Media relations tips during Virginia’s General Assembly session
This time last year, our office was buzzing with Virginia General Assembly chatter. History was happening with elected officials in both chambers. It was a long session, and several important bills, including Governor Northam’s budget, were on the table. I was knee deep in media relations as part of a campaign to support VAratifyERA (now VoteEqualityUS), an organization that advocated for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia. Meanwhile, my colleague Cameron was heads down doing media relations for Equality Virginia, a group that seeks equality protections for LGBTQ+ individuals and was lobbying for the Virginia Values Act.
Media relations is already an uphill climb, but during the General Assembly? It’s Mount Everest.
There are so many steps in the legislative process, and with the number of bills up for discussion, it’s a blender of news. To help breakthrough and get your voice heard, here are three pieces of advice we have for your General Assembly media relations strategy.
Do what you can in advance of the news
One of the biggest things you can do to support your media relations effort is to plan in advance and prepare different versions of pitches and releases – before news from the session breaks. Last year, we were seeing news articles within minutes following a session vote. Time is of the essence.
For example, let’s say you have a bill up for vote. Have two releases ready, one should it pass and move to the other chamber, and two for if it doesn’t pass. This way, as soon as the vote is called, you can start hitting “Send.”
When applicable, you should also coordinate your communications with the bill sponsors’ team. Having quotes from the sponsors in your materials is one thing, but aligning with their media relations efforts is important, too.
Watch in real time
The 2021 session is obviously going to be different because of COVID-19, but like previous sessions, watching the live streams is a great way to be in the room – without being in the room. Reporters will have these live streams up, too. Watching the stream is also a great way to reference back conversation and connect it back to your organization – especially if a bill sponsor has a great soundbite to reiterate in your pitch or release.
Gather the details that the media needs
Lastly, make sure you have all the tools in your toolbox to give a reporter what they need, when they need it (which is ASAP): the release, interview contacts, quotes, images and b-roll. Offer up – not just leadership from your organization – but residents that the bill could impact. Give a reporter a quick note about why a bill is important to the residents you recommend and how it impacts their livelihood. Make it incredibly easy and clear so your media contacts can take what they need and run with it. When visitors are allowed back in the building during the session, this could also be done in person, connecting a reporter directly to a source.
The intensity and stress that surrounds the General Assembly is immense. I thought I was stressed following it all last year, but reporters are under extreme pressure – and even more extreme deadlines. During the first 30 days of the 2020 session, at the RTD alone, Mel Leonor published 32 stories, Justin Mattingly 59 – mostly about activities surrounding the General Assembly. You may be laser focused on one bill, but reporters are looking at the whole docket.
Evans wrote a great blog post about treating media relationships like friendships. And just like a friendship when a friend is under pressure, if they don’t respond – don’t take it personally. But do take personal care outside of your pitches. Check-in and thank them for their time and coverage.