by Cynthia Moffett
If you are not familiar with newspaper op-eds and how they can be a meaningful way to share your message, you are not alone. As my associate Matt Reed (a former journalist) can tell you, traditional op-ed pages have become an endangered species. As newspapers work with leaner teams and less ink, and place more focus on their digital counterparts, the publication of op-eds is often placed on the back burner – and the same is true among communication professionals as they consider PR tactics, as targeted op-eds don’t always make it into their plans.
However, science tells us that op-eds work. According to a study conducted by Yale University, op-eds are a cost-effective way to influence people’s views. The researchers estimated that an op-ed costs from about 50 cents to $3 per mind changed.
Here, we’ll dive into what an op-ed is and how being strategic in its execution may be key to influencing your target audience.
What Even is an Op-ed?
If you don’t read the newspaper or work in communications, you may not know what an op-ed is, so let’s start with the basics. The acronym “op-ed” stands for “opposite the editorial page” or “opinions and editorials page.” It is pretty self-explanatory: an op-ed is an opinion piece in which the views or opinions of the author do not reflect those of the publication or its board. You may also see them moonlighting under the name “guest column.”
Op-eds vs. the Other Guys
While this may seem like an outdated tool to those raised in the digital era of media, op-eds still hold an important place in the toolbox of your public relations strategy. They allow you to share viewpoints that are central to your organization, in your own words. Through op-eds, you get to tell your own story.
But, when should you choose an op-ed over or in addition to other typical PR tactics such as news releases or story pitching? Op-eds are extra powerful when you are looking to shine a light on misconceptions, sway public opinion or educate the masses on topics or issues that are vital to your organization’s mission. Op-eds allow you to express verbatim your opinion and passion, building credibility and positioning you as a thought leader in your space.
Of course, you can (and should) share your position through owned channels such as your blog or email campaigns, but the fact that op-eds and guest columns are selected and published by a third party gives them more clout and weight. Even if a news outlet does not necessarily agree with your stance, they respected it enough to include it.
Just as is the case with news releases, story pitches and any other tactics in your public relations strategy, you must be considerate with the development of your op-ed. The way you write and structure your piece can well determine whether or not it is ever placed.
While there are no hard and fast rules for development, here are some considerations to keep top of mind to ensure you have the best odds for placement:
- Clearly State the Importance of Your Topic.
If you are taking the time to write an op-ed, chances are you are very passionate about the topic of choice. However, the same may not be true for your readership. You must make it very clear not only why this subject matters to you, but why it should matter to the reader. Consider the audience you are trying to reach. How can you connect this to their lives? Is there a current event or news hook you can build upon? Once you identify this tie in, you will have their interest.
- Explain Why the Author is Credible.
As I said earlier, one of the biggest pros of utilizing the op-ed is to share your expertise on a topic and, potentially, sway public opinion. In order to do this, your audience needs to know why you are qualified to speak to the issue or subject at hand. Now, don’t take this too far. You do not need to include an entire biography, but you should include your title and/or the organization you represent, as well as some brief context. Don’t be shy. The entire point of an op-ed is to have an opinion and be accountable for your expressed position. Show your audience that you are authoritative on your topic and stand strong on it.
- Cut Straight to the Chase.
This one is possibly the most important to keep in mind when it comes to structuring your op-ed. No matter how compelling your content is, you need to keep it short and sweet. This is important for a couple different reasons. For one, you want to be concise to ensure you are holding the audience’s attention long enough to reach your call to action (more on that in a bit.) Also, newspapers will not run op-eds over a certain length. Each outlet typically has guidelines on their website on the specific length, but most op-eds are required to be around 500 words with the exception of online guest columns which may be a bit longer. Getting straight to the “why” behind your writing is essential when authoring your op-ed.
- Back Up Your Opinion.
While the point of op-eds and guest columns is to express an opinion, this does not mean you can throw facts and research to the wind. In fact, evidence needs to live at the core and foundation of your piece. This is crucial, as not every person who comes across your op-ed will have the same stance as you. Having solid logic and evidence as the building blocks of your argument will allow you to remain credible even when others disagree.
- Include a Call to Action.
Finally, you need to include a call to action. This is a clear invitation for your readers to do something. This goes back to that “why” behind this piece. Think about the goal you are trying to achieve with this op-ed or guest column. Do you want to change an opinion? Do you want to clear up common misconceptions? Do you want them to leave fired up and passionate about this subject? Once you determine want you want your audience to do, outline how to explicitly communicate this. Be brief, specific and use strong verbs in order to be direct and have the best chances for your desired outcome.
If you have a topic that you are passionate about and are looking to influence your audience, an op-ed or guest column is the way to go. Stand firm on your opinion and remember, the op-ed is not dead. Happy writing!