Considering an Op-Ed?

Here are Three Things You Should Know.

An op-ed is a timeless advocacy tool for getting an unfiltered message into the political and policy bloodstream. A succinct, 600- to 800-word piece can distill complex information or put an issue into compelling context. Op-eds also address that pivotal question in government relations outreach—what am I asking for? Writing that “ask” down helps clarify the key message and hone the action that someone—policymakers, the public—should take.

While “op-ed” originally was coined to mean “opposite the editorial page” (not, “opinion editorial,” as many believe), the proliferation of online sites of all sizes and stripes has vastly expanded the opportunities for placement, even as some newspapers have cut back on their ability to accept opinion pieces. At Cogent, our communications team regularly taps its collective networks of editors at outlets large and small, national and regional, right- or left-leaning, to help find great destinations for finished pieces.

Have you been considering an op-ed?

Here are three things you should know based on Cogent’s expertise:

There is a LOT of competition
The biggest outlets in journalism—New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal—receive hundreds of submissions each day, and those newspapers already devote considerable space to their own columnists. That means op-ed real estate in the most well-known outlets is precious. To crack those—or Beltway outlets like The Hill that receive hundreds of submissions in a week—it takes a combination of luck, timing, topic, luck, perspective, author, writing and, yet again, luck.

Your work will have the most chance for success—and the most competition—if it is timely and comments uniquely on the news of the day. You should strive for a counterintuitive or unexpected take based on your position, or a novel or authoritative solution to a societal or governmental problem.

Here’s a personal example that illustrates the competition. In the 2000s, I was in India just before a national election. I wrote what I thought was a solid piece that helped interpret the political situation for an American audience and sent it to the editorial page editor of a major U.S. newspaper. I received a nice note back that said, in effect, “Great piece, but we also received one on the same topic from Salman Rushdie,” perhaps the most famous author of Indian descent. It happens.
It’s not just where it goes, but what you do with it afterwards
Even though those big national newspapers aren’t regularly achievable, they aren’t always what’s best for a particular piece, either.

It’s important to think through who the right audience is for an op-ed—who are you trying to motivate, where do they live, what do they care about, what might they read—and strategize accordingly. Placement in a local paper that is read by a specific member of Congress can be a huge success. As former House Speaker Tip O’Neil famously (if not first) said, “All politics is local.” Well, all op-eds can—and often should—be local, too.

Regardless of where the op-ed is published, the most important step in the whole process is making sure the right people see the piece. That means devising a social media strategy for sharing the op-ed online, including it in a newsletter, sharing it with colleagues to promote on their channels and using it as collateral in direct outreach to policymakers.
Medium is a fine option
Since op-eds often are pegged to news events, there is an exhilarating race to place them before a news cycle closes. I’ve had many a well-written, timely and engaging piece languish on the vine when it doesn’t manage to hit the right editor at the right time.

Sometimes, we will hold that piece for another news cycle. An op-ed dealing with environment, energy or education can find new life with a new lede and a new conclusion in a month or two when relevant news or events pop up again.

But, for those that absolutely must hit right now, Medium has come to the rescue. It’s a self-publishing platform, but one with an established brand and a respectable reputation.

Once published on Medium, return to point number two—share the piece with your target audience through various channels.

Ultimately, the purpose of an op-ed is to get a message in front of policymakers or the public. With these tips—and an assist from us at Cogent—that message can find the right target.


Will Bohlen is a managing director at Cogent Strategies and has amassed an enviable Rolodex of global media contacts over his communications career. Will worked as a journalist, reporting for the Chicago Tribune, the Tribune’s RedEye edition, and as a freelance reporter before leading strategic communications for the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Brussels and Washington, DC. For Will’s complete bio, click here.