Road Raging - Top Tips for Wrecking Roadbuilding

Chapter 5: Dealing with the Media

No matter what you think of the media and their superficial coverage, getting your campaign in the mainstream media is an important way of getting people to hear about your campaign. When people see reports of radical and effective action in the media, many might think "I could do that" and may get in touch. If you put no effort into the media, the arguments of the roadbuilders will go unchallenged.

Be aware that the media are not the objective watchdogs they pretend to be. They are multinational-owned information industries with an interest in maintaining the status-quo. Although individual journalists may be sympathetic or at least fair-minded, they all have editors who pull the strings and keep the corporation happy. Media coverage is dominated by sensationalism, conflict, personalities and superficial analysis. The debate as to whether to put much effort into getting media coverage or dismissing them as part of the system which we are fighting goes on in every campaign. You'll have to make your own decisions.

Creating our own media is the only way to ensure fair coverage. Your campaign media could include newsletters, booklets, video magazines and pirate radio stations. Your own propaganda should be good quality and inspiring. There is a buzzing alternative media network out there produced by activists and volunteers (see Chapters 16 and 17). Make sure you know about them and they know about you. Keep them up to date with informed and accurate information.

Getting the Most From the Media

The press can be very arrogant and expect you to run around and perform for them. Some, however, can be very supportive and will go out of their way to get your campaign good coverage. Dealing with the press is a two-way thing. They get good material and you get coverage. Don't be scared to politely refuse to co-operate with them. Stay in control and don't let them treat you like a puppet. Be polite and they may not be so inclined to be disrespectful again. Don't let journalists snoop around camps and offices unaccompanied, and always ask to see their press card. Consider making certain areas "out of bounds" to the press, e.g. offices and tunnels. Tell photographers to ask permission first from everyone who will be in shot.

defaultUsually they do not pay for your time, although they should always pay travel expenses. However, you may want to try asking the larger media organisations for a donation to the campaign for your time. You'll be in a better position to do this if you are "hot news", or the interview is long and demanding. Repeated demands for money may sap goodwill. If you are going to ask, it is better to do so before the interview rather than haggling at the end. You may even want to draw up a basic contract for them to sign. 20 an hour is a reasonable charge.

The press are very lazy - the easier it is to get a story, the more likely it is they will print it. Remember that they are busy and have many other stories to cover, so don't waste their time. Cultivate your contacts and get to know them.

When setting up interviews, the privacy of the people to be interviewed should always be upheld. Never give a journalist someone's number without checking with them first. They can be very persistent and can harass people at home. You should ring the person and then give the journalist's number to them. You can always ring the journo back to make sure they got what they wanted.

Local Media

The local media are crucial in any effective campaign to inform and attract local people and to counter the propaganda from the other side. Most local papers in the UK are conservative and are owned by bigger news corporations. Although it is hard work, don't despair and keep working on them. Many local radio stations have phone-in programmes; make sure you get on them in numbers. Local papers should put you in every week if you keep providing them with stories.


These people can be very useful. There are quite a few sympathetic freelancers out there, including a gaggle of photographers who have made road protests their speciality. They are usually (quite rightly) OK about giving the campaign copies of their pictures to use.

There are also a few activists who do a bit of journalism on the side and a few "green" journalists. Use these people to get articles in the press. If you invite them on secret actions, they can rush off and flog the story or pictures to the papers. Ask around other radical groups for contacts.

Trade Press

The construction press is one of the best ways to get a message right into the industry you're targeting. Send press releases to Contract Journal, Construction News, and New Civil Engineer, and phone up their news editors with big stories. Don't expect to find much common ground with them, but always let them know why you oppose a development, and who your protest targets are. Remember when talking to industry journalists that what you say may be repeated to contractors as that's where their main loyalty lies.

There are loads of other specialist media you can use, such as financial press, countryside magazines, local government press, and many more. Decide who might be interested in a particular event or story, and feed it to them.

National Media

If the national media cover your campaign then your profile may rocket. Make sure they get good footage and interviews. The press follow one another, so once you've achieved your first national coverage, expect your phones to ring. You will probably be dealing with a regular news reporter, or maybe the transport or environment correspondent.

Press contacts and lists

Never lose a contact! Start a press directory containing journalists' names and phone / fax number. List them in identifiable groups such as Locals, Nationals and Construction so you can do targeted press releasing. Make sure that you have the press agencies like the Press Association on your list. Local libraries will have national directories listing every regional and local newspaper. You can buy similar books. Don't forget to add all the freebie papers - as they'll print anything and are read by lots of people. Most environmental groups have a comprehensive press list - ask them for a copy.

Press Releases

The usual way to get information out to the media is to send out a press release. These are usually faxed or posted out to the media with a news story that you want them to cover. Use your judgement on whether to send out a press release. Send them regularly, but bombarding editors for the sake of it will put them off. If you've missed deadlines, don't bother. Tips for writing a press release: Ensure that there is a reliable contact with phone number on the release. This could include on- site mobile phone numbers. If you want the contact details printed in newspapers it must be in the main body of the text. If your press release is for an event, press conference or photo opportunity, include a map or directions.

If you do not want to go into massive detail on an issue in the main body of the text, but think it is of interest, include a Notes to Editors section at the end of the press release.

An embargo is a note at the top of the press release telling journalists not to leak or print the story before a particular deadline. However, never trust the press to keep them. When there was a banner drop on the roof of the DoT's private detective agency, the Bath Chronicle broke the embargo on the release and ran a "protesters to invade detectives roof" story the day before! Luckily the snoopers were not clever enough to read the local papers and did not find out.

Follow the press release up with a phone call to make sure that it was received.

Examples of press releases are included in the Appendix.

To get the press release out you can simply post them out first class. Make sure you address them to the appropriate correspondent or the newsdesk. This method is fine, but can get expensive and tedious if you have many press releases to send out. If you have a fax machine, it is worth creating re-usable fax headers on small bits of paper with the name of the journalist and their fax number on it. These will go through with the press release to make sure it gets to the right person.

Faxing press releases is also extremely tedious. Fortunately, most fax machines these days are programmable. This means that you can key in all the relevant fax numbers at the start, stick the press release into the machine and off it goes. The disadvantage is you cannot send different fax headers to the various numbers with the press release.

Probably the best solution is to use a fax modem, which sends your press release directly from your computer screen down the phone line to their fax machine. Fax modem software can incorporate database lists to which press contacts should be added. You can choose from your press database which journalists you want to send it to. Select them and then go to the pub while the machine does the work.

Photo Opportunities

Setting up a photo opportunity is an easy way of getting your campaign exposure in the press. Most newspapers like eye-catching pictures, and if you set one up for them, they may use it. They may just caption the picture or use it as a springboard for a story.

To set up a photo opportunity you can either:

  1. Take the picture yourself (or get freelance photographers to take it) and then approach the papers.
  2. Send out a press release, putting the date and time details in a box to draw their attention.
Send the press release to the Picture Desk or the Picture Editor at your chosen newspapers. They will be on a separate fax number.

The photo opportunity should be early enough for photographers to meet deadlines - 11am is a good time. To get a good picture have people in the shot (children always look excellent!), and make it look active. If the picture needs words, then have some well-painted banners or placards. Alternatively, pose the picture next to something which explains what you are doing - a company name plaque if doing an office occupation, for example. The picture should be self- explanatory, if possible.

Talk to professional photographers for advice on how to get a striking image and the best way to set up a photo opportunity. The only way to get them right is to practice!

Media Information Packs

It might be useful to prepare a media pack, containing press releases and briefing sheets giving background campaign information. When it comes to writing or recording their piece, especially if they are pushed for time, they will hopefully lift chunks from it.


The campaign may wish to appoint media spokespeople, particularly for big events. People experienced in dealing with the media provide convenient contact points for reporters. Spokespeople should be clearly spoken, articulate and know the issues. It is important that they present the opinions of the campaign rather than just their own pet obsessions. Some people may see appointed spokespeople as controlling the campaign image. Meanwhile the authorities will identify them as ringleaders, possibly using their quotes as legal ammunition. A solution to these problems might be to encourage as many people as possible to speak to the media. There aren't many compelling reason to use your real full name, if you're not famous and don't want to be. Using pseudonyms may confuse the authorities. If your name's in the papers, then it's on Big Brother's birthday card list!

Doing Interviews

Find out and discuss what the journalist's angle is and what they want to cover. Find out how much time you have to get your points across. Brush up on some relevant facts, interesting personal stories and pithy quotes. You could practice first with friends to build confidence.

Never tell a journalist anything you don't want made public - be very careful of what you say around them. There is a balance between staying on your guard and enthusing the journalist about your campaign. Relax when you do an interview - it is not an interrogation but a valuable opportunity to get the message out to lots of people. Try and enjoy it!

Never dodge a difficult or controversial question - to do so will make you sound like a shifty politician. On the other hand, if the interviewer is trivialising the issue or asking silly questions, tell them so and point them to the real issues. If you are expecting difficult questions, prepare your answers beforehand. Also, if you don't know something, don't make it up - pass the journalist onto someone who can help them.

Try not to condemn things, as this can cause huge splits in a campaign. If you are being attacked for something, turn the question around. When asked for comments on "criminal damage" talk about the damage that they have inflicted on our environment and point out who the real criminals are. If they try to push you to condemn criminal damage, perhaps say that it is an understandable response to the destruction. If you feel that you cannot adequately speak about something, pass it onto someone else.

Radio interviews:

Out on site, radio interviewers may use a portable tape recorder, or a mobile studio in a vehicle sometimes called a "Radio Car". Alternatively you may be interviewed over the phone or asked to go into a studio. Always make sure you know if an interview is live or not. If you fluff your lines during a pre-recorded interview, say you want to do it again. Don't be afraid to pause for thought between questions, as they can edit any pauses out. A good journalist should expect this. Record it until YOU are happy. If you are doing a live interview, just relax and chat naturally to the interviewer.

Ask the interviewer what they will ask you, then ask for 5-10 minutes to compose yourself and prepare your answers. When preparing, think of the three main things that you want to get across with key phrases (sound bites) that sum up these issues. More than three points in a short radio interview would confuse.

Keep your voice light-hearted on the radio. If you get angry and aggressive, people will stop listening. Short and punchy sentences grab attention. Once you think you have answered, don't go on as you will repeat yourself. Don't jig about or move away from the microphone or quality will suffer. Avoid jargon and swearing.

Before being interviewed with an opponent, always ask if you can have the last word. This is very important as the last word is always the most memorable and powerful.

Telly interviews:

TV is almost the same as radio except people can see you! Try and look presentable and approachable. Keep still or you will go out of focus or out of range of their big fluffy microphone. Look personable, and smile when you talk if appropriate. They'll ask you to talk to the interviewer not the camera. Don't rant or people will switch off. Point to things which are relevant and describe what is happening. If you are doing a studio interview look comfortable and chat in a relaxed way.

If the interview is live and from the scene, make it sound exciting and dramatic so that people will watch. If you can get away with it, give a location and appeal to people to come out and join you. TV people hate you doing this. If you do a personal appeal, turn to the camera and talk to it. This can be very powerful.

As with radio, ask for the questions beforehand, and for preparation time. If you are debating with someone else, keep calm and eloquently trash their arguments. If you fart on live TV, blame it on your opponent.

You may get asked to go on a few chat shows. They are usually very superficial, and designed to polarise, stereotype and stitch up. If there is a panel or a platform, chose your team carefully to destroy their stereotypes. They should keep cool and be representative of the campaign. Think very carefully before taking part.

Letters Pages

Letters pages of local rags can be a hotbed for controversy and can stir up issues nicely. Get a regular crop of letters in. The newspaper will be more inclined to cover you if they see that it is an issue strong enough to make people write in. You can also use letters to local papers to advertise events.

It is very difficult to get letters into the national newspapers. You will need to be very relevant and / or pithy and meet their deadlines. They will be more inclined to print a letter if it is signed by famous or "important" people. If they have a flood of letters they may feel as if the issue is important and print a selection of them.

Bad Press

Expect bad press and prepare for it. There are a lot of nasty right-wing bigots out there who hate protesters. Lots of these people write for newspapers. There are many papers from which you'd expect hostile coverage, but the more "liberal" papers like the Guardian and the Independent can also stitch you up.

The police press office is quite often where a smear story will originate, and they often pass it onto agencies like Reuters and the Press Association, who then send it out verbatim to news networks. However, sometimes smears come directly from sad hacks. There are some British newspaper journalists who've made it their job to be professional anti-environmental writers. Watch out especially for Matt Ridley, Richard D. North and John Harlow (see "Green Backlash" Chapter 17)

After a particularly outrageous slur piece in the Sunday Times in 1994, several campaigns complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). They soon learnt that rather than being independent, the PCC is made up of journalists acting to protect one another. The PCC is lip service to self-regulation designed to prevent legal restrictions on a "free press".

After months of evidence swapping, they made their verdict - upholding the article. They never addressed any of the complaints, simply repeating what the Sunday Times had said in its defence. So, try the PCC if you want, but it may well turn out to be a waste of time. You must seek a retraction from the paper and be refused before complaining to the PCC. You must also show that you, or your reputation, were damaged by the article.

Use complaints to influence the media. If, after a bad item or article, they are flooded with complaints and criticism, they will worry that they are not satisfying their customers. Don't over- use this, and make sure you complain to the journalist responsible or the editor, and not the poor receptionist. Be aware that journalists may have their piece altered by the editor without their consent.

Always write letters to newspapers challenging any mistakes. Even if your complaints are quite long-winded, keep your letter short and to the point, or they will have an excuse not to print it. Ring up the paper before their deadline to make sure that they received it and they are printing it as your "right to reply".

This book is now out of print. You might be able to get a copy from a UK library by ordering on the inter-library loans scheme.

Road Alert!