The Very Rev'd Dr Peter Catt giving an ABC radio interview

What is a media alert and why should I use one?

I recall writing my first media alert while volunteering as a refugee rights advocate many years ago. I was helping to organise a live 10-hour reading of the so-called “Nauru Files” outside the (then) Department of Immigration and Border Protection, along with Peter Branjerdporn from our Justice Unit, a number of local Anglican clergy and parishioners, and like-minded community groups. The vigil event was organised very quickly because we needed to be responsive to the call for nation-wide readings following the “Nauru Files” whistleblowing. There was no time to put together a full media release and (of course) no photos of the yet-to-be-held vigil. We knew that the vigil gathering was of public interest and so we decided on a media alert instead.

Media alerts are one-page documents sent to the media to provide a comprehensive snapshot of the essential details of a significant forthcoming event, initiative or announcement. Compared to media releases, which include a full news story, along with images, captions and contact details, media alerts are very quick and easy to put together and are very effective at getting the attention of the media, so the “story” can be covered in person or via radio interview.

Journalists and radio producers are very busy, so it’s important to consider:

  • The contents of your media alert.
  • How to format and send your media alert.
  • How to get a journalist’s or producer’s attention (they are the “audience” of the alert, so bearing in mind their busyness and needs is paramount).
  • The news worthiness of your initiative.

Media alert contents

The most effective media alerts are clear, concise, accurate and communicate the news worthiness of the potential story.

Carefully crafted media alert subject lines are critical

Journalists and producers receive scores to hundreds of media releases and media alerts in their Inboxes daily. So it’s important to get the recipients’ attention with a well-written email subject line.

Effective subject lines are typically:

  • Brief (if possible, aim for 45 characters, which is approximately nine words, so that the full subject line can be seen before the recipient opens the email – if the subject line needs to be longer, ensure that the most news worthy part of your subject line is written first).
  • Attention-getting (ensure that your subject line communicates the news worthiness of your initiative).
  • Clear and relevant (ensure that the subject line reflects the broader “angle” of your alert).
  • Inclusive of date/time information (include the date and start and end times in an abbreviated format to save on subject line characters).

When the “Nauru Files” were leaked to The Guardian Australia in 2016 by a trauma psychologist who had worked in the Nauru detention camp, it was front-page news around the country and internationally. So it was easy to communicate the vigil’s news worthiness and other important details with the following subject line:

“Nauru Files: complete reading – Monday 12/9/16 8am to 6pm outside Department of Immigration, Brisbane”

Note that “Nauru Files” are the first words in the subject line; followed by the two-word summary, “complete reading”, to explain what the event is about; followed by the date and time information in an abbreviated format; and, then followed by the naming of a relevant and news worthy location.

Craft a clear and concise headline

While the email you send will naturally contain a subject line, it’s a good idea to include a headline at the top of the media alert PDF that you attach to the email because the PDF will not include the subject line. For consistency, also insert the headline into the email body text – above the introductory para.

When crafting your headline:

  • Prioritise concise and clear (to get the journalist’s or producer’s attention) over catchy and clever, although if you can achieve all four and it’s appropriate to be “catchy,” go for it.
  • The journalist or sub-editor will likely write their own headline, so expect your headline to change (e.g. a given publication may tweak the “angle” of the story so it is appropriate for their particular target audience, as per The Catholic Leader example below).
  • Choose a headline that reflects what you write about, focusing on the most news worthy “angle”.
  • Aim for approximately 45 to 70 characters (in the age of digital media, headlines are longer than they used to be because there are less copy space restrictions compared to print and because the more “key words” there are in a headline, the better the search engine optimisation).

Here is a sample headline, which prioritises clear and concise over catchy and clever (due to the serious nature of the vigil event, using a catchy “play on words” or other pun would have been inappropriate):

“Nauru Files: complete reading by community members outside Brisbane’s Department of Immigration”

The following take on my original headline shows the audience-tailored angle taken by local Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Leader:

“Catholics were reading the leaked Nauru Files in public when the Senate proposed an Inquiry into the document”

A media alert’s introductory paragraph needs to be brief and succinct

The best introductory paragraphs are very short and communicate a newsworthy “angle” and (if relevant) your position or perspective.

To ensure the effectiveness of your media alert’s introductory paragraph, ensure that you:

  • Keep the text brief (two sentences maximum).
  • Begin the email with a simple professional greeting, such as “Good morning”.
  • Communicate a news worthy “angle”.
  • Make clear your perspective/position, if relevant, so the journalist or producer is immediately aware, without needing to infer, what position you are coming from.

The body of your media alert needs to cover the “what, who, when, where and why”

Media alerts typically contain the following “what, who, when, where and why” essential details:

  1. Explain what is happening in two very concise sentences.
  2. Note the title, full name, role/position and organisation (as applicable) of any community leaders or well-known people who are speaking at or leading the event. Also very briefly note who is organising the event and if any very prominent groups are involved.
  3. Include the date and the start and end times, so journalists know when to turn up or by when to hold the radio interview.
  4. Be very clear where the event is happening, noting any details that will make you easier to find, including full address, building name and level number. Include a Google Maps link. If parking is available, note parking information.
  5. In a single sentence explain why the event/initiative is happening, noting the purpose.
  6. In addition to the “who” section above (and connected to it), include separate media contacts sections outlining the title, full name, organisation (if applicable), role/position, email address and mobile number of the:
  • Media liaison person (this may be the primary point of contact for the media, who may or may not also be a media spokesperson).
  • At least one to two media spokespersons, starting with the most news worthy.

In journalism, the “Five ‘W’s” are “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” and “Why.” This is one of the first things you learn in “News Writing 101”.

Insert the “what, who, when, where and why” essential details into a very simple table like this one, which I have adapted from my original “Nauru Files” vigil media alert:

What Brisbane community members will gather to read the complete “Nauru Files” (over 2,000 leaked government incident reports) over a 10-hour period.
Who The event is being organised by St John’s Anglican Cathedral and ecumenical Christian group, Love Makes A Way, and Mums 4 Refugees.

A number of high-profile community leaders will be participating in the live reading, including The Rev’d [insert full name] from St John’s Anglican Cathedral and The Rev’d [insert full name] from The Catholic Parish of [insert name], who will be available for interviews and photographs.

Where Outside Department of Immigration and Border Protection,  299 Adelaide St Brisbane
When Monday 12 September 2016: 8am to 6pm
Why The live reading is taking place to highlight the human rights abuses occurring in our offshore detention centres and to express our solidarity with those being harmed by government policies, especially children who are represented in more than 50 per cent of the reports.
Media liaison person The media liaison person is:

[Insert title], [insert full name], [insert role] from [insert organisation name] may be contacted via [insert mobile phone number] or [insert email address]
Media spokespersons The media spokespersons are:

[Insert title], [insert full name], [insert role] from [insert organisation name] may be contacted via [insert mobile phone number] or [insert email address]


[Insert title], [insert full name], [insert role] from [insert organisation name] may be contacted via [insert mobile phone number] or [insert email address]

How to format and send your media alert

Make the media alert easier for journalists and producers to read by:

  • Including the above “what, who, when, where and why” essential information in a table (as per the sample above) so it can be read at a glance.
  • Inserting the table into a document exported into a PDF email attachment (in case the journalist needs to print it and to show branding bona fides), as well as into the body of an email for easy reading and reference.
  • Using a clean and easy-to-read font type (san serif is best), colour and size.

When sending your media alert, ensure that you:

  • Email it from a professional, rather than personal or personal-looking, email address.
  • “Bcc” the list of recipients, inserting your own email address in the “To” and “Cc” email fields.
  • Note any “bounced” email replies you receive stating that the recipient has left the role and immediately update your media contact list (this is a very good habit to get into).

Ensure your email signature details are complete and current

Including a complete and current email signature is important because it:

  • Confirms the legitimacy of your media alert.
  • Makes it easier for the journalist or producer to contact you if your phone number is made available.
  • Makes it easier for the journalist or producer to find out more about your organisation if a website address and social media channel widgets (icons linking through to your channels) are included.

Additional media alert writing tips

It’s good to keep in mind the following when writing and sending media alerts:

  • Use a media alert for major initiatives when you don’t have time to create a media release, or when photographs are critical and these won’t be available until after the event/initiative, or when you wish to line up a radio interview ahead of the event/initiative.
  • If your media alert exceeds one page of a Word doc, your alert is too long.
  • Avoid jargon, including Church jargon so your alert makes sense to the journalist/producer and so they can more easily use understandable words in their news stories (e.g. replace “fellowship time” with “an informal gathering”).
  • Only send out media alerts (and media releases) for initiatives that have significant relevance (i.e. news worthiness) beyond your faith community (if you send too many media alerts and releases that are not news worthy, a journalist may cease opening future emails you send).
  • Send your media release one to two days ahead of the event/initiative, preferably in the early morning.
  • Choose appropriate wording – use inclusive language (it communicates respect) and avoid language that may sound odd or confusing to an unchurched audience (e.g. “Passion Play”).
  • While your media contact list may contain dozens to hundreds of email addresses, follow up with a phone call to a few key publications, such as those in your local area or that may be particularly interested in the subject matter of your alert.
  • Ask someone with a good eye to proof the media alert and ensure you double check the essential information, especially date/time and location information.
  • Use a media alert template (e.g. in a Word doc or other document, which you can export into a PDF) that includes a logo, social media account details and a footer with contact details. For more information on how to receive a sample template, please see the below.
  • Post your media alert on your social media channels, tagging a few particularly relevant publications and using a few relevant hashtags (e.g. in the case of the live reading vigil, “#NauruFiles” and “#auspol” are obvious).

Summary of media alert structure

In summary, put together your media alert email in the following order:

  • Email subject line.
  • Headline.
  • Brief and simple professional greeting.
  • Very brief intro paragraph (two sentences maximum).
  • Copied and pasted table of “what, who, when, where and why” essential details.
  • Email signature.
  • Attach the branded PDF of your media alert.
  • “Bcc” the list of recipients, inserting your own email address in the “To” and “Cc” email fields, and then hit “Send”.

Compared to media releases, media alerts are very quick and easy to put together. Ever since the urgent live reading vigil that I organised the communications for six years ago, I have found media alerts to be a highly effective way of soliciting media coverage for significant events and other initiatives. It’s important for media alerts to be brief, strategically written and simply structured in order to get the attention of very busy journalists and producers.

If you would like a copy of an ACSQ-branded media alert (and media release) template that clearly and effectively show you how to structure the document, please email your full name, church name and church role to the anglican focus Editor Michelle McDonald via [email protected].

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