By Richard Shrubb
Dealing with the press is core to every public campaign. Going about it the right way will make you succeed or fail. The cannabis legalisation campaign is facing an uphill struggle so having good relations with the media is key to success.
Press Officer – key to communicating the message.
The Press Officer needs to be aware of every strand to your campaign. It is not for nothing that Alastair Campbell was recognised as the most powerful man in the UK when in Downing Street in the Blair years. Campbell gave access to the boss – but also decided how every message that came out of the Prime Minister’s office would be worded. Remember how he took on Channel 4’s Jon Snow over the Dodgy Dossier affair? That led to the cowing of the BBC through Hutton.
The Press Officer is best not an Alastair Campbell. His or her role is in the background. Coaching the speaker, and never emerging from the shadows. Campbell was too much of an attack dog. Do you remember his successor’s name when he stood down? Nor do I.
Cannabis campaigns should be constantly feeding tidbits to the media. The message should be consistent. NORML UK have carefully avoided being a “personality campaign” that other cannabis campaigns have made the mistake of becoming. NORML is the message, not a personality within it.
Everything a campaign should do is promote the positive aspects of legalisation. You should tell how an MS sufferer has been thrown in jail for taking medicine for instance. You shouldn’t be telling about your charisma and prowess with young women.
There are several strands to NORML’s campaign right now. Everything done in public needs to fit the message. Cannabis laws are more damaging than cannabis itself – that is the core message everyone should remember. Yes, you want to get baked and not be harassed, yes you wish to grow your own, and yes you want good medication that God invented not some nutter in a science lab. This leads to one message – the cannabis laws need changing.
Some cannabis campaigns have had skinheaded oiks in the main body with a charismatic personality at the front. Not unlike the BNP or UKIP. A good cannabis campaign should have no one really at the front but a bunch of clean cut, decent people who are always willing to speak to the media.
Have an expert who has come off opiate medication using cannabis and done amazing things with their life. Have an expert in cannabis law. Have someone who knows the Portugese experience firsthand. An economist who can talk about the benefits of taxation. Another guy who can talk about how CBD only forms in the last week of ripening and is essential to safe smoking for the cannabis user. These are all people who will come out of the woodwork if asked.
Make sure you have a list of their telephone numbers and email addresses. Whether they would be willing to be photographed.
If someone has a compelling story, let their local papers know! Call the paper up, have a chat with their social affairs or crime journalist, and you never know – you may have a compelling cannabis story in the Watford Observer!
NORML’s AGM was stunning. Better press relations would have got more coverage. In the run up to an event think, why should a journalist cover this story? Why should she give up her Saturday chasing women and getting pissed to turn up to this event? Think of photo opportunities. Tom Lloyd standing by Howard Marks would make a hell of a shot!
Stunts are always good. Make sure there are photographers to cover it. It is all well and good a statue of Winston Churchill holding a 2 ft cone instead of his cigar, but only if there is media coverage for it. Be imaginative with it – the crazier the stunt generally the better. I know of one coming which is taking months of preparation but if no one notices there’s no point.
A classic stunt with no advance media warning was done in Connecticut in the winter of 93. A guy protesting at tighter gun laws chopped his trigger finger off in the State legislature while the vote was taking place. The first the media knew was when he howled in pain! This was a badly prepared and needless stunt by a complete nut – but the day after he got in the Washington Post. Too late to prevent the ban on fully automatic weapons in the state.
The cannabis campaign is always going to be sneered at by certain media outlets. There will be journalists in every outlet around who want a good cannabis story. “My children were taken by Social Services for me taking medication for my MS” is a great story.
If you can feed a journalist stories like that every couple of months? He or she will be eating out of your hand. It isn’t just stories that you need to feed. A good campaign will be able to get responses into a paper every time there is for instance, a cannabis factory bust. Write letters in that engage the reader saying that cannabis factories sell bad drugs. If we were to change the law then fewer would go down with psychosis…
Sooner or later you will identify the right journalist on the news or features desk to speak to. He or she is an ordinary person and you can strike up friendships with them. Even Daily Heil journalists are human!
Every junior journalist has to read a pile of press releases every morning. Having done this myself, I reckon you have about 10 seconds to impress her. As such you should tell the balls of the story in the first two lines. The next four lines should tell more detail. Everything else in the main body, and this shouldn’t be longer than a page. A good PR officer should be a journalist by trade. Failing that? Ask a friendly journalist to have a look over your press release before sending. We know what we’ll read!
DO NOT throw it together in 20 minutes. If it is the 420 March in Hyde Park you should be working on it for a good few hours. Only leave gold nuggets – don’t hide them in shit.
There’s more to press releases than getting a good one page document together. You need to get them in a good week before an event. You then need to chase the journalist you have sent it to. There’s a fine line between stalking and successful pursuit. If the event is on a Saturday you should send it in on Monday at the latest. You should phone all the editors and producers on Wednesday. That may mean 20 phone calls. You get 5 journalists turn up to the event? You have done your job well!
Core to this is good relations. Journalism is about people at the end of the day. If you’re friendly and laid back, able to give a good quote at the drop of a hat? The campaign will benefit. If the campaign benefits? The whole movement benefits.
Richard Shrubb is NORML UK press officer and a freelance journalist with a specific interest in medical science and sailing, for more info about Richard, see his web site www.richardshrubb.co.uk and you can follow Richard on Twitter #Shrubberz