An action occurring alone in the woods (or on a sidewalk) may or may not make a sound, but it definitely won't make much noise in the media... unless you actively do something to get it heard.
Journalists are your audience: make them laugh
Basically we try to make journalists with our projects. If we can make them laugh, they know they can make readers or viewers laugh—and that means they can make a story.
Making the political point a big part of the story, intrinsically, via the press release or Video News Release, means that journalists can share that political point without sacrificing their so-called journalistic integrity. The humor is just an excuse to get that message across.
Journalists: to invite or not to invite?
One way to get the word out about actions is to have journalists attend. But that’s not a reliable tactic at all. Really, the main role you should count on journalists to fulfill is the same as everyone else: extras in your drama.
There are good reasons not to count on journalists, even if they're very sympathetic to your political goals. One reason is that you have no control over what they write or what they show. Any performance we've done has included a lot of boring stuff, some stumbles and just plain uninteresting moments, and ideally, we don’t want journalists to write a story about our mistakes.
Also, no matter how sympathetic the journalist is, they’re simply not likely to capture the best, most important points just by observing it—either in writing or on video. That’s why you need to write a press release for them (see below) and provide your own video and images too (see below).
When journalists have shown up at our events, not invited by us, it has always turned out well, so long as we’ve also covered the story and just counted on the journalists as extras. In our HUD action, for example, two journalists knew from the get-go that the exchange was fake, confronted us on it, and thus gave us some priceless, tension-filled footage for our movie. After our Chamber of Commerce action, a Mother Jones journalist who was present described the whole thing on Rachel Maddow—using footage we’d provided them with.
Journalists don’t even need to show up at your event for the action to be widely covered. When we staged a press conference with 20 Survivaballs jumping into the East River to take the UN by assault, we announced it widely but no one showed up. So we filmed the whole thing—including Andy accidentally getting arrested for an outstanding bicycle ticket—and carried the footage directly to CNN, where CNN reporter Jeanne Moos came down and tried a Survivaball suit on, then built a hilarious piece in which it seemed that CNN had shot the entire Survivaball incident.
Press release considerations
It's fair to say that the press release is the single most important tool we have for getting the word out, especially for print media. With a press release, it’s possible to make a story big even in the absence of any video or even photos.
The way to write a press release is, in a nutshell, to imagine the ideal article that you’d like to see. Write it at least seemingly objectively. Ideally, get to the political point of your action by the first paragraph but definitely no later than the second. You’re basically giving journalists an excuse to write about an important issue (Rachel Maddow, after going over the whole Chamber of Commerce attack, then spent another few minutes rehashing the various ways the Chamber was under attack). And if you can write a press release that’s nearly publishable as an article without much editing on their end, you’re saving them a lot of work.
The other function your press release can have—besides getting the story into the paper—is to serve as a funny thing people pass around at work. It can reach millions that way too. So make it funny. People, including journalists, like funny.
There are plenty of great resources on how to write a press release, on “proper” press release style. Google it!
Voice of the press release
Whose voice should it be in? Our choices so far have been (a) our own voice, i.e. the Yes Men's, and (b) the voice of the entity we're targeting.
Here, we'll examine these options in turn. They are not mutually exclusive: you can send out, for example, a release in the voice of your target (or, for that matter, four releases in their voice—see COP15) and then, at some later point, a "reveal" release explaining the whole thing.
The "reveal" release simply reveals the whole story in "your" voice. Of course, it's your official voice, or your journalist-friendly voice. You still write it in that official press release style, without real personal stuff—but you want journalists to basically trust what you're saying. You're communicating directly the what, when, and where, and giving journalists "trustable" quotes by you, or of people you make up (though some journalists will not want to quote fake names).
A "fake" press release, on the other hand, appears to come from the entity you're targeting. A "fake" release can either simply communicate the how, what, and where, but do so in character, elliptically, pretty much for fun—or it can be entirely fake, and reveal nothing of what actually happened.
In the COP15 action, we sent out four releases sequentially (plus a fake newspaper article) that essentially composed the action, and revealed nothing of its construction. We also, the next day, sent out a "reveal" release that claimed credit, explained the actors behind the hoax, and described its various results (which included reactions by top government spokespeople).
A note on timing: Beginning with our New York Times action, we learned something very interesting about the timing of the "reveal" press release. Prior to that, we’d send out the “reveal” immediately. But someone told us we should wait, and let journalists do some legwork. We waited, and found that by delaying the “reveal” by a few hours, we got a whole additional round of press out of it, when journalists who had mused about various things could then assert them with confidence.
You can’t count on anyone besides you to get the right video. It's necessary to take your own pictures and video, and, if needed, edit them for quality (not for falsification, as the ACORN pimp did; that’s treachery and crookery, not activism). Make these videos available to journalists. If you want, you can give the jump to particular journalists with whom you’ve built a relationship.
Videos you provide to TV stations just need to be well shot, in fairly high res. Currently, consumer HDV is good enough, which means that even a high-res handheld camera can work. The sound should be decent, so invest in a good microphone.
The video should make the action look as exciting as it can possibly look; in other words, if you have a room that’s too sparsely populated, pick some angles that avoid the empty chairs.
Keep in mind that newscasters, if they use your footage, are going to use it as B-roll, mainly, so it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. (You can edit stuff into a Video News Release, if you have a few days beforehand to do so with fake material, but unless you’re a big professional outfit, it’s unlikely you can do this on the spot. See below.)
Getting the video to the station, along with the story, is a matter of calling stations directly and announcing to them you’ve got a great story for them. For example: “You won’t believe it, but 20 giant orbs are getting fished out of the East River by police helicopters, and they’re arresting all kinds of people. It looks hilarious. Oh, and we can bring you the footage, which is shot really well, and one of the orbs for you to try on.”
Video News Releases
A Video News Release is just a press release in video form—basically, a piece of news that you could imagine being played as is. So you provide a voiceover in a newscastery style, and you construct a whole piece, including sign-off.
Our VNR for the fake New York Times—filmed a few days in advance, with entirely faked action—was not used as is by news stations, but was plundered for B-roll by stations that didn’t get actual footage of the day. It seems like this might be the most common use of the VNR, at least in our case.