It makes perfect sense: of course you want to get your organization’s good deeds covered by the press. But for many nonprofit organizations, there is often a detour on the road between goals and reality. Resources are limited, and it can often seem like a stark choice: do the work, or publicize it. For mission-driven groups, the decision isn’t hard.
Overcoming Fear of the Media
Some organizations - such as human service groups - have developed an instinctual fear of the media, thanks to outlets who only cover them when something goes awry. Others may want to engage the press, but aren’t sure where to begin. After all, most nonprofits haven’t received $10 million donations or won Nobel Prizes lately - what would reporters find newsworthy, anyway?
The process of courting the media may seem mysterious - or even dangerous. But more and more nonprofits are finding that it is necessary. Any group that relies on private donors will benefit from positive stories, which reinforce their belief that you’re doing good work. Nonprofit organizations that have a stake in building community goodwill - from Harvard University to residential care facilities for drug addicts - know that it’s easier to answer questions and assuage fears upfront, rather than face irate neighbors after the fact. Finally, even organizations that subsist solely on government earmarks are helped by good local coverage, which legislators’ offices devour and analyze to determine if their actions will meet with public approval.
To properly publicize the work you do, you need to think like a reporter. Something is newsworthy if it:
- is New
- is Local
- is Visual (good for photos)
- has a human interest element
- includes conflict or controversy
Your organization probably already has a variety of tracking mechanisms in place: weekly staff meetings where you report on your activities; annual reports that detail successes; donor letters with heart-tugging, inspirational stories. How do you take what you’re doing regularly, and leverage it? The secret is to take every success and see if it meets any of the above criteria. Even better is to plan ahead, and during strategic planning retreats ask yourself what upcoming events or announcements you can capitalize on.
Assessing your Story
Just for starters, the media love to write about:
- Programs you’re launching
- Geographic areas you’re expanding into
- Recently-hired staff
- Building dedications
- Awards you’ve won
- Big donations
This is a reminder that you need to understand each outlet’s geographical range. If you’re launching a new initiative in Brockton, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette won’t care. But if your new Executive Director lives in Concord, New Hampshire, then the Concord Monitor will be downright gleeful about printing a story.
There is a reason companies love to announce their donations with oversized checks: it will get their picture in the paper. For every event or announcement, think about how you can make it interesting for photographers or videocameras. There’s nothing more boring than a guy in a suit, gabbing behind a podium. How do you demonstrate the toll of AIDS? If you’re the NAMES Project, you construct a massive quilt, which has become an icon and traveled to cities around the world. If you’re announcing an initiative to improve education, shame on you if you do it in a hotel or your conference room - the cameras can’t resist a schoolhouse full of cute kids.
What Constitutes “Human Interest”?
Think of the story that stuck in your brain enough so that you repeated it to your spouse at dinner. The anecdote you included in your last fundraising letter. The story your staffer told that everyone crowded around to hear because it was so funny, or sad, or touching. That’s what newspapers are looking for, too. Get permission from the folks affected and then pass along their contact information to a reporter - and make sure you get a chance to comment on it in print.
What’s “Controversial” - and Won’t Get Me Fired for Publicizing It?
It’s pretty easy to get media coverage if your CFO is caught embezzling, your board president quits over a strategy dispute, or your policy director offends the mayor. Clearly, that’s not what we’re talking about.
Instead, you can use “controversies” or hot topics in the media to publicize the work your nonprofit organization does, or your take on the issue. The EPA comes out with a report on global warming? Environmental groups can write an op-ed discussing their solutions. A celebrity gets caught driving drunk? Time for alcohol and drug-awareness groups to hold a press conference and demand more money for prevention. The presidential candidates are sparring about immigration policy? Sounds like a good time for an immigrants’ Lobby Day. When you see opportunities in the media, jump on them.
Taking that First Step
Earning good media coverage is hard work - and it’s not always second nature for advocates who would rather be serving their constituents than "tooting their own horns." But building a positive public profile is a critical investment that allows you to continue doing the work you do. The first step is learning to think like a reporter, because you’re already doing things that they find interesting. Now you just need to tell them about it.
Dorie Clark is the founder of Clark Strategic Communications, a Boston-area public relations/marketing firm that works with nonprofits. A former journalist, she served as New Hampshire Communications Director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and works with clients including the Ford Foundation, Yale University and the National Park Service. To contact her or learn more, please visit www.dorieclark.com.