. For information about RESULTS, visit www.results.org.