The Power of the Op-Ed

Op-eds – named because they typically appear in newspapers “opposite the editorial page” – got their start when New York Times editor John B. Oakes created the concept in 1970. More than 50 years later, they have become an increasingly popular public relations tactic. And for good reason. Editorial pages are one of the most read sections of a paper (print or online), so exposure is high​ and the opportunity to reach key influencers is even higher.

Many outside of the public relations profession may be surprised to learn that op-eds are often ghostwritten by professional writers on behalf of CEOs or senior executives who may not have the time or skillset needed to draft a contributed article. This can sometimes spark controversy because, by design, op-eds are supposed to reflect the honest and uninfluenced opinion of the author. Their credibility depends on it.

Further complicating the op-ed landscape is the presence of paid placements whose content and format mimic opinion pieces. Herb Schmertz pioneered the use of company-written “advertorials” during the energy shortages of the 1970s when Mobil Oil (now Exxon Mobil) paid The New York Times to run the company’s views in essay form. Today, it’s increasingly common for organizations across every industry to pay publications thousands of dollars to publish their content. However, unlike those original pieces by Mobil today’s paid content can sometimes be overly loaded with marketing messages and not truly engaging content.

Writing and placing an op-ed is easier said than done. Most papers look for ones that:

  • Cover topics that have not already appeared in their publication.
  • Run counter to editorial opinion or conventional wisdom. But that doesn’t mean authors are off the hook for accurate and relevant content.
  • Have a strong, fact-based argument tied to the news cycle.
  • Are built on solid research with primary and secondary sources.
  • Appeal to the paper’s specific audience, which means knowing exactly who that is before writing or submitting an article.
  • Will be exclusive. Papers also check if the writer has any professional or financial interest in the subject the op-ed is focused on, which is not always a deal breaker but matters.

The average op-ed runs about 650 words but can reach more than 1,200 depending on the publication. Editors reserve the right to edit opinion pieces for length and clarity, write the headline and add any pictures or illustrations deemed appropriate. However, authors almost always have an opportunity to see the final product before it’s published.

So how do you write a successful op-ed? Following these guidelines will give you a better chance of being accepted and receiving minimal edits:

  1. Start with a longer piece, then edit it down. Tap another reader to determine what should stay and what should go.
  2. Get to your topic and argument quickly. Make a strong case for its relevance and importance to the reader. Use a provocative question, strong claim, surprising fact or astute observation to hook your readers from the start.
  3. State the facts and provide rigorous evidence for your position.
  4. Write declarative sentences and use the active voice. Avoid equivocation and project conviction.
  5. Anticipate the strongest counterargument and address it. Make a good case for alternative opinions but a better case for your position. If you are writing about a problem, propose ways to fix it.
  6. Keep sentences short and words simple. Avoid technical jargon, sophisticated language and cliches. Remember that even the New York Times is written at a seventh grade reading level!
  7. End decisively and link back to your opening proposition. Pull your evidence and argument together in your final line. Include a call to action for the reader.
  8. Use a distinct and consistent “voice” throughout the piece. Be authoritative, urgent, humorous (if appropriate) or informed – but pick one. Never use extreme language or rant.

Op-eds have been a staple in public relations for decades and they continue to offer great value to companies that want to share their perspective on issues of the day and build brand awareness. After all, the real estate a contributed article takes up in a paper (or on the computer screen) is much greater than most paid ads. Writing and successfully publishing a great op-ed takes time and practice but it’s well worth the investment.

This blog was based on a lecture given by Bliss Senior Vice President and New York University Adjunct Professor Ken Kerrigan.

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