By Jeff Milchen
The letters-to-the-editor section of your local or regional newspapers presents a superb forum for getting your unfiltered message to your target audience and provoking dialogue. These pages are widely read by government officials, business leaders, and the entire community.
Getting your board and volunteers into the habit of writing just a few times a year will add dramatically to recognition and public perception of your organization or campaign. We offer a few tips to share with prospective writers:
- Keep your letter concise and focused (don’t try to address more than one issue per letter). Follow the guidelines and word count limit of the target publication (there’s often a “Writer’s Guidelines” web page). To maximize your chance of being published, edit out all non-essential words. This also minimizes the chance of the newspaper editor changing the letter in ways you may not like.
- Check original sources to verify factual claims about independent businesses and economic impact (or ask AMIBA) rather than repeating a “fact” cited in someone else’s reporting. The local multiplier effect is a frequent topic of misinformation.
- Whenever possible, indicate clearly how the reader will be affected.
- Try to balance any criticism with a positive call to action.
- Point people to a resource to get more information and engage in action whenever practical. Asking elected officials and representatives by name to take a specific action will get their attention.
- Be a student of persuasive writing. Review letters by others and critique them. Note effective and ineffective approaches, style, length, etc.
- For your local newspaper, follow up with a phone inquiry if it doesn’t appear for a week (not for large or national publications).
- Provide a byline with your title and affiliation if you hope to see your group’s name published (e.g. Jill Smith is a board member of OurTown IBA) and hyperlink your website. Even if the publication doesn’t embed links online, it may lead an editor to learn more about your group.
- In most magazines and larger newspapers, letters must respond to an article or commentary published within the previous few days and follow the citation format used in the publication (see examples below). Smaller papers typically are more open.
- Have someone proofread your letter before submitting!
- When responding to an article, make sure your proofreader reads your letter before seeing the original article! (Many, if not most, readers will not have read or won’t recall the original article, so it must stand on its own).
- Don’t limit yourself to critiquing articles. A story that reports favorably on your group or issue presents a great opportunity to repeat a key point while adding one of your own. This also helps build the perception of being a positively-focused group.
- Overstating / exaggerating your point
- Pejoratives (insulting your opponents)
- Jargon or acronyms (spell out any name the first time you use it, followed by the acronym in parentheses. Example: American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA)
- “I’m writing to…” or “I think…” These are obvious. The cardinal rule for letters is eliminate unnecessary words. AMIBA’s Op-Ed Writing Primer offers more on this topic.
- Attachments to emails. Send your letter in the body of an email.
The range of acceptable lengths for letters to the editor in magazines varies widely, so be sure to look for guidelines and observe the range and style used in each publication. Letters to major news magazines tend to be extremely short (often 100 words or fewer).
Consider who the typical reader of the publication is, and keep them in mind when writing. Magazine readership tends to include people with common beliefs, rather than the broader readership of most newspapers.
AMIBA provides free assistance with all copywriting for member organizations, including letters and op-eds–just send us your draft and any essential background information. Please contact us with your issues and timeline to inquire.
Our “Top reasons to go local” provide ready-made snippets to sprinkle into letters and we welcome you to use them.
Published in Portland (ME) Herald:
Seth Koenig’s July 1 piece, “A New Golden Age?,” failed to mention one critical component of a healthy and prosperous Portland: our locally owned and independent businesses. Portland Buy Local’s board of directors and 400-plus members look forward to great prosperity in Portland over the next 10 years and beyond, and we believe that much of the growth and expansion of the tourist market is directly related to our unique blend of food, shops, arts and people.
Portland’s “eclectic nature” extends beyond our architecture and lighting to a robust blend of retail, cultural, and restaurant options crossing every price point. Our strong membership is a critical piece of what makes us a vibrant city and a special destination for people seeking diversity, creativity, and a one-of-a-kind experience.
Portland’s original and unique businesses are what will attract repeat visitors to fill 400 new hotel rooms, and provide jobs that will attract and retain talented new residents. We believe any comprehensive vision for the city’s future must welcome and embrace our locally-owned independent businesses, and value our community’s merchants, artists and entrepreneurs. That for us is a real golden age.
Kristen Smith, president, Portland Buy Local
Published in the New York Times
Re “The Myth of Main Street” (Sunday Review, April 9). Louis Hyman says, “Main Street requires shoppers who don’t really care about low prices.” In truth, independent businesses depend on people wise enough to distinguish between price and value. Value isn’t merely cheapness, but a combination of cost, service, intangibles, and (for retail goods) product quality and durability. People’s desire to bring back Main Streets is, in part, a growing recognition that craftsmanship and the personal relationships fostered by doing business in our own community are valuable things.
Even Mr. Hyman’s claims of chain superiority on price are too broad, as national buying cooperatives like IGA and Unified Grocers (for supermarkets) or Ace, True Value and Do It Best (for hardware) now enable independent businesses to compete against the largest chains in many sectors.
Far from being a relic, Main Streets and community-rooted businesses will endure long after most of today’s chains have been forgotten.
Jeff Milchen, Bozeman Mont
The writer is a co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance.
Note the collection of several responses to the aforementioned article in the NY Times offer a great sampling for both substance and the conciseness/style that will maximize your odds of being published among 1000+ letter submitted daily to the largest national dailies. Other AMIBA letters published in NY Times: Helping Local Businesses, What’s ‘Pro-Business’?, WalMart and Sustainable Business.