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Here's an oft-debated subject among writers, journalists, PR practitioners and other pursuers of the trivial: Does "op-ed" refer to "opposite" the "edit"orial page or is it short for "opinions and editorials"?

Webster's says the former. But here's the more important point that the debate passes over: incorporating such articles into your PR program significantly advances your organization's positioning as an expert on specific topics, trends and issues.

Op-ed articles in newspapers or magazines express an opinion and are generally found on the page opposite where editorials are located. It's where columnists' pieces (think George Will or Maureen Dowd) can be found, along with letters to the editor\ and, in some cases, articles longer than letters that are contributed by experts with timely perspectives or in reaction to news coverage.

Each publication, however, is different in terms of what it publishes. For example, it's very difficult to place a piece in the op-ed pages of consumer publications like the New York Times or mainstream business publications like the Wall Street Journal. First, the competition is fierce—a lot of people would like to get their names and opinions printed in these widely read newspapers. On the whole, their op-ed contributions respond to a recent article or issue of the day and, generally, are oriented toward politics.

For the vast majority of consumer publications, an op-ed concerning a business issue would have to center on a trend or issue with a high level of public interest, like the Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals.

Professional and trade publications, on the other hand, are often interested in op-ed contributions on topics generally of interest to the industries they cover. Such submissions to Brand Week, Ad Age or Industry Week, for example, need strong points of view but need not necessarily respond to articles that have appeared on their pages.

Op-ed article development and placement is one of the media strategies we use for one of our consulting firm clients, targeting such publications as Brand Week, Automotive News and CMO Magazine. Authored by partners of the firm, these articles have helped position them as experts on their specialty area—the integration of brand, business and marketing strategies—as it relates to a variety of industries.

One such piece placed in Automotive News, for example, provided an overview, from a branding perspective, of why the Oldsmobile line of cars and brand died. The author's strongly expressed convictions about the failure helped to solidify his standing as a brand specialist with expertise in the automotive industry.

As a component of a strategic media relations program, op-eds are probably underutilized. Here are two reasons why:

  1. Too many are unwilling to take a stand and commit in writing to a strong point of view. There's a fear of alienating clients or prospective customers, or being too controversial for public tastes.

  2. Developing op-eds (as with any initiative revolving around contributed articles) requires substantial research. Each publication has its own spin, a different audience that these articles must speak to and different requirements on everything from length to orientation.

Also, you need to double-check back issues (or query the publication) to make sure that someone else hasn't already said what you want to say. Some want to see the finished piece; others want to see the idea first. Either way, the articles must be well written, using this sort of intelligence to serve as general guidelines. And, even then, whether the article is accepted or not is still subject to the human factor: your subject matter and approach may or may not appeal to the deciding editor for no logical or obvious reason.

This all combines to require more work to write one op-ed than it does to send out 500 copies of a single press release. That's an important consideration when so many PR practitioners still go by (and are judged by) clip counting versus message quality as a performance measurement.

Our recommended approach for developing an expertise-based PR program that incorporates informational articles as well as op-eds is to...

  • Identify and prioritize your key buying audiences and identify which professional and trade publications cater to their interests.

  • Research those publications for their orientation and writing style. These days, most have Web sites you can go to, and many include writers' guidelines—whether they accept outside contributions, sections for which they accept them, length of submissions, etc. They also have media kits that outline their reader demographics.

  • Prioritize your targeted media markets according to parameters that fit with your objectives, such as percentage of their readers that are your buyers; total circulation; fit between their needs and your messaging; and the scope of opportunities for contributed articles.

  • Together with your leadership team, or designated spokespersons, identify the trends, issues and concerns that the firm can speak to and which underscore its credibility and expertise. At the same time, determine leaders' comfort with the idea of expressing strong opinions through op-eds, so that such articles can be phased in. In terms of expectation management, you must stress that self-promotional articles must be avoided if the program is to be successful.

A single op-ed will not change the way you or your organization is viewed overnight. But combined with other related initiatives—from informational or tutorial bylined articles to systematic survey development and dissemination—they are an integral part of an expertise-oriented PR program that will help solidify your firm's standing as an expert in its field.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sally Saville Hodge is president of Hodge Communications, Inc. (www.hodgecommunications.com), a strategic PR and marketing communications firm in Chicago. She can be reached at shodge@hodgecommunications.com.


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