How to Write a Letter to the Editor that Gets Published and Read – Part Two – Letter to the Editor Tips from an Expert (Case Study)

Mila Rosenthal, Amnesty International USA’s (AISUA) Director, Business and Human Rights Program, is a Letter to the Editor expert. She has succeeded in placing letters in national publications vital to AIUSA’s advocacy efforts. Today, we look at two letters published by Rosenthal — one in the New York Times and the second in the Christian Science Monitor. Read on to review these strong examples of concise, pointed Letters to the Editor, and Rosenthal’s tips for your own efforts.

  • Letter One: Explaining Wal-Mart’s Global Mistreatment of Workers
    One of Rosenthal’s most powerful missives was to the editor of the New York Times after reading reporter Cathy Horyn’s tongue-in-cheek article on shopping at Wal-Mart. Rosenthal took the opportunity to build on Horyn’s passing mention that her style bargains may have come at the expense of child laborers. At a time when Wal-Mart’s unfair labor practices were relatively unknown, Rosenthal’s letter raised the broader advocacy point about Wal-Mart’s poor treatment of its workforce worldwide. Here goes:

    Shopping at Wal-Mart
    (NYT, September 2, 2002)

    To the Editor:

    “Unabashed Wal-Mart Shopper Speaks” urges the company to be more concerned about child labor in the countries where its products are made.

    In the United States, Wal-Mart has helped drive down wages in the retail sector and has faced numerous lawsuits by employees alleging anti-union policies, sex discrimination and unfair wage practices. As for its production overseas, Wal-Mart’s policy of sourcing from the cheapest, least regulated labor markets has spurred the global growth of sweatshops.

    Some other companies, as a result of targeting by activists, have at least sought to investigate working conditions. Wal-Mart has refused even to disclose the locations of the factories it uses, let alone support any independent monitoring or investigation of those factories.

    Mila Rosenthal
    New York, Aug. 28, 2002

    The writer is director, Workers Rights Program, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

    The letter’s impact has been “positive but only anecdotal,” reports Rosenthal. She recalls that “the letter did draw attention to the Lawyers Committee (her previous employer) and brought another perspective to the Times’ coverage of the workers rights issue.”

    She stresses that, “The impact of letters is seldom measurable. Your nonprofit must believe in the strategy of public advocacy to pursue writing letters. And, it’s our only opportunity for unaltered messaging.”

  • Letter Two: Clarifying a Misinterpreted Judgment on the Right to Sue Corporations for Human Rights Abuses
    Another of Rosenthal’s Letters to the Editor was motivated by national media coverage of a Supreme Court decision to uphold the core principles of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). “Because of the complicated way in which this act (enabling human rights victims to sue individuals or companies involved in the abuses) was written,” says Rosenthal, “it was widely misunderstood as a victory for corporations and a defeat for human rights.”Rosenthal sought to clarify that companies could still be sued under this act. She reviewed key national newspapers to pinpoint those that had misinterpreted the ruling, since these offered the greatest opportunity to correct the record. Her Letter to the Editor of the Christian Science Monitor confirms that victims of human rights violations can indeed sue perpetrators, be they individuals or corporations, and goes on to emphasize the importance of corporate responsibility for US multinationals.Here is Rosenthal’s letter:

    Foreign victims can still seek US justice
    (Christian Science Monitor, July 12, 2004)

    Regarding your June 30 article “Ruling Makes it Harder for Foreigners to Sue in US Courts”: Rebuffing efforts by the Bush administration and business associations, the Supreme Court recently upheld the core principles of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). Rather than viewing the decision as a “setback for international human rights activists” and a “victory for US-based corporations,” the decision should be seen as a victory for victims of human rights abuses seeking justice in US courts.

    The Supreme Court ruled that the ATCA still allows foreign victims of serious human rights violations – including torture, genocide, and slavery – to sue individuals or companies involved in the abuses.

    US multinationals have an important role to play abroad in upholding international standards through developing and implementing comprehensive global human rights policies for businesses. No US company should behave worse abroad than it does at home.

    Mila Rosenthal
    New York
    Director, Business, Environment and Human Rights Program, Amnesty International USA

Rosenthal’s Tips for Letter to the Editor Success

Clearly, Rosenthal is a letter to the editor artist. Here are some of the tips she shared in a recent interview.

  • Identify which type of Letter to the Editor you are writing. Rosenthal distinguishes between the letter to correct the public record and the advocacy letter, crafted to get your message out on an issue. The “correction” letter is motivated by your nonprofit being misquoted or an issue area in which you work is misrepresented. This letter is pretty straightforward. Follow the basic guidelines outlined in Part One of the How to write a Letter to the Editor series. The advocacy letter, of which Rosenthal’s letters on Wal-Mart workers and the Supreme Court decision are great examples, is motivated by your interest in getting your organization’s perspective out on an issue recently covered, or a broader, yet connected issue.Rosenthal offers the following tips:
    • Focus on enhancing or spinning off article or editorial content. Make sure to reference a published article as your jumping off point.
    • Position the publication as your ally. Attack the problem or the villain, rather than the publication. Don’t use phrases such as “you failed to mention” or “you missed the point.”
    • Begin your letter by acknowledging the reporter for covering an important topic.
  • Ensure that your letter is reviewed by your organization’s media expert. Rosenthal stresses the importance of the right program (in a large organization) submitting its Letter to the Editor, on the right issue at the right time. “Remember that an organization is likely to have a letter placed only once or twice a year,” she cautions. Rosenthal initiates the process by pitching her letter concept to AIUSA’s media department, framing it with an explanation of the motivating article and why she wants to respond. When given the okay, she drafts the letter which is then edited by the media relations staff.End product? Strong and consistent organizational voice and a targeted Letter to the Editor campaign over the course of a year and the course of coverage of relevant issues.
  • Encourage local offices or activists to submit Letters to the Editor in local papers. National or international organizations have a lot to gain from local and regional coverage, says Rosenthal. Local media will surely reach key audiences.AIUSA equips its local activists to do so with an organizational media training kit supplemented by issue-specific kits. “Many people lack confidence when dealing with the media,” says Rosenthal, noting limited success to date with this strategy. “But our student activists, who tend to be bolder, have been very successful in placing Letters to the Editor.”
  • Self-publish your nonprofit’s Letter to the Editor. Rosenthal makes the most of the content in her Letters to the Editor. Whether or not they are published in target vehicles, they’re broadly re-purposed broadly — on the organizational website, the volunteer activist listserv (who then push content out to their networks), and in online information clearinghouses used by activists, investors, government officials and others in the field of business and human rights.

I’m looking forward to Rosenthal’s next published Letter to the Editor. I know it will be a powerful one. Thanks Mila.