Writing op-eds that editors want to publish

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Editors tell us what works and what doesn’t

For years we’ve helped clients advocate their points of view through the time-honored tradition of the op-ed, which is news media lingo for “opposite editorial,” referring to the page next to the editorial page of a traditional printed newspaper.

Today those op-eds are, of course, online as well as in print. And civic leaders, public officials, influencers and community-minded people of all stripes still read them. The op-ed, which generally means any opinion article not written by the publication’s own staff or a columnist, remains an important player in the never-ending game of public policy debate.

Writing and publishing an op-ed with impact isn’t the hardest thing in the world to do well. But it does require some skill and a healthy understanding of what editors are looking for.

We know this because we’ve written dozens of them that editors across the country have seen fit to publish under the names of our clients. Our words, advocating our clients’ viewpoints, have run in all of Texas’ major metropolitan newspapers and in large and small newspapers and websites across the fruited plain. These pearls of wisdom have touched on subjects as diverse as good citizenship, healthcare, taxes, urban planning and education to name a few.

Once in a blue moon we even write one with our own name on it. But usually we’re hired guns.

Though we know a thing or two about advocacy and writing op-eds that get published, we recently reached out to several opinion editors across Texas to ask two things: First, roughly what percentage of the op-eds they receive wind up being published?  And second, what are the most common reasons for rejecting an op-ed?

We weren’t shocked at the answers. After all, we operate in this space a lot.

The first question about how many submitted articles make it to publication produced the most eye-opening answer: Most.  

That’s good news for anyone who wants to write their opinions and have major news outlets publish them. We definitely got the feeling the editors want to publish the submissions they receive.

“We run the majority of them,” said one. “Maybe 60-70 percent,” said another.

But it’s not all love and sunshine.  “Some days, they’re all great. On some other days, nothing in the inbox appears worth publishing,” said one editor. “We can get most, but not all, into readable shape,” another commented.

START WITH GOOD WRITING

And what, pray tell, might make an article un-publishable? One answer jumped to the top of the list from every editor who responded -- bad writing.

Telling someone they’re a poor writer is like telling them they’re ugly. It’s personal. Everyone wants to think they’re a good writer, good driver, good neighbor and all-around good person. But the hard truth is not everyone is good at writing, at least not at the level required by serious news organizations. (Sadly, most folks aren’t good drivers, either.)

To get over the biggest hurdle in your way as an opinion writer, the first priority has to be writing well. Meaning you need to be able to write like a professional.  Not like a Pulitzer Prize winner, but better than probably 90 percent of the population.

Get some objective feedback on your writing from someone with some serious writing credentials. If you don’t have the writing chops, pay someone who does.

Once you submit your article, it’s also important to accept editing help. If you submit the piece to a major news organization, chances are good their editors are first-rate writers. They won’t try to change the meaning of your writing, but if needed they will work to polish it and make it more readable. You’re getting professional help for free. You should accept it. Good writers know that everybody needs an editor.

BE CURRENT

Another common theme we heard from editors – timeliness. Your topic and your point need to relate to current issues in the news. You’re not likely to get any traction if you write about something that was a hot topic three years ago but is not on the public’s radar today. Or if you opine about an issue expected to be white-hot five years from now.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE

Writing quality and timeliness are essential, but editors have other concerns, too.  Here are some:

Word count. Too short or too long, your piece is doomed either way. Take the time to find out how long any media outlet you are targeting wants its op-eds to be. A common number is around 600 words. But it’s not universal. Find out before you start writing.

Self-promotion. This is an easy way to kill your article. Avoid phrases that make the piece sound like an advertisement, such as “Call us at 555-5555,” “My organization is the best in the business,” or “We should win this contract because.”  Don't write in the first person. Be an expert, not a huckster.

Local focus. If your target is a major newspaper, you’re likely to have a better chance of publication if you focus on a local issue. Don’t submit a piece to the Houston Chronicle about a healthcare issue in Denver. It also helps if you have a local presence in the city as most editors prefer submissions from locally-based writers.

Facts. Back up your argument with facts and data, and cite your sources. If the editor can’t confirm your facts, your piece probably will be canned.

Cussing. Go ahead and call your mayor a no-good expletive when you’re at a bar with friends. Just don’t do it in your op-ed.  Several editors mentioned this, so it seems to be a common problem, dammit.

Op-eds remain an important part of the mix when it comes to advocacy and public policy. They also support your brand by elevating you to the position of thought leader, influencer and subject matter expert.

If you want to play, you need to honest about your writing skills, be open to outside help, and be aware of what editors are looking for.

 -          Eric Whittington

'Strategic' communications becomes business communications

We're no longer calling ourselves a PR firm

It’s a subtle revision on our website but a significant change in our direction.  The banner across the top of our website pages used to say “strategic communications.” We used that phrase with our logo all the time and it’s still on our business cards until we get a new batch.

But recently we began to question the “strategic” part. After a lot of debate about where we want to go as a company, we’ve changed “strategic” to “business.”

The “aha!” moment of clarity that prompted us to make the change came after a few months of self-examination. We read the iconic book, “Good to Great.” We sat down with our friend Cindy Stynchula, who helps lots of companies with defining their culture, leadership development and strategic planning. Cindy challenged us and forced us to think hard about the direction of The Whittington Group.

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If everyone is 'strategic,' then the word no longer says very much.

We also asked ourselves, “What the heck is ‘strategic’ communications anyway? The word has become so overused – like “solutions” and “awesome” – that we question its value in describing what we do. Wouldn’t any consulting firm of any type do things in a strategic way? We don’t think the word is a useful differentiator for our brand.

There’s also a bigger context for this change. We’re no longer going to refer to ourselves as a PR firm. It’s an easy crutch to use in describing our company since a lot of people have at least some broad idea of what a PR firm does. But our agency does many things that aren’t truly “public relations.”

On the flip side of that coin, a lot of folks calling themselves a PR firm aren’t truly comparable to us.  For example, tons of PR agencies primarily do consumer-focused work like retail store promotions and restaurant and entertainment work. That’s just not us.

We’re hard-core business geeks. We help businesses with all manner of communications issues. PR is one of our service areas, and we’re good at it. But we spend lots of time and energy on other (albeit related) services like government relations & public policy, digital media, brand planning, community engagement, corporate and investor communications and others. Business stuff.

And we usually do our work in some fairly complex businesses with dense subject matter – property taxes, pharma, accounting, law, engineering, commercial real estate, construction, etc.

Our re-thinking of who we want to be and what we want to do over the past months clarified so much for us that we recently turned down a chance to do a retail store launch in Houston. It’s never easy to tell a prospective client, “No, we don’t want this project or your money,” but it was easier to do so knowing that this kind of work no longer fits our business.  As “Good to Great” helped us understand, it doesn’t align with our hedgehog concept.

So, we go forward as a business communications firm. Yes, we’ll continue to do a lot of PR work. Very well, in fact. But we don’t define ourselves by leading with PR.

Maybe someday we’ll even start using “BC” for short. Or we may refine it again to something different. Until then, please don’t call us a PR firm. A business communications firm that provides PR and other services is what we’re really about.

-          Eric Whittington

Making Sure Your Organization is Heard

Business groups and trade associations often focus much of their energy on public policy and regulatory issues. Laws, rules and regulations can be established on a local, state or national level. Influencing them requires active effort to express a clear and compelling point of view.

Our client (Rey Chavez, president & CEO of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association, right) talks about NAFTA with a WOAI News Radio 1200 reporter moments before a recent association program. 

Our client (Rey Chavez, president & CEO of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association, right) talks about NAFTA with a WOAI News Radio 1200 reporter moments before a recent association program. 

One way to do it is to engage with appropriate media outlets. Newsrooms and what they report still carry significant weight. Elected officials as well as the bureaucrats who work for them still pay attention and are influenced by the daily ebb and flow of news and opinion. 

And newsroom staffs are hungry for content. Their staffs are stretched thin, so when an organization makes it easier for them to report a story, that organization often has a great shot at making the news. 

How can you do that? Here are are few simple ways that can help make sure your business group's voice is heard when it comes to legislation, ordinances and regulations:

  1. Have a clear message that you can state as simply as possible in 10 seconds or less. Use easy-to-understand language and talk about how the issue affects real people.
  2. When your organization holds and event such as seminar, invite local reporters. For those who attend, make sure to introduce them to the organization's leader.
  3. Coach that designated leader to express your message to any reporter they encounter.
  4. For those media who don't attend, email them a short statement from your group's leader so they can include the quote in their coverage even without attending the event.
  5. For radio news outlets, send them a short (10 seconds or less) audio clip of your leader making the statement you want them to make.
  6. You don't have to wait to hold an event to do any of this. Send text and audio clips to your local news organizations anytime your trade group needs to inject its voice into a public policy debate.

Finally, once your material makes it into the news, be sure to share those news items with your organization's members. It will underscore to them that the organization is standing up for its members and their interests. 

- Eric Whittington