Using op-eds and letters to the editor to bring psychology to the table

Strategies for getting opinion pieces published

By Public Relations staff

April 12, 2012—If you or your state want to get big results when interacting with the media, think and act small. Submitting your letter to the editor or an op-ed to a more local publication or a newspaper with a smaller circulation increases your odds of getting it published, an editorial writer and panelist at an APA Practice Directorate State Leadership Conference workshop in March told attendees.

Getting your commentary published is competitive, no matter the size of the publication, said Christian Trejbal, an editorial writer at The Roanoke Times (Virginia). But there is an advantage to the smaller ones. His newspaper, which covers news in southwestern Virginia, received 436 letters to the editor submissions in October 2011 and printed 169. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported receiving about 200 submissions a day and printed only 5 percent of them.

“You do have an advantage,” Trejbal told psychologists and state psychological association executives, “You’re an expert in a certain area. You have valuable thoughts on topics such as health care reform.”

A joint workshop organized by the Council of Executives of State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Associations and the APA Practice Directorate Public Relations Office, the session brought together three communications professionals to help psychologists and state leaders understand the best strategy for getting their opinion pieces published.

Letters to the editor and op-eds are two tools that can be useful for state associations and other psychologists advocating issues. Published opinion pieces can help a psychologist expand influence on a topic or persuade readers on an issue.

Local publications have benefits when getting out messages about legislation, public education or regulation advocacy. You are reaching a targeted, local audience of leaders.

“When you ask yourself, who is the target audience? The target audience is who can get you what you want,” said Margot Friedman, a communications professional and principal of Dupont Circle Communications in Washington, D.C.

Friedman explained the rules of writing an op-ed, which is submitted commentary typically longer than a letter to the editor.

“There is no formula for writing an op-ed,” she said. “However, if you don’t believe me, here’s a formula.”

  • First paragraph – lead with your main point or argument. 

  • Use three paragraphs to back up your first paragraph. Use stories and data to sell your point. 

  • Your conclusion needs to be a call to action. What do you want readers—or lawmakers—to do?

Friedman and Trejbal were joined on the panel by Alyssa Best of the Op-Ed Project, an initiative to expand the voices of women and other underrepresented groups in print and online forums. Here are a few other recommendations they offered for helping improve the success of a published op-ed or letter to the editor: 

  • Prepare for dissent. “If you put your opinion out there, people will hate you” said Trejbal. Hate may be a powerful word, but you do open yourself up to opposition in the form of other printed op-eds, letters to the editor, or people publishing their own blog posts or websites. Consider the opposition when preparing your letter. 

  • Submit your letter from an individual, not on behalf of an organization. Trejbal said his newspaper is more apt to publish letters written by local readers, and not on behalf of entire organizations. So you’ll want your state to designate a number of psychologists to sign and send a letter to their local newspaper, rather than one psychologist or executive director to represent the entire state, provincial and territorial association (SPTA). 

  • Meet with the editorial board. Even with reduced resources and staff, Trejbal’s editorial team still takes time to meet with people and discuss issues to help shape their editorial opinions. “And when you follow up with a letter to the editor, we’ll know who you are,” he said. He cautioned, however, that they’ll be too busy to meet with you before an election. 

  • Know the publication’s submission guidelines. And stick to them. The Roanoke Times, for example, limits the word count of letters to 200 words. Trejbal said they won’t even read a letter if it’s longer. Other publications require full names, addresses and phone numbers for verification. If you want to be considered, you need to follow the guidelines. 

  • Submitting to more than one publication is a "don’t." Editors can tell when they’ve received form letters. And they have a network to confer with editors from other publications, Trejbal said. Submitting too many letters or op-eds to too many publications at one time will reduce your chances of publication. Chances are, if you don’t receive a response from an editor, that means rejection. “Don’t keep resubmitting it unless you revised it first,” Trejbal said. 

  • But don’t wait too long to try again. Some may say to wait several days before submitting elsewhere, but when you’re responding to a hot issue or current news, you can’t wait that long, Friedman said. “My experience is that if a paper isn’t interested within 48 hours, they’re probably not going to be interested after that,” she said. Call them, ask them the status. “Get to no, and move on.”