The seven biggest mistakes we make with op-eds

Be careful when writing and pitching op-eds, says Bob Brody, SVP, media strategist and editorial specialist at Powell Tate.

"Hey, let’s do an op-ed" is probably a line you’ve heard before. I’ve heard it as much as anyone. Across 27 years in PR, I’ve frequently teamed up with clients on op-eds.

Under the best of circumstances, we’ve published pieces everywhere from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to USA Today and the Harvard Business Review. Under the worst, we’ve gotten precisely nowhere, with pieces rejected repeatedly.

On the whole, I’m sure the industry’s batting average could be better. Which raises the question, where do we go wrong?

A few years ago, I surveyed op-ed editors asking what qualities they valued in a submission. The top picks were "persuasively argued" at 43%, "news value" at 36%, and "brilliantly written" at 21%.

The survey also asked what qualities hurt op-eds. The winners were "badly written" at 44%, "poorly argued" at 25% and "self-serving" and "conventional viewpoint" both with 19%.

Here then, without further ado, are what I consider the seven biggest mistakes we make when developing op-eds:

Mistake one: Op-eds for the sake of op-eds. Ask if you should even pursue an op-ed in the first place. Sometimes the answer is, or should be, no. As it happens, most comms plans recommend an op-ed as a block-and-tackle vehicle. And some clients may propose an op-ed out of the blue.

I polled senior managers and media specialists and found 71% of us propose op-eds to a client one to five times a year and 26% do so five to 10 times a year. Clients propose op-eds to us with almost the same frequency.

Bottom line: vet the pros and cons of an op-ed and the likely ROI. If the answer to the question "to op-ed or not to op-ed" turns out to be no, you should say so.

Mistake two: Using op-eds when a different tactic might be better. Let’s say a client has an announcement about a product or service, is launching an initiative, or is advocating for a cause. Can the news be converted into an op-ed? Should it be?

Sometimes the op-ed format is ill-fitting and you might be better off with a press release, pitching the details to reporters, or posting on the company blog.

Mistake three: Only having opinions. Just because op-eds are, by definition opinion pieces, does it mean op-eds mainly consist of opinions? No.

Having a strong point of view is essential – the price of admission. But anyone can have an opinion, and indeed most people do. So here’s a little secret: op-eds require well-informed opinions.

The best op-eds are based squarely on facts meticulously assembled, arranged and deployed, as if for a legal brief, in the service of an argument. Gathering empirical evidence is key. So be a scholar and do some research.

Mistake four: Flying blind. Suppose a comms team is drafting an op-ed for a CEO about how technology should be better implemented to prevent cyberattacks – or something like that.

If you’re unsure about the theme or angle, guess what? So is your client. That’s because nobody bothered to brainstorm about it. Now you realize the job calls for clairvoyance about exactly what’s on the CEO’s mind.

The solution? Ask questions about the piece. Then ask more questions. Better still, go straight to the source, namely the CEO. Seek an informal briefing, either in person, by phone, by email or all three.

Mistake five: Not touting your expertise. If everyone were an expert on, say, global warming, then no one would be. The best op-ed authors are demonstrable authorities, amply qualified to stake out a public position on an important issue.

Maybe they’ve lived through a unique or special personal experience that delivered some valuable lessons. Or maybe they conducted some rigorous proprietary research. If so, terrific. Then they can deliver the goods.

Mistake six: Saying what everyone else is saying. Toeing a party line or hopping on a bandwagon for some issue high on the national agenda is all well and good. But it is unlikely to make for a catchy op-ed.

Ideally, the author is saying something only he or she can say. Is the analysis original, unusual, surprising or controversial? And above all, is it potentially newsworthy? If the answer is yes, you might be in business.

Mistake seven: Thinking op-eds are free advertising. This is far and away the single biggest mistake PR pros make. We think the op-ed is all about the client and we identify the client, with all the wonderful stuff they’re doing, in every paragraph.

We brand op-eds with boilerplate messages. Please take my word for this: for editors this is almost always the kiss of death.

You can promote without being too self-promotional. The trick is addressing something larger than yourself. Keep your role in context and be subtle and low-key.

I believe in op-eds. They let our clients advocate for causes and establish a voice that spurs dialogue. They give clients an opportunity to say exactly what they want unfiltered. They help clients gain visibility, spread influence, and build reputations as leaders.

But op-eds are hard to do right and harder still to place. That’s a fact – rather than, say, opinion. Avoiding these mistakes should improve your chances for success.

Bob Brody is a SVP, media strategist and editorial specialist with Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick. A widely published essayist, he is author of the memoir "Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age."

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