Create a story bank of anecdotes to share

Stories about people’s experiences help make complex policy issues understandable to a broad audience. Reporters rely on anecdotes to illustrate particular issues they are reporting on. Likewise, policymakers often request testimony from individuals during legislative hearings to highlight the need to create new or to change existing legislation.

Collecting stories

Stories about people’s experiences help make complex policy issues understandable to a broad audience. Reporters rely on anecdotes to illustrate particular issues they are reporting on. Likewise, policy makers often request testimony from individuals during legislative hearings to highlight the need to create new or to change existing legislation.

Maintaining a story bank is a powerful tool for civil legal aid advocates. Doing so will help position your organization as a resource for the media, other advocates and policy makers. Using anecdotes drawn from the story bank in story pitches, media interviews, speeches and reports helps paint a fuller picture of what civil legal aid is, and shows in concrete terms why it matters.

Conducting interviews

Think about the types of stories you will need based on the civil legal aid issues you work on. You may want to limit your focus to one area, such as helping veterans access their benefits. Or your work may aim to highlight broader concerns, such as civil legal aid’s role in helping Americans protect their livelihoods, health and families.

Other examples of civil legal aid story categories include, but are not limited to:

Individuals who have accessed—and benefited from—newer forms of civil legal aid, such as self-help centers and other court-based services, web-based forms and information, and expanded pro-bono models.

Americans who have averted or gotten through challenges like foreclosures, the loss of benefits, natural disasters, or domestic violence with the help of civil legal aid. Stories that include, “Without civil legal aid, I would have been (blank)” are extremely effective.

Stories that highlight trends in civil legal aid, such as new angles on medical-legal partnerships, new tools available to pro se litigants, or the work civil legal aid lawyers are doing behind the scenes related to big stories in the news (e.g., enrolling in health insurance per the Affordable Care Act).

Whatever the topic, try to gather strong, broadly appealing cases. When recording someone’s story, the best portrayals will be:

Personal and sympathetic. To make a story more compelling, personal details are important. Information such as how long he or she worked at his or her present job or the ages of children in the family helps make a story more real.

Concise and memorable. Record specific information beyond the basics (e.g., “appealed to a legal aid lawyer because they were denied SSI”) but try to keep the stories concise.

Credible. The media want believability and require true stories that have been vetted; beware of attention seekers. Try to find the types of families or individuals the broader public can relate to. Most often, people will listen to a story in which they can see similarities between the person involved and themselves or their own family members. And be sure to ask yourself if a given person’s story seems credible. Investigate any red flags before pitching the person to reporters as a source.

Conducting interviews

A critical step to building your story bank is to actually verify each story rather than relying on second-hand information. Doing so ensures accuracy and allows you to determine if the person is a willing and credible interview for reporters.

When verifying stories, start by introducing your organization, explaining why it is useful that stories such as their own are shared with press, and reassuring sources that their privacy and comfort are of paramount importance.

Start by asking for basic information, such as: first name, last name, city, state, phone number, age, gender, marital status, children, income, and job.

Get a brief synopsis of the source’s situation. The first line should be a concise description of the problem (e.g., “After their home was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, the Smith family has spent 8 months waiting for assistance to rebuild.”)

Make notes pertaining to a source’s personality to assist others using the story bank, or to note red flags. For example, you might write “articulate, knowledgeable about legal issues.” If they show negative characteristics that could reflect poorly on your organization—e.g., they are especially hostile— reconsider including them in the story bank.

At the end of the conversation, ask if there is anything the source would like to add. He or she may give a good quote that would be helpful to reporters or other information that would help the story gain exposure.

Assure him or her that you will not release any of the information without prior consent. Impress upon the source that doing media interviews can help others get the civil legal aid he or she received to get through a tough situation. Media coverage of the source’s situation might also lead people to offer him/her assistance.

If the person agrees to allow you to release his or her story, ask if he or she is willing to speak to reporters. Some people will be open to speaking with legislative staff members but are not willing to speak to media. And some who are comfortable with print media may not be willing to do television or radio.

Politely inform the source that there is no guarantee their story will appear in media coverage, and assure them that if an opportunity arises to release their story to the press, you will first contact them for permission.

After the call, follow up by sending the source information about your organization. If he or she seems really passionate about civil legal aid, tell him or her about advocacy networks.

Releasing stories

Your first responsibility is to those who have entrusted you with their stories: It is important to ensure they are comfortable and their and privacy is respected. You must secure permission each time you plan to release someone’s story and personal information. It is important that you speak directly with the person before giving out his or her name or phone number.

It’s best to ask how he or she prefers to be contacted. For example, it may not be possible for some people to do interviews at work, and some may prefer to contact reporters themselves. Also, when calling for permission to release, use the opportunity to update or expand the contact’s story if needed. It is also a good idea to prepare him or her for the conversation with the reporter. If he or she appears somewhat nervous or apprehensive, offer to practice questions and answers before the interview.

Key takeaways

  • Develop your network.
  • When establishing and adding to your story bank, develop a good rapport with journalists, story bank sources, and your network of civil legal aid advocates and providers.
  • Confirm source participation.
  • Always call story bank members before releasing their information and assure them that you are on their side.
  • Maintain good relationships with members of the media.
  • Be responsive, honest, and thorough when dealing with reporters.
  • Strengthen ties with allied organizations.
  • When interacting with fellow advocates, foster reciprocal relationships that allow you to exchange stories and contacts.
  • A good collection of stories will help create stronger ties between your organization and your allies. This cohesion is essential to our advocacy efforts as we strive to elevate the civil legal aid sector.


Client permission form
Sample media release for client images/videos and stories
Format: 1-page PDF