Working with the Media

Budget advocacy takes place in the public arena, where events are shaped a great deal by how the media—in all its forms—presents and discusses budget and fiscal issues. For that reason effective budget advocacy almost always needs to include a thoughtful media strategy. That strategy generally has two parts: knowing what message you need to project and finding the ways to draw media attention to that message.

Why Media Attention?

The media is an advocacy tool, and as with any tool it is important to know what you are using it for. In budget advocacy that could mean many things. The media is a way to increase public awareness or try to change public opinion about an issue (like the importance of funding primary education of HIV prevention). It is a way to win new allies to your side, by showing that you are ready to take action. And importantly, it is a very effective way to get a message to policymakers, who generally care a good deal about how they and issues are portrayed in public. Often the goal for media advocacy is a mix of these, but it remains essential to be clear about who you are speaking to and why.

While rallies and other forms of public meetings can be key components of your advocacy strategy, an article in a newspaper or a segment on a radio news program about your issue has the potential to reach a far wider audience. Although advocates cannot completely control how journalists will present their message, because it is being delivered through the filter of the media, it often carries more weight (especially with public officials) than direct campaign communications.

This page concentrates on the media outreach challenges and strategies that are unique to budget advocacy. However, there are a wide variety of resources available that provide information and materials on the basic components of media outreach. These components and links to some of these online resources are provided below.

Three Key Essentials to Getting Media Attention

The Democracy Center writes of three essential ingredients to gaining media attention:

Make your story newsworthy

News coverage is about “news,” so it is key that you make your story newsworthy. Keep that in mind when promoting a story. Why is it important? Are many people impacted? Are they impacted in a significant way? Why is it important now? Is there new information, like a new study? Is it tied to some larger event in the news, like the outbreak of an illness, a strike, a crisis, or some new political development? Is a decision about to be made, or has one just been made?

Make your story easy to cover

Reporters have many more possible stories to cover each day than they can actually cover. The trick to getting media coverage is to do as much of the reporter’s job as possible. Give them the information they need in writing, beginning with a news release that captures the basics and going all the way to fact sheets and a full report that gets into the details. Help them get access to the people and stories that will personalize the story for their readers or audience. Work with them to help them get all the information they need as easily as can be.

Build relationships with reporters

Don’t wait until you’re seeking coverage to be in contact with reporters. Who covers the issue you care about—budgets, public services, national politics? Make contact with these reporters informally, without a specific story to pitch. Let them know who you are and what your organization has to offer. Be the one he or she calls when it is time to do a story.

Media Outreach for Budget Advocacy

Although the basic components of a media strategy are the same for all advocacy efforts, budget advocates may need to incorporate some additional steps in their outreach to journalists. The primary media challenge for budget advocacy, especially in countries with less experienced, less resourced media, can be to build the capacity and willingness of journalists to cover budget issues.

Public finance can be an intimidating field for those who are not familiar with it. Many journalists without a background in economics or finance may feel unqualified to cover the government’s budget. So in addition to sending out press releases, holding press conferences, and writing letters to the editor, CSOs engaging in budget advocacy may need to put in extra effort to build journalists’ capacity and confidence to cover the budget. Tools for doing this include:

  • Establish your organization as a budget resource

    As part of efforts to build relationships with the media, CSOs should let them know that the organization is an independent source of information on the government’s budget. Offer to put journalists on a list to receive the organization’s analyses, newsletters, and publications and provide them with contact information for staff budget experts.

  • Provide capacity-building opportunities

    Many CSOs that do budget analysis and advocacy regularly conduct budget trainings for members of the media, at which journalists can learn about the budget process, public finance basics, and tips for covering budget news. These can be excellent opportunities to convince journalists that the budget is a compelling story.

    In Tanzania, IBP’s partner HakiElimu advocates for budget policies that will improve the quality of and access to education for all children and youths and includes significant media outreach in their advocacy strategies. A key component of this outreach includes workshops on how the government budget addresses, or fails to address, education issues. HakiElimu’s work has paid off in substantial media coverage.

  • Help reporters understand how budgets impact people’s lives

    Even though government budget decisions have a direct impact of the lives of all a country’s people, especially those of the poor and vulnerable, CSOs undertaking budget work may have to overcome the idea that some in the media hold that the budget is too complicated, technical, and, well, boring to cover. Their task is to make the budget compelling news. CSOs can do this by connecting their budget advocacy objectives with major stories of the day, e.g., show how a lack of funding for the services for AIDS orphans that your organization supports is contributing to a recent rise in juvenile crime.

    An excellent approach to bringing budget proposals to life is to identify actual people who would benefit from a new program or increased funding for an existing service and deliver your advocacy message through their stories. For example, in 2000 the California Budget Project (CBP) released the report Making Ends Meet: How Much Does It Really Cost to Live in California?, which argued for increasing the state’s minimum wage. Prior to contacting journalists, the organization called social service organizations and asked them if they would put staff members in contact with families who were working at minimum wage jobs but were struggling to meet their daily needs. The CBP used these stories to help generate coverage of the report and its message about the minimum wage.

  • Deliver your messages to the press in straightforward, accessible language

    CSOs should save the technical jargon for their conversations with Ministry of Finance officials and technocrats. When drafting a press release or responding to a journalist’s questions, try to avoid the mistake of trying to explain the public finance minutiae and nuance of your proposal. Complex is not more credible if a general audience will not understand or connect to your message. This isn’t to say that you should remove the substance from your argument; just that every effort should be made to use plain language. You can—and should—provide reporters with copies of your technical analyses as background materials and information on how their readers, viewers, or listeners can get these materials, as well.

Common Steps and Tools for Media Outreach

  • Identify your advocacy objective and your target audience and develop your messages
  • Develop your media list (CSOs should monitor the media to see who is writing about the public policy, economics, social welfare, etc., to build this list. However, for each advocacy effort, this list should reflect your target decision makers and constituents, i.e., what media do they read, listen to, and watch.)
  • Contact media through:
    • Press releases
    • Press conferences
    • Calls to individual journalists
    • Interviews
    • Meetings with editorial boards
    • Letters to the editor
    • Opinion articles (Op-eds)
    • Public service announcements
  • Use new and social media (i.e., outreach to widely read, relevant blogs; articles or links posted on other CSOs websites and included in newsletters; Facebook pages, Twitter, etc.)

Learn More about Media Outreach