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salman shaheen
How to win friends in the media and influence normal people

Is your vital left-wing campaign suffering at the hands of a media blackout? Are the nationals ignoring you at every turn? Can you not even get your face on the radio? Well, did you send them a press release? Salman Shaheen explains how to get covered by the media.

salman shaheenMy first forays into left-wing campaigns came in the run-up to the Iraq war. In my local town, the only group campaigning to prevent this naked injustice was the SWP. I ran into them on the streets of Lowestoft where they were selling copies of the Socialist Worker.

As a teenager in rural Suffolk with little exposure to the Trotskyist left, I had never encountered a political party selling its own newspaper before. But I soon realised this was a common practice on the left stemming from a distrust of the mainstream media. After all, if the right-wing dominated, mass market media is only going to ignore your campaign, then all you can do is launch your own media to report on your own campaigns, right?


Sorry: It’s not them, it’s you

In the vast majority of cases, if the Guardian or the BBC or even Rupert Murdoch’s Sky is not covering your campaign, it’s not because they are choosing to censor you, it’s because they haven’t heard of you. The harsh reality of the situation is this is probably your fault, not theirs.

If you have celebrity endorsements, you have a big advantage from the off. Get your celebs in front of a camera or writing into the nationals, don’t just have them writing you a nice letter in your party paper. If you have people who are comfortable in front of the camera, get in touch with the newsrooms, the door won’t open unless you knock. If you have journalists or writers or anyone who can basically string two sentences together working with you, have them pitch their articles about your campaign to Comment is Free, the New Statesman or the Huffington Post. It’s here you’ll get to preach beyond the choir.


Tell the world

That might seem like a big list of ifs. But here’s a but. The one thing absolutely anyone can do is send a press release. And send them regularly. If you’re taking part in a demonstration, send a press release. If you’ve got an important public meeting with key speakers coming up, send a press release. And if you’ve got an opinion about crucial developments in local, national or international politics, SEND A PRESS RELEASE!

When Maria Miller’s expenses scandal hit the fan, Left Unity planned a protest outside Downing Street to call for her to be sacked and our media officer, Tom Walker, cordially invited all of Britain’s media via a timely press release. As a result, our campaign received positive coverage on LBC and from papers up and down the country, not least the Daily Express – hardly friendly territory. It was an open goal for us, Labour was refusing to call for her resignation, no doubt because it has one too many skeletons still rattling around in its own closet. I could find nothing being put out there publicly by any of the other parties – even the Greens were strangely silent. The Guardian’s John Sparrow quoted Left Unity’s statement on Miller. He said he was sure lots of other parties held the same view, but Left Unity was the only one which bothered to send him a press release.

Later, I claimed on Facebook, based on the available evidence, that Left Unity was the only party calling for Maria Miller to be sacked. I was swiftly rebuked by a member of the Socialist Party, who rightly pointed out that it had called for Miller to go in its party newspaper. Now this is all well and good, but telling your few hundred members and a few hundred more passersby who might buy your paper on the street is not the same thing as making a public announcement in the national press. If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, yes it makes a sound, but it’s not loud enough.

Left Unity is only a few months old. It is only standing 12 candidates in next month’s elections. But consistent media campaigning has gained us coverage in the Guardian, Financial Times, Telegraph, Evening Standard, Sun, Daily Express, BBC Daily Politics, Sky News, RT News, BBC News, BBC Radio 4, LBC radio, Huffington Post, and the New Statesman, as well as many local, student and left-wing publications.


Send them copy and they might just use it

Getting into the locals is easy. In the majority of cases, journalists will be bored of writing about cats stuck up trees and they will jump at the chance to cover your campaign if you’re doing something interesting in their area. Getting into the nationals can take time and patience and you will be at the mercy of the editorial agenda of the hour, but on a slow news day, when the wind is right and so are your words, you can strike gold. Over time you will begin to build up a profile for your campaign, media outlets will get to know you and the issues you want to talk about, and they will come knocking at your door. But first you have to knock on theirs.

Yes, the British media is dominated by a right-wing agenda. Yes, getting left-wing ideas out there is an uphill struggle. But if you ignore the mainstream media, you have already lost the debate.

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