“We should write an op-ed.” Those five words are a favorite phrase of elected officials, candidates and business leaders.
While op-eds can be useful as a tactic in a larger strategy, too many leaders have made it the strategy. In the process, time and resources are spent drafting, editing and shopping the piece whose chances of publication continue to drop. Op-eds have become less and less effective in moving public opinion and marshalling people to engage in the legislative and electoral process resulting in lasting change. Here’s why:
Bad math: The fundamental math of op-eds puts the tactic on the losing side. Fewer outlets publish them as submissions have increased and newsprint space dries up. Not only have local and regional news outlets declined in number, fewer and fewer of the publications that have survived actually publish op-eds anymore.
The Capitol Hill publication Roll Call stopped years ago. So did TIME magazine. POLITICO threw out its old op-ed page and instead now turns to long-form essays from a limited group of established writers. As an editor at one of the top papers in the United States told me last fall, the amount of submissions tripled once COVID-19 hit.
Fractured media landscape: Even as newspapers find their footing with subscription models, their numbers remain historically low.
Product of previous media consumption habits: The most consumed media today are not op-eds. You never hear about an op-ed going viral. The message needs to fit the contours of today’s media, not the other way around.
While op-eds do have there place, here are some options and examples of better ways to make your argument and have an impact:
1) Self publish: When an op-ed is published, it will get eyeballs. But I’m not convinced the same can’t be accomplished by self publishing and using email (which remains one of the most effective digital tools 30 years later) to distribute an argument. Sending your well-written piece directly to your key contacts, influencers and media will get just as much engagement, if not more.
2) Build your argument on social media first: When I was in the U.S. Senate, we challenged ourselves to write the quote first for Twitter and then put it in the press release. It was a helpful exercise to be economical with words while making sure the message worked in all mediums.
With journalists, academics and thought leaders on Twitter, laying out a convincing argument in a thread has proven to be effective for many.
3) Invest in visual media: If a picture (or video) is worth a thousand words, it can probably make for a good op-ed substitute.
The Ohio Department of Public Health produced one of the best public education videos during COVID-19 to simply and powerfully show why social distancing works. Ping pong balls were set on top of live mouse traps, safe at the moment. But then one ball is dropped from above. A second later, all the mouse traps go off and the balls are crushed.
The department could have had its top doctor write an op-ed, citing studies and data on why social distancing works (for the record, it does). But this met people where they are, engaging them on a rational and emotional basis. In the end, it ricocheted across the internet, racking up hundreds of thousands of views.
Op-eds and columns will still be important at times to explain complex issues. But in today’s media landscape that allows for creativity, “we should write an op-ed,” should become the last thing said, not the first.
This article was written by Matthew Lehner. A veteran campaign operative, Capitol Hill staffer and Obama appointee, Matthew leads Culloton + Bauer Luce’s Washington office specializing in crisis communications, issue advocacy and political campaigns.