Tips for Getting a Letter to the Editor Published

Jos G. Linn, RESULTS Senior Associate for U.S. Poverty Campaigns
February 11, 2013

This month, RESULTS U.S. Poverty volunteers are generating media to educate lawmakers about the impact of potential budget cuts to anti-poverty programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps), Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care assistance. By targeting these important services for cuts, while some rule out additional revenue as a way to reduce budget deficits, Congress is putting countless individuals, children, and families at risk of falling back or deeper into poverty. Getting letters published highlighting these issues can go a long way in influencing what Congress will do.

Here are some tips that can help improve your chances of getting published this month and give your letters more impact. RESULTS has a grassroots goal of doubling our media successes in 2013 so let's set the pace high with a prolific month of February.

Tip #1: Be brief and to the point. All of us on this call are intelligent, passionate, and caring. But we can also be wordy sometimes. With media, the shorter the better. Keep your letters to 150-200 words tops (be sure to check with your paper on their particular restrictions). RESULTS EPIC Laser Talk of Engage, Problem, Inform, and Call to Action is the perfect format for a good, powerful, brief letter to the editor.

Tip #2: Have a hook. A hook is something that connects your letter to something happening in the news. Read through your paper and see if there are any stories about hunger or education or the budget or sequestration. You're bound to find something. In fact, you can link just about anything in the news to your topic if your try hard enough. Here’s an example: "I'm sure the fans at last week’s Super Bowl were annoyed that the lights went off for 34 minutes during the game. But if Congress doesn't work to avoid devastating cuts to Head Start, more than just the lights will go off for tens of thousands of at-risk children."

Tip #3: Make it local. If you can use local statistics and stories in your letter, do it. Papers want to know how an issue is affecting people in their community. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has state fact sheets on SNAP, which were linked to in last week’s Weekly Update. Also, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) has a date finder tool that can help you find information about Head Start and child care in your state. We’ll link to both of these resources in next Tuesday’s Weekly Update.

Tip #4: Compare the Popular with the Unpopular. Polling shows that when you give people a choice between popular programs and unpopular things, like tax cuts for the wealthy, we win. When people can see the issue as a choice, they respond much more positively. For example, you could say something like "What's more important? Making sure 22 million children have food to eat or protecting tax loopholes for oil companies and Wall Street executives?" Give people a clear choice. This also reminds them that everything Congress does is a choice, not a forgone conclusion.

Tip #5: Mention your members of Congress by name. Representatives and senators pay close attention to what their local media is saying about them. A recent survey showed that newspapers and their online equivalent were still the most closely followed media outlets by our officials in Washington. Whether you are praising or criticizing a decision, of simply ask them to take action, mention names. They’ll know about it.

Tip #6: Submit in numbers and to other outlets. If you are part of a local RESULTS group, don’t write a group letter; write them individually and then submit all your letters around the same time. If a paper gets 5 or 6 letters on one topic, they’re likely to publish at least one of them. Last year, the RESULTS Des Moines group submitted 5 letters within days of each other and two of them were published on the same day. Also, if you want to increase your effectiveness, in addition to your local paper, submit letters to other papers in your state. In December, RESULTS volunteers in Montana got three letters published in three different newspapers around the state, all within 4 days of each other. Wow! One caveat about this – try not to submit the exact same letter to multiple newspapers; they don’t like that.

Tip #7: Once you get published, send a copy to your members of Congress. By sending a copy of your media piece to your policymakers, you’ll make sure they see it. And, it is a great excuse to follow up with that aide or scheduler.

These are just a few tips to help you with taking action this month. See our February 2013 U.S. Poverty Action for talking points and background information. You can find other tips in our Activist Toolkit under "Working with the Media" and review our new PowerPoint for additional guidance. As always, if you need help or would like feedback on a letter you've written, or would like to take your media advocacy to the next level with an op-ed or editorial, please don’t hesitate to contact Meredith Dodson ([email protected]) or Jos Linn ([email protected]) for assistance.