Imagine having the opportunity to get your messages out, largely unfiltered, to potentially hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. This is the beauty of an op-ed or a letter to the editor (LTE).
If your message is clear and you’re OK with how your story is being framed and delivered, it may be better to sit back and let the coverage unfold rather than jumping in with an opinion piece. But a communications team can use op-eds or LTEs to clarify or confirm a position, to provide more in-depth background or to display third-party support on a complicated or controversial issue.
An op-ed generally runs several hundred or so words, which gives you room to fully flesh out thoughts and positions and, most important, it is located on prime real estate.
An LTE generally addresses something that has appeared in the paper and is limited to a couple hundred words at best.
Most publications reserve the right to edit either op-eds or LTEs.
Some television news programs or stations also offer the opportunity for responses to be broadcast, although those are rare.
Here are tips for writing an op-ed or LTE that increase your odds of it being picked up.
- Author. Carefully consider who should sign. Often, your best bet is an executive or subject-matter expert to explain a critical issue facing your organization. Should the message work best coming from another voice, however, consider allowing a third-party ally to have the byline. For example, our company has been involved in a merger, and some of our supporters have provided insights from their perspective in opinion pieces. In some cases it may be appropriate for more than one person to sign. Rarely are more than two authors named, although there may be cases where a chorus of influential voices may get attention. On occasion, a publication may invite a prominent person to write an op-ed.
- Transparency. Op-eds and LTEs must be signed, and media outlets often will follow up to confirm that the author named submitted them. Most publications also will want to know the address of the person submitting but will not publish it.
- Timeliness. If responding to something that has appeared in print or on television, you need to submit your op-ed or LTE quickly. Especially if a story is developing, you need to get something in the same day, if possible. With some exceptions, seldom will something submitted more than one week later be considered.
- Corrections: Don’t submit an op-ed or letter to correct information in a story. Ask the reporter to run a clarification or correction for immediacy and equal exposure.
- Brevity. Op-eds need to be detailed enough to discuss an issue fully and, because of their length, LTEs must be very focused. Virtually all publications reserve the right to edit your submission, although most will send back the edited version for review. Check the guidelines for each publication as they can vary widely. If your piece fails as an op-ed, ask the publication if you can retool it as a LTE. You’d rather get the longer piece in, but getting a shorter piece published beats nothing.
- Exclusivity. Publications want a scoop and will not consider an opinion piece that has run or even been rejected by another outlet. Choose carefully where you think you’ll have the best chance of your op-ed being published. Our hometown paper, T he Washington Post, offers broad reach. A smaller paper may be a better fit for some issues, however. If one outlet rejects your piece, consider modifying and submitting to another, perhaps with a different author. Remember, though, that most will ask if the piece has been published or submitted elsewhere.
- Drama. Newspapers are looking for copy that people want to read, and controversy provides drama that draws interest. Op-eds provide a chance to clarify or confirm a position or to provide more in-depth background on a complicated issue.
- Content. An op-ed is designed to provide opinion, but offer expertise and supporting facts if you want it printed. Make your points, but provide evidence to back them up. You can footnote citations so editors can see your sources.
- Follow-up. Many publications accept electronic submissions only. Most will confirm receipt only for pieces they plan to publish. Follow up your submissions with an email and/or phone call to make sure the publication received your piece and is considering it. That personal touch might tip your piece into publication.
- Frequency. Newspapers publish only a couple of non-syndicated op-eds each day so getting one in print is a rarity. The signer will not get the chance to be published often because papers want to offer a variety of opinions.
CONTACT: Myra Oppel is regional communications VP for Pepco Holdings.
This article originally appeared in the August 24, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.