Given that journalists will be critical stakeholders in the rollout of any PrEP campaign, we felt it important to discuss engaging journalists separately even though this effort typically falls within the ‘media planning’ phase.
Why will the press be essential to your success? To start with, journalists can be extremely useful partners in helping disseminate clear and helpful information to the public, and in validating your communications. Second, it’s very important to engage journalists in order to avoid negative or ill-informed media coverage. Engaging the press in constructive conversation can smooth the way for positive, well-informed coverage that helps you reach your campaign goals.
In this min-section, you will learn more about how to develop a plan to engage journalist stakeholders early and keep them involved throughout your rollout; with the support of allies in civil society and the health community, you will be prepared to counter any negative coverage that arises.
- Define your press objectives
- Work with a broad coalition of allies
- Develop key messages
- Plan media engagement
1. Define your press objectives.
Broadly, you want to develop and build on existing good relationships with key journalists, and work with PrEP users, advocates, policy makers, and researchers to create a strong and diverse chorus of voices speaking publicly about your campaign.
This is a far-reaching task; it’s helpful to narrow down to the most useful specific objectives for your campaign. Identify how engaging with journalists can help meet your overall objectives. As an overarching goal, you will likely want to secure accurate and positive coverage of PrEP in the press—such as newspaper articles, radio feature coverage, and broadcast news. To work toward these goals, establish specific objectives for your press engagement. To help you strategize, here are a few example press objective statements:
Sample Press Objectives:
- Establish relationships with 3-6 journalists at the national level who are informed and engaged, and who will report accurately and supportively on PrEP rollout generally.
- Establish relationships with 3-6 local journalists who are informed and engaged, and who will report accurately and supportively on PrEP rollout.
- Ensure 3-6 health providers, PrEP users, advocates, and other spokespeople are prepared to speak to the press, and ensure a network of journalists have contact information to reach these spokespeople for questions and concerns about PrEP.
2. Work with a broad coalition of allies.
In many countries where PrEP is being rolled out, there are similar broad trends in the press landscape. For example, there is often little-to-no press coverage of PrEP before it is available in a country, and health journalists may not have heard of PrEP. There has been also inaccurate and inflammatory information globally, which means that Internet searches often lead to confusion and misinformation.
Another trend is that PrEP rollout is often focused on groups and issues that are highly political. It’s extremely important to engage civil society, advocates, and other allies to make sure press messages are truly inclusive, as programs that seek to engage gay men, sex workers, and adolescent girls and young women can be extremely sensitive (and thus risk inflammatory or poorly informed coverage).
To overcome these challenges—as well as other challenges specific to the location where you’re working—you should collaborate closely with individuals in three different groups who can support your goals. Start by identifying the best contacts across three broad groups:
- Journalists. Look at the existing health coverage and develop a list of journalists and press outlets that cover health issues. Seek any negative coverage of PrEP, as well as other HIV and public health programs, to understand the content and tone of recent similar conversations.
- Civil society & Research group allies. These will be a major and important part of your campaign. Many representatives of advocacy and health organizations, HIV prevention research groups, and organizations that work with or serve your target audiences will have existing relationships with journalists. They can provide guidance and advice as you develop this plan, and may also be willing to speak with journalists and serve as voices of support for PrEP in press coverage. Research groups that focus on HIV prevention can also provide the scientific and public health evidence journalists need.
- Target audience spokespeople. Finally, identify people who can support your press plan with their personal experience. Including real-life PrEP users in media engagement can provide journalists with a human face for their stories (which journalists highly prize). Civil society, research groups, and advocates for your target audiences can help identify these people. Make sure to identify specific people who can speak to journalists about their personal experiences, experts who can place opinion pieces in print media, and spokespeople who can join radio or television broadcasts to show support for and clearly communicate information about your campaign.
3. Develop key messages
Creating a set of talking points about your campaign that your team, your allies, and your spokespeople can use when working with journalists will ensure that you’re presenting a unified and clear message; it’s also a vital way to support your spokespeople and respect their time. Your messages will help deliver accurate information. You should also develop and maintain a list of “tough questions” and ready responses. Keep this list of questions—along with clear, concise answers—up-to-date throughout the campaign, so all of your stakeholders and allies are ready to respond quickly to any issues.
When developing these messages, work directly with civil society allies, research groups, and members of your target audience. Collaboration can ensure accurate and supportive information, while also engaging these allies and ensuring all voices are heard.
You should also provide training and practice for spokespeople to deliver information clearly and in understandable language to journalists. Remember to keep your allies updated as your campaign begins, so that they are prepared and informed to supply support if needed.
4. Plan press engagement.
Just as you created an implementation plan for your media channels, you should create a timeline-based Press Engagement Plan in pursuit of your press objectives. The plan should be grounded in your research and understanding of the local context.
The situation and needs in each country leading to the launch of a PrEP program will vary, but the following strategies can be a starting point to engage journalists:
- Approach the press as an equal partner. You have information and connections that journalists will find helpful; they have the communications platform that you need.
- Strive for two-way engagement. Press engagement should be mutually beneficial, providing journalists with stories and information while in turn providing your campaign with exposure. The ideal is a conversation among experts, including your spokespeople and the journalists who know the local area.
- Start press engagement early. You may plan for an informal press gathering ahead of your launch, where journalists and educators can become informed about PrEP and get advanced information about your campaign. For example, you may host a breakfast briefing or a day-long training program for journalists.
- Keep in touch. Once the campaign begins, continue to keep in touch with journalists with updated information as appropriate. Ensure that journalists have spokespeople contact information; you may also provide new opportunities for human interest stories, such as clinic visits or interviews with providers.
- Support spokespeople. Make sure they are responding quickly and professionally to journalist queries, and that they feel comfortable with the information and key messages.
See the Sample Press Engagement Plan for inspiration.
Remember to also create a contingency plan—make sure you’re ready to respond to any misleading or damaging media reports. A good basic plan for response:
- Do not panic.
- If a journalist publishes a misleading article, reach out to him/her first to try to correct it.
- Respond quickly and directly by publishing a letter to the editor or an “op-ed” (an opinion piece published in a newspaper by an external expert). Choose the author of this response carefully—the best author is an authority on the specific issue who has local connections.
- You should already have good connections with local newsrooms and reporters; these open lines of communication will help make sure your response can get out quickly. In most cases, media want accurate information and will be keen to correct a mistake.
- When the editor or publication doesn’t respond to your first request, reach out again. Be persistent.
- If the publication that ran the misleading information doesn’t respond to your requests to correct it, reach out to other news outlets with the same request.
- Be aware that information may spread to other news sources, such as a newspaper article that moves to social media and/or a television story. Always monitor multiple sources and push your response out on multiple channels (such as sharing an op-ed via social media).
* Note, while we have listed specific times to reach out to each of these contacts, you should plan to keep communication channels open on an ongoing basis throughout your campaign. Plan to follow-up with all of these contacts to share information about new press reports that address the faulty coverage and other updates on an ongoing basis.
Checking in on your progress
Press engagement can be exciting, and extremely productive, but remember to manage everyone’s expectations throughout the campaign. Journalists will not report the PrEP story exactly as you would like. There may be too little coverage, or negative coverage or hyped coverage or inaccurate coverage. It’s important for everyone to acknowledge that you can’t control the coverage completely. But with proper planning and outreach to allies and to journalists, coverage is more likely to be accurate and supportive.