Education Leadership Conference

Gina Acosta and her colleagues at The Washington Post op-ed page receive a deluge of nearly 1,000 letters to the editor each day.

"I don't have time to read 600- or 700-word letters," Acosta said at the 2005 ELC, "when we get so many good ones that are only 100 or 200 words long."

"Keep it short" was one of many pieces of advice that Acosta and Eric Smulson, former press secretary for Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), offered psychologists at an ELC session on how to advance psychology in their communities.

Acosta and Smulson discussed how to write an effective letter to the editor or newspaper editorial, organize a press conference and communicate with reporters. Some of their advice included:

  • Keep it local. Don't think that you need to get your letter or editorial into The Washington Post or The New York Times to make a difference, said Smulson. "Community papers are in many ways the most important-I read mine front to back each week," he said. Politicians know that a mention in a community paper can be more valuable than one in a national paper, he added.

  • Keep it simple. Whether you're writing a letter, editorial or press release, remember that your audience will not be experts in psychology. "Boil it down to the basics-the media won't know your lingo or jargon," Smulson said.

  • Think electronic. Nowadays, according to Acosta, e-mail is the way to go. At least at The Washington Post, she said, letters to the editor will be read much more quickly-and thus are more likely to be printed-if they arrive via e-mail.

  • Provide something unique. At the Post, Acosta said, the op-ed editors are always looking for contributors with a novel perspective on a timely topic. In September, for example, they were searching for someone to write knowledgeably about the mental health impact of Hurricane Katrina. "We want someone who will tell our readers something they don't know," she said.

  • Be persistent. Persistence is key in dealing with the media, said Smulson. If you e-mail a press release to a paper, make sure to follow it up with a phone call to a reporter or editor. You might even want to scan the bylines in your local paper, he suggested, and target reporters who cover mental health topics. But, he added, don't try high-pressure tactics to get your story covered. And never try to tell a reporter what to write, he said-that's their job.

-L. Winerman