Add your voice to our December Thunderclap for the new Rainwater Book
How to write complaint letters on sustainability issues
The media still sources stories from the traditional method of members of the public writing a letter of complaint about something witnessed, seen or known about. It's a useful additional tool in the activist's arsenal and handled well, can encourage a reporter or blogger to follow up your story in greater detail, helping you to spread the word. This article provides some ideas on approaching writing such a letter.
- Decide how you'll write the letter. You can either email a letter or print one out/hand write one and send it by mail. Do whichever is easiest for you and that you think will have more impact. Sometimes the receipt of a handwritten letter in a day where everything is printed can stand out and make the reader want to keep reading, especially since it's a more personal connection. However, everyone is used to emails, so don't feel you can't use the email medium.
- Choose the right person to complain to. If you want publicity to help your own campaign, choose a media outlet likely to be interested in pursuing the story. You'll need to know which media has an interest in sustainability issues and which isn't as interested. And these days, realize that the idea of "media" is much broader than every before––don't neglect blogs and websites as another possible source of publication. Some bloggers or site owners will be happy to print a complaint letter with their own opinion and response added and a call to action attached to it.
- Ensure that the issue is newsworthy, relevant and backed up by facts. If you have digital images to help document your complaint, by all means print them off or attach them as part of the letter. Also attach any relevant documentation that supports your complaint.
- As part of deciding whether the complaint is newsworthy, consider whether you're the only person objecting to what is happening or whether others are also complaining about it. Find out if other people feel the way that you do; the more who do, the more likely your piece will have resonance for the journalist or editor.
- Keep your letter short and keep to the point. State the issue clearly, state why it is a problem in the case you're raising and give facts about location, persons involved, what is happening, etc.
- Do not make up things or say nasty or sarcastic things about people. The publisher will be concerned about defamation and won't publish your complaint if it could be defamatory. The angrier and more unrealistic your letter comes across as, the less likely it'll be published. There is nothing wrong with showing your passion but everything wrong with abusing people in the process!
- Be balanced. Can you find something encouraging and positive to include as part of the letter? Showing a balanced approach will often encourage publication because it shows that you're open to discussion rather than simply pushing one side of the story. Sometimes encouragement in a complaint letter can give moral courage to those you support to keep working to fix the challenges you're complaining about.
- End the letter asking that something be done about the matter of concern and invite readers to comment.
- Wait. If you don't hear anything back in a few days, call or email the publisher to ask for follow-up to your letter. Be polite and don't get angry if you learn that there is no intention to publish it; you have the internet at your disposal if you wish to pursue its publication further. However, it's always a good idea to ask why the publisher doesn't want to publish it, as this may help you to improve the letter, and perhaps the framing of the problem as you see it. Feedback is good!