Perhaps you’ve been there. Your chief executive says, “Say, how about whipping out an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal?”
“Er, on what topic?” you ask.
“Oh, I don’t know. Something about the warp speed of change we’re facing in the industry, how we should embrace it and not fear it.”
Stop right there.
You know this, but your bigwig needs to hear it. If you want to land a piece in the Journal—or even The Canton Repository—start with a compelling argument. Op-ed page editors can tell you all about the panic-attack-inducing mush that clogs their inboxes every day.
Here’s how to stand out. The following tips apply equally to online publications such as Slate or The Huffington Post.
Apply the red-face test.
What gets your leader’s blood pressure up? What makes him or her growl, There oughta be a law! Journalism-including opinion writing-thrives on conflict, not stasis. If your poobah’s pulse doesn’t race when he or she discusses a topic, why should an editor’s?
“If a CEO is unwilling by nature to stick his or her neck out, then it’s not worth the trouble,” says Fraser P. Seitel, managing partner of Emerald Partners and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation.” “It’s got to express something that people feel strongly about.”
Peg your topic to today’s news, says Michael Long, director of writing for the School of Continuing Studies, Department of Public Relations and Corporate Communications at Georgetown University.
This shows that you’re not just pawning off marketing copy. “The editor needs to see that it’s part of the public conversation already,” Long says.
Years ago I lived in the Russian Far East, and my U.S. absentee ballots never reached me until after the election. But when the 2000 Bush-Gore contest led to an uproar over ballots and hanging chads, I could peg my otherwise minor complaint to a nationwide issue. (I didn’t get my ballot! There oughta be a law!) The New York Times ran my op-ed (one of dozens I have written for newspapers worldwide).
Tell a story.
Here’s a secret: Most op-ed writers overlook the power of narrative ledes. They think they’re supposed to pontificate. But check this out:
On March 5, police officers handcuffed the hands and feet of an eight-year-old girl in an Illinois school, then hauled her to the police station. The offense? Throwing a temper tantrum.
Wow. That’s the opening to an opinion piece in Politico by Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Editors will remember a powerful story when they cull a few lucky winners from the hundreds of submissions they receive every day.
Be timely, Seitel says. Got some thoughts on the new pope? Too late. You won’t write it until the end of the day, or get it approved until Tuesday evening. The sequester? You’re later still. Write while the topic is hot.
“It’s got to be timed to the moment,” Seitel says.
Don’t write by committee.
It’s you and she, baby. Talk to the exec, then shut the door of your office and write it alone. You can’t compose an op-ed by committee, Seitel says.
Others may need to review it, but you can’t gather a task force in a conference room or you’ll end up with: “Acme Rocket-Powered Roller Skates™ Welcomes New Approaches to Trade.”
Avoid product and company promotions.
Chairman and CEO T. Boone Pickens didn’t toot the horn of BP Capital in an op-ed in Politico. He pushes a perspective: free market reforms in the energy industry. You can cheer his proposals or curse them, but his points are of national interest. Nothing irritates editors more than self-promotion.
Promote a good cause.
It must be sincere, and one your organization has genuine expertise in, as when Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates recently put their names to an op-ed on eradicating polio. There has been a vaccine for decades. Why does the disease persist? Outrageous!
The Journal granted them a big piece of real estate to discuss a health calamity. Would it have done that for a piece about SharePoint?
Think small—and be witty, pithy or offbeat.
Newspapers get plenty of 1,000-word pontifications on important topics. But how about a 500-word piece that offers a fresh perspective. There are plenty of experts who can tell you about the misery of life in North Korea, but I once sold a 524-word piece to the Times about watching North Korean television from across the border in China.
No, no, no, your bigwig says. You gotta place it in The Washington Post. I want senators to see it. But a well-placed op-ed in a less competitive regional paper might serve your cause as well. Then send it to that senator. Tell your big-egoed boss that President Barack Obama published a piece on gun violence for a Connecticut paper, rather than, say, USA Today.
Do you have a plant in Tennessee or Ohio? Are you importing containers through Tacoma, Wash., or Long Beach, Calif.? Try arguing your case in papers from those cities, with local examples. You can even “syndicate yourself” by placing it in several non-competing markets—something the Times and Journal won’t let you do.