Op-eds: Spread the word for free

Do you lament that your nonprofit’s budget has no room for a full-scale media campaign to spread your message throughout the community? If so, take heart: You can reach your community by authoring savvy “op-eds” (short for “opposite the editorial page”) in your area newspaper and it won’t cost you a cent.
Writing for your market
Despite rumors to the contrary, newspapers still have enormous reach — particularly in small and midsize markets where many local papers are actually increasing their readership. And they usually welcome op-ed submissions from community members.
But a local paper’s willingness to accept outside opinion pieces doesn’t give you the green light to submit a recycled speech or fundraising brochure. To be effective, your op-ed needs to be written specifically for its audience and medium.
Familiarize yourself with the paper’s style, tone and target reader and learn its submission requirements, such as word count. It’s also a good idea to e-mail or call the publication’s op-ed editor to assess his or her interest before writing your piece. This way, you won’t waste time writing something the editor won’t publish.
Sharpening your focus
When drafting an op-ed, laser-like focus is critical because you need to gain both the editor’s approval and the readers’ attention. In your first sentence, name the issue you want to address — preferably a hot-button topic or one readers are familiar with (for example, pending legislation) — and assert a clear opinion about it.
In the body of the piece, provide support for your position, such as statistics and a summary of how your organization is addressing the issue. Close the op-ed with a brief restatement of your position and a call to action for readers. Finally, consider asking a community leader or other local hero to sign the article — even more support for your cause.
But that’s just the bare bones. To engage readers and influence public sentiment, your piece needs to be:
Local. Even if you’re talking about a national issue, frame it with references to local people and institutions that readers will recognize.
Concise and readable. Use short sentences, common words and a conversational style. Avoid industry jargon and academic writing styles.
Timely. Submit pieces close to election dates and legislative votes your organization hopes to influence, or prepare pieces to run during “awareness” dates such as Earth Day or Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or anniversaries related to your cause.
Controversial. Op-eds are intended to start or continue conversations and shouldn’t, therefore, be wasted on neutral positions. So take a firm stand that will get people talking without insulting or maligning opposing opinions.
Remember, emotional “evidence” is as important as statistics, surveys and case studies. Share your nonprofit’s success stories — and the heartbreaking failures that have influenced your positions. These are more likely to ignite reader interest in your nonprofit than dry scientific or financial data alone.
Taking action
Getting an op-ed piece published in the local newspaper is an effective way to get the word out and win public support — especially if you don’t have much of a budget for public relations. So, get behind a keyboard and draft an important message for everyone to see.

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