Newspaper Op-Eds retain cachet

Public opinion has gotten stronger of late, and the Op-Ed sections of top-tier and regional newspapers are still the best places to voice your thoughts.

Public opinion has gotten stronger of late, and the Op-Ed sections of top-tier and regional newspapers are still the best places to voice your thoughts.

Over the past decade, it seems that everyone has a strong opinion. And with talk radio, cable news, and the rise of blogs, there are now plenty of forums to air those views.

But while these formats provide competition, the Op-Ed sections of newspapers remain a breed apart in terms of setting or swaying public opinion.

"When it comes to funding and trying to reach certain elite audiences, an Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, or USA Today is a plum," says David Lerner, president of Riptide Communications, which specializes in progressive causes.

But Craig Shirley, a well-known player among Washington, DC, conservative circles and president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, suggests that talk radio and cable news nevertheless have had an impact on opinion-page editors. "There's probably a tendency to be more edgy and provocative so that they get listened to, as well," he says.

Placing outside views

Unlike the news sections, which strive for objectivity, most newspaper Op-Ed sections have an identifiable ideological slant, some more extreme than others.

Dick Jones, whose eponymous agency specializes in higher-education clients, such as the University of Denver and Texas Christian University, notes that some newspapers, like USA Today, will even try to solicit commentary from both sides of an issue.

But increased use of syndicated and in-house columnists means the hole for outside views has gotten smaller in many cases.

"If you have a good Op-Ed, you can usually get it placed, but it's not as sure a thing as it used to be," says Jones. "Not only do you have to be timely, but you also have to say something that the syndicated columnists aren't because [newspapers have] already paid a fee for those words."

Lerner adds that the Op-Ed editors at top-tier outlets might talk about welcoming all types of viewpoints, but, in reality, they're often focused on well-known names. "To get into The New York Times and Washington Post, it's got to be really special if it's by a non-famous person," he says. "The elitism inherent in all of them is chronic, and it ends up keeping out a lot of voices."

Mark Holoweiko, president of Haslett, MI-based Stony Point Communications, stresses that many of the same keys to placing Op-Ed pieces are similar to those for a news release: timely topics, arresting leads, bright writing, and solid facts. Holoweiko helped client Weyco place an Op-Ed piece by its chief executive in USA Today, but only after a flurry of news stories were written on the company's policy of testing employees monthly for tobacco use.

Most Op-Eds adhere to very strict guidelines when it comes to length, and many also have a stylized writing touch, which can be a challenge for some writers.

"Most executives are not necessarily great writers, but they have other skills, such as being able to speak well and articulate a vision," Holoweiko says. "So what we do often is sit down with them and record what their view is on a particular issue, and then convert that into Op-Ed style."

Norman Birnbach, founder and president of Boston-based Birnbach Communications, adds that he often suggests that his clients team up with academics on Op-Ed pieces. "That ends up giving you the imprimatur of an academic, which takes it away from being just a small company trying to get their views out on a topic," he says.

Local and regional options

While top-tier papers have to sort through hundreds of unsolicited Op-Ed pieces each week, local and regional outlets are not quite as inundated and also are far more interested in getting local voices into their pages. "A lot of papers are looking for that local community voice," says Sharon Dickman, public information coordinator for the University of Rochester. "The local Gannett paper comes to me more than I go to them, and a lot of times they are looking for pieces with very strong opinion."

Of course, developing a relationship with the editorial page staff helps, though it won't ensure your client's Op-Ed gets run. "They're always going to want to see a piece before they commit to publishing it," says Robbin Goodman, EVP at Makovsky & Co. "But it does help to make a connection so they can give you a 'yea' or a 'nay' of whether the topic is something they need to be thinking about."


Pitching... the Op-Ed section

  • Most Op-Ed editors won't even look at a piece if it's longer than 800 words, so make sure you keep any submissions tight and to the point.

  • Consider co-authoring a piece with a local academic so your client's submission reads more like thought leadership, rather than the views of a single company.

  • Relationships can at least get you listened to, but editorial pages will rarely commit to a piece without seeing it. Make sure anything you submit is timely, topical, and provides a view that isn't being echoed by syndicated columnists or the editorial staff.

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