An easy and powerful way to generate support for, and awareness of, your volunteer group or rail-trail project is by effective outreach tools.
For those of you who haven't had much experience dealing with your local newspapers or media outlets, never fear—it really isn't as tricky as you might think. There are a few simple steps you can take to increase the likelihood of getting some good press and spreading the word about fundraising and volunteer events, or just to raise public awareness about your trail or project.
A Fact Sheet. Worth its weight in gold
Journalists and editors appreciate not having to go rummaging through pages of documents to find the simple what, when, where, why and who. Trust me, I used to be one. Make the basic information that would be included in a story about the trail project very easy to find.
- Where is the trail/corridor?
- What is the name of the friends group?
- What is the name/brief history of the rail corridor?
- How long is the trail/project?
- If it's a project, what is the status? Awaiting funding/land acquisition? And what is the end goal?
- What is the immediate purpose of the friends group? Fundraising? Maintenance? Signatures?
- A contact email/phone number to someone who can expand on these basics, and someone who can be quoted in a news story. It is great if you can channel all inquiries through one person. Make sure it is someone who answers their phone and email, and returns calls.
All of this information can be produced in a one-page PDF (or two at max). Doesn't have to be fancy, just clear and simple—bullet points are great and digestible. Most journalists/editors will want to write the copy themselves, but they want the essential info close at hand.
Photos, photos, photos!
Good photos are almost as important to getting a story published as the story itself. So it's important to put some effort into taking nice pics. Shots of empty space are not always compelling and don't suggest that there is much human interest and activity around the project/trail, so try to organize photos with people and faces in them. Get someone you know on a bicycle, a mom with a stroller, a guy with a dog on the trail, and the next time you have a nice, sunny day, get a handful of you together out at the site and shoot 20 or 30 different photos. In one afternoon, you'll have a diverse photo library.
- An easy way to have photos available for the media is through a Flickr page. It's free and easy to use.
- Shoot and upload the photos at the highest resolution possible on your camera. Look for a setting that captures 1MB and above; 2MB should satisfy most media outlets, and be mindful that small image sizes often can't be used in print.
- When you're setting up your account, there'll be a section about License Settings. Be sure NOT to choose All Rights Reserved, as this will make it harder for papers to download the pics at a size they can use. Whenever you are given the option, select 'Public' for who can see your pics.
- Include the URL to your Flickr page on your fact sheet. "For downloadable images from the ** Trail, visit our Flickr page at www.flickr.com/yourgroup"
- If you don't want to set up a Flickr page, send pics to reporters as individual JPEGS.Do not load photos into Word Documents.
Do you have the computer illustration skills to create a basic map?
A map—even a basic route sketch—is always a great graphic for papers to use, particularly in online editions. Save as a JPEG or PDF at between 1 and 2MB. Avoid lots of similar colors or shades, as the rendering might not be clear on a black and white page.
All of these steps should be in place BEFORE you reach out to media to promote an event. And be sure to send the fact sheet, some photos and map (if you have one) every time you send anything to your local press. It will be handy background, sidebar or filler for the newspaper to help with layout.
Get it online
The most convenient way for you to present this information is with a very simple website or blog. As the Internet has become the most common search tool, it's vital to have a presence online so others can find your trail and contact you. Having a website or blog also gives you an easy place to direct folks for additional information or photos.
For those of you who aren't very techy, creating a website or blog doesn't have to be as complicated as it sounds. Here are two simple, effective and free platforms we've seen trail groups use to promote their efforts widely and successfully.
WordPress. WordPress.org is a site where you can create your own blog. Although blogs are often made to scroll regularly updated posts, by including the pertinent information in the About You sections, you can make clear and available the basic info about your trail. It's also a great platform to keep people engaged with new photos and news about the latest happenings. Better yet, Wordpress has a bunch of designs you can choose from to make your site look like it was designed by a master! The Greenbrier River Trail Association's page is a great example of what you can do with Wordpress.
Google Sites. When building my own Google Site a few years ago, I found it a little more complicated than a basic blog like WordPress. But it is very flexible, and you can make your site as simple or as complex as you like. Google also offers handy functions for having members communicate with each other. Friends of the Wayland Rail Trail in Massachusetts has made their Google Site into an amazingly thorough resource. Check out their Documents library—probably more info than most journalists will ever need, but a great way for the group to organize and share their resources.
I forgot to mention it earlier, but an easy and quick way to get info about your project online is with a good ol' Facebook page. Creating a page for a Company, Organization or Institution is slightly different from creating a personal page ('Rails-to-Trails Conservancy,' as opposed to 'Jake Lynch'), but the page will allow you to enter basic info in the About section, add libraries of photos, and include contact information. The folks behind the Firefly Trail near Athens, Ga., have put together a nice facebook page, which includes a tab for events. The handy thing about Facebook is that nearly everyone is on it, so it's easy to connect with people in your community, and to have them comment and interact with you on your page.
Stay tuned for the next 'How To'—How to get your local news media to do a story on your trail project.