For years now, colleagues and clients alike have asked me numerous questions—umpteen, actually—about op-ed pieces. Now, as a public service and purely on a pro bono basis, I’ve boiled it all down to the top 12 questions. Here you go:
Why should we invest our valuable time, ever-challenged energy and hard-earned expertise in an op-ed?
Maybe you should, but then again, maybe you should skip it. The first question to be asked is: do we have the makings of a publishable op-ed here? Sometimes the answer is yes, other times no. If the answer is no, your idea may be better off turned into a press release or blog post for a company website, or a deleted email. Most frequently the answer is maybe.
What basic elements does an op-ed need to be good?
The gist: a timely issue that’s vital for a client to address to a particular target audience; a point of view and insight that’s either original, unusual, surprising or provocative; the demonstrable authority, credibility and experience required to make a persuasive case (and perhaps a personal connection to the topic at hand in the bargain); an argument that’s based on irrefutable fact, impeccable logic and immaculate research to support your claims; and a call to action that offers specifics enough to be profoundly rousing. New, proprietary research never hurts either, nor for that matter does marquee value (as in a Warren Buffett byline).
Who actually writes the op-ed?
You can, if you want. But so can qualified staff. We can then go over your draft or you can go over ours. It’s always a tag-team proposition.
What’s needed for you to do a draft yourself?
A general sense of direction at the very least, as in a well-defined issue, not to mention a clear-cut point of view and some essential background. In the best of scenarios, your PR folks also have the opportunity to have a conversation with the author, 15 to 30 minutes long, about the shape the piece should take and the voice it should adopt.
How long does it take to package a serviceable or even excellent op-ed?
Some takes days, others weeks or even months. It depends on the circumstances. If a client hands you a strong draft right from the get-go, needing only a quick polish or nothing at all, that’s a major advantage, saving a lot of time. But that happens about once or twice a year.
Why on earth would an op-ed ever take weeks or months?
The client approval process can be sluggish. The more people involved in the editing and decision-making, the longer it all tends to take. Sometimes there’s a highly legitimate rationale for such protocols. After all, inaccuracies have to be corrected and the right voice has to be captured. But other times it’s like trying to sprint barefoot through peanut butter.
What are the biggest obstacles you encounter collaborating on an op-ed with clients?
They are legion. Lack of direction, information, big-picture insight, client consensus and call to action. A dusty concept. An it’s-all-about-me attitude that spells overbearing attempts at branding. The too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen syndrome. Cold feet about speaking out forcefully in public.
What are the odds that the op-ed we produce together will get published?
Good, provided it’s good. It all depends on its merits and whether you’re aiming for a top-tier publication, a local daily or a trade. If the piece meets most or all of the key criteria laid out above, the chances are 50-50 or better. But nothing is ever guaranteed.
What happens once you submit a piece to a publication?
You await a response. A yes usually comes within 24 hours. A no may take a few days. Opinion editors usually answer within three or four business days. Some editors are unresponsive until and unless pinged. Hourly check-ins with your agency are ill-advised.
Can you submit your op-ed to more than one publication at a time?
You can, but it’s bad manners. Editors operate on an assumption of exclusivity. The likelihood of two editors accepting the same piece is slim. But if you get a yes from two different publications, you’re going to have to withdraw it from one, and that’s going to leave an editor with whom you will never again be on speaking terms.
How much do editors edit an accepted piece?
Generally little. In my experience, editors accept pieces in the first place only if they’re close to perfect. But sometimes an editor suggests clarifying a point with a sentence of explanation, or some such. Any edits that editors make are usually subject to review by and approval from the author.
What’s so terrific about op-eds anyway?
A lot. They give you a chance to have your say, in exactly your own words, unfiltered by a reporter. They’re democracy in action, the First Amendment at its best.
Bob Brody is a public-relations consultant, formerly of Weber Shandwick, who specializes in op-eds. He’s collaborated with clients on op-eds that have appeared everywhere from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to The Harvard Business Review, Modern Healthcare and The Trenton Times.