There are a lot of things wrong with the mainstream media—very, very wrong—but generally if you do their work for them they will be very happy to pay attention to your activism. Document everything that you can along the way, from the brainstorming to the day of the action and beyond. If your action includes some kind of street theater or any kind of live action human drama, always take care to ensure that someone from your team records it.
What You’ll Need
When we say “document everything,” we generally mean that: 1) you should use a video camera to film yourself and your co-conspirators as you work on your action, and 2) you should save HTML copies of any webpages, news coverage, blog posts, and radio spots that cover your story.
Regarding 1: You don’t need a fancy video camera to do this. A cell phone camera can shoot useable footage. If the sound isn't great, you might want to invest in a microphone, depending on where you’re hoping to use the video footage. (OK sound will be fine for youtube videos, but you need great sound for a video news release. Test it to see how much background noise there is. Background noise is death!)
Regarding 2: Most web browsers include a “save as HTML” option, which allows you to save a webpage. This is useful in case your coverage gets amended or taken down.
You should set up a few Google Alerts before your launch—use your group’s name, some of the keywords from your action, the name of your target, etc.—so you don’t miss any press. Then save it!
Start Documenting at the Start
If your action begins with a brainstorming session, film or record it! Not only does it ensure that you will have a record of your work, you can watch later to see how things progressed. Having everything recorded in the brainstorming stages can also serve as back up notes, can be thrown into a video press release later, or can be used to revisit old ideas you might want to try out in future actions.
Save All Media Coverage During The Active Time
As your action goes active, create place to save all the press that you receive. Save all online files, and be sure to name them appropriately for easy access. (In Firefox, select File / Save As, and make sure to choose “Complete HTML” so you get a copy of the full page). This is important because sometimes mainstream media sources will edit the story or even take it down later, and you need to have a record so you can share your successes online. Don’t rely on it staying available on the internet; back up your work!
Also, keep a record of what you’re saving off, and what URL it refers to - for example: enbridge-theprovince-fooled.html
Archive Video and Radio Responses to Your Project
Sometimes video coverage will be available online, or someone will be kind enough to upload it for you to youtube, vimeo, or some other uploading site. If not, there are a few handy ways to record and save streaming video; search Google for a website or a code that will allow you to download the video, and then follow those instructions. If you get radio coverage, the station often offers a podcast that you can download after the piece runs. If none of this works, at least try to record your end of the interaction: so, while you’re giving a radio interview, put your phone on speaker and ask a friend to film you talking to the radio host.
Documenting each step of your action takes some pre-planning, but it makes it infinitely easier to share your work with others afterwards.
Too often activists think they have to get journalists to an event in order to make it a success in the media. Often this is exactly the wrong approach - it’s sometimes better not to have any reporters there at all, but to do your own documentation and then get it to reporters. There are several ways to do this.
The basic tool of public relations is the press release. You write the article you’d like to see, and link to any other materials that might be useful - images, videos, etc. Reporters won’t usually just take your release and rewrite it, but they will often cannibalize the material you provide, and they will often take the suggestions provided by the overall structure of your release as a guide to writing their own article. (Of course, you also need to send the release. We're preparing some technical notes about that to come soon.)
Similar is the video news release (VNR). A VNR is basically a promotional video that looks and sounds like TV news, but is really a form of advertisement. Corporations, Politicians, and even government entities produce them, and give them to news stations who are desperate for cheap content to keep their costs down. It’s been estimated that 30% of local TV news is actually corporate or political advertisements masquerading as news. As this piece says, “online VNRs are a creative way to get your message out.” Just imitate other VNRs and then email it, embedded in a press release, to media outlets.
You can also, in some examples, just provide the raw material to TV. For example: See these reports on "Survivalballs take UN" and "Public Option Annie." In those cases, we took the material (images, video, a prop) personally to CNN, and that personal pushiness was what made it happen (the same reporter, Jeannie Moos, covered both actions).
In all of these cases, you’re simply providing all the raw materials to journalists, who can cover the story without having to be there. In these days of cost-cutting and streamlining and “rationalizing” of all functions, this sort of approach is very welcome by many outlets—and is why big PR companies can have such a field day and get whatever message across that they like. Activists can—and must—use this same situation to our advantage.
Note: Sometimes in fact it’s better not to invite journalists to an event you want to publicize. Your event may end up looking terrible, being boring, or the immediate audience may be too small, etc. When you provide your own documentation to the press, you can choose only the most exciting images and video clips to share. You can also get tricky about it: only videotape the person at the podium, and for the reverse shot of the audience cut in from another source. If you have some good stock video of reactions in the ‘press room’ it may be all you need to have a full press conference with nobody there at all.
Put yourself in the shoes of a journalist
Let’s stop worrying about doing big actions and blasting the word out in various ways like Twitter and Facebook, banking on the theory that the sheer mass of information will trigger media coverage. Instead let’s start putting ourselves in the shoes of journalists as a matter of course.
When planning an action with the goal to draw attention to your movement, you should ask yourself routinely: "If I were a journalist from Newsweek, how would I pitch a story about this to my editors?" This can lead to actions that at the very least keep us amused, and probably would do a lot more.
As an exercise you could create a big list of action ideas, following a suggested rule: pretend you're a mainstream journalist who wants to write a story about this problem, but you have to pitch the story to your mainstream editor.
This guiding principle could become a sort of template for actions—with, hopefully, the actions being improved upon with time and thought. Most editors aren't going to okay a story titled "Activists Hold Another Rally." What story can you give them that they will be excited to publish?
Rather than design a march on Wall Street, you can think of silly actions that still get your story across - even without holding banners and signs. Take this idea: people mourning Wall Street en masse in a really creepy way. We are not saying that this is a great idea, but if it’s done right, and with enough borderline creepiness, it certainly could result in coverage of the "this hasn't been done before" or "this hasn't been done since the '60s."
You can be pretty out there as you brainstorm your big list of action ideas: people hurling poop at buildings, blocking a bank office by building toilets, etc.—journalists could pretty easily pitch those stories to their editors. (If you're planning a direct action that could result in arrests, make sure that you train your team beforehand so you, and they, know what to expect.)
How about even just redoing a brilliant action that others have designed? For instance, if you are working on an issue around big banks, you might borrow the Otpor barrel action but collect money for the retirement of the CEOs of Chase, BofA, etc. Or you could adapt the Yippie dog burnings, where activists posted notices that something atrocious was being done to a cute puppy and that people could come watch this abuse. Actions like these need a clear storyline that a journalist can latch onto, and therefore can report on.
You can brainstorm dozens of such actions, some inspired by or copied from from past actions (check out Beautiful Trouble and Actipedia) to compile a big list of suggested, not fully-fleshed out ideas. Then members of your group can refine and improve these actions as you go forward with your planning, always thinking of the golden rule of “How can the journalist pitch it?”
How to speak to the press
Keep in mind always what you're fundamentally trying to do: further publicize your target's evil behavior and expose their obscene attitude behind it. Stick to that message.
There is a possibility that, if you’ve kept your goal in mind, a journalist will finds his/her way to you. Whether you are pretending to be the bad guy of the targeted company or the activist explaining the action, it is wise to be prepared to talk to the press early on in the game. Practice before you perform.
Prepare and write your talking points down; it will help you remain consistent with your goals. It is unnecessary to write pages and pages of talking points. Keep them short, funny, filled with punchy lines, or offensive-sounding ones if you're impersonating your evil target.
Set up an email address and designate a cell phone where journalists can reach you whenever you send out a press release. If you don’t want to use your personal cell phone, you can also set a number up with Google Voice or Skype, or a pay-per-use cell phone. If you do use your own number, do a google search on the number to make sure that it doesn’t turn up in searches.
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.
But: 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.
What's a press release for?
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.
What's video for?
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.
This is intended to model a "reveal" release, i.e. one telling the truth. Fake releases have a somewhat different logic from the below; for those, see for example Three Strikes You're In, Coal Cares, and GE. For a similar guide to making Video News Releases, see “How To Report the News” by Charlie Miller.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
THRILLING HEADLINE YOU COULD IMAGINE SEEING IN THE PAPER
Slightly more informative sub-headline, that can fill in what actually happened
Contact: the person mentioned in the last paragraph
Photos and videos: at this URL
(Optionally, the location) A first paragraph that lays out, concisely, soberly, and with aplomb, what happened that is out-of-this-world newsworthy—or, at least, merits transmitting because it's so damned hilarious. It also says it in an unaligned way, and employs a tone suggesting detachment from the tactic in question—detachment that should actually be kind of real.
"Invented quote, which can, optionally, communicate the emotional importance of the subject introduced in the first paragraph to me," said perhaps a passerby, or perhaps John, a member of Group That Effected the Action, the group that effected the action. "Or it can fill in some bit of info that you really need—some added elements of the story."
"Or hell, why not both—and why not end with a five-word quip, perhaps including a risqué bit of language, especially if the action is a one-liner that doesn't need this precious press release real estate to explain, but can instead spend that space just providing a quotable bit of funniness," added the same person's last name.
Now, some bit of info that's really necessary to fully make sense of what that person just said—or what the quote said, as it probably never actually passed their lips—and, more importantly, why the action was done. There can be percentage figures, such as 35%, and there can be bits of fact that build quickly to a bang.
"Phew, that bang really hit me over the head, yikes," said a non-insider—perhaps an expert, or perhaps just a passerby, whose name you can furnish along with some relevant detail about them, like where they're from (if that's relevant) or what entity they're associated with. "Indeed I'm floored by that bang, which really makes the ramifications of this issue terrifically clear."
"And that makes me very happy, sad, or whatever emotion is most appropriate here," added another person—or perhaps it can just be mentioned that the person proceeded to weep uncontrollably or give an awkward giggle. Not that it's necessary to mention this.
Finally, there can be a few words about why it was necessary to employ such tactics as described in the first paragraph and filled out a bit below that. Hopefully the last sentence can pack a punch—or a pun, just like a cloyingly formulaic news story might.
For more information, if there's no "contact" line at the top, contact someone, maybe the person from the second paragraph. Depending on whether the non-insider in the fifth paragraph is likely to say the right thing in an interview, you can contact them too.
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List-management information, including how to stop getting these emails—preferably a URL you can click to unsubscribe.
Remember to have a place (on the web) to link all the stuff in your project, that you will want to share with journalists and the world once it's revealed. That means:
- Fake press releases
- The reveal press release
- Fake websites. Note: to really preserve the website, you'll need it to be an archive in straightforward HTML, not a Wordpress site or some such. Use software to download your Wordpress site into HTML so that you can archive and post it somewhere.
- The inside story (optional). This is distinct from the reveal release, which is intended to communicate a lot of stuff, but not necessarily all your missteps!
To see how we've done this over the years, visit any of our project pages — some are more complete than others.