Revised with new information as of March 8, 2009
Basic Press Outreach for
(nonprofits, NGOs, civil society, public sector agencies, etc.)
Like fund raising, press relations is an ongoing cultivation process. Your organization's strategy for press coverage needs to go beyond trying to land one big story; you want the press to know that you are THE organization to contact whenever they are doing a story on a subject that relates to your organization's work, and that you are a reliable source for information and stories. In short, you want to be quoted or referenced in a variety of stories, not just one.
Therefore, don't think that every press release is going to result in press coverage -- it's not. But sustaining regular press contacts will build recognition of your organization among reporters, and the result will be ongoing payoffs down the road. As coverage for your organization is generated, you won't just be reaching new audiences -- you will also be reaching current volunteers, supporters (including donors) and clients, reminding them of what your organization is doing and what they have chosen to be a part of.
The Basics of Press Relations
The following suggestions are low-cost or no-cost activities. They don't require money to undertake, as much as they require time and commitment.
What about online press release distribution services? For most nonprofit organizations, these aren't worth the fee they charge. There are some free distribution services, but I haven't used any of them. These include:
Those are the basics -- they will get you started on the road to building a reputation with the press and getting media coverage. There's much more you can do, ofcourse, but these basic activities will build a great foundation for expanded efforts. Note how many of these activities have to do with human contacts, commitment to outreach, and always having information available for the press, rather than what tools you use.
- Make a commitment to return calls from the media immediately. Whether it is a large newspaper or a small community radio show, if a representative tries to reach you, always call or email that person back immediately. The person contacting you could be on deadline, and if they don't reach you immediately, they might move on to another organization.
There is a certain public figure in the USA that I loathe. I'm not going to say his name, but I will say that he's not an elected official, but he was very politically active (he died just a couple of years ago). I could not figure out why he was always on TV and in every news article I read about certain topics. I thought he had some high-profile PR company representing him. But then I heard a reporter say that the "secret" was that this person always and promptly called any media person back, and would talk to any media representative, no matter how small the media outlet. The reporter said that, since he was so easy to reach and would always comment, no matter what time of day, that the press called on him again and again for comments -- it was easier than trying to track down someone else.
- Make a commitment to be honest with the press. Treat the press the way you want to be treated. The moment the press decides you aren't telling them the truth, they will deliver a public relations nightmare to you and your initiative. That doesn't mean going out and telling the press every bad thing happening at your initiative, but it does mean answering press questions to the BEST of your abilities - and that can include this phrase: "I do not have a comment on that."
- Next: is your mission statement the perfect, brief description of your organization? If not, revise it before you approach the press. If you don't write a good, brief description of your organization and have such displayed prominently on your Web site and letterhead, in press releases and brochures, etc., the press will make up one themselves -- and it may or may not be accurate. As a followup to the previous step: everyone at your organization should be able to recite that mission statement from memory. If it's too long for paid staff, volunteers and board members to easily remember, it's too long for the press to remember as well.
- Media relations needs to be fully supported by everyone at your organization, and you need policies and procedures around your organization's press relations. Answering these questions is a start in forming your policies:
- Who is responsible for media relations at your organization (writing press releases, answering calls from the press, inviting press to events, etc.)? Does the person who answers the phone know to refer ALL calls from the press to that staff member?
- Do all paid staff members and volunteers (including board members) know exactly what to do if they are contacted by a press representative? (do they talk with that person and then let the organization's media contact person know they have done so, or, do they refer the reporter to the media contact person FIRST before any conversations/interviews take place?) Decide on a policy, one way or another, and make sure it is communicated to everyone.
- Other than the press relations contact person, who at your organization needs to know that a photographer or camera crew is showing up at your organization or event? The press relations person should brief everyone at the organization as quickly as possible if a photographer or camera crew is on its way.
- Should the press contact person be present at all interviews? That's up to you. My personal rule when in charge of media relations is that I am to be present at all media interviews unless I am absolutely certain that the interviewee will be able to answer all questions, that he or she feels comfortable with my not being there, and I know the interviewer well. That policy comes from trying to balance giving a person enough "space" with providing proper support.
- As a result of your media outreach activities, what exactly do you want to happen? More people at an event? A particular group of people at an event (such as potential donors, government officials, local religious leaders)? An increase in the number of online references to your organization? An increase in recognition of your organization among the general public? Know your goals, think about how your media outreach activities could reach those goals, and think about ways to measure your success.
- Identify all area media outlets, long before you ever have the need to contact them. You want the names, postal addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers, and email address of all local daily and weekly newspapers, all TV stations, all radio stations, all organizations and editors that maintain event calendars (such as a tourism board that serves your area, or the nearest consulates or embassies of other countries), all press bureau offices for national or major regional media in your area, and all TV programs, radio programs and specific beat reporters that would be interested in your initiative's work in particular. If you are in a rural area, also identify the major media outlets for the nearest metropolitan area. You can use Google or Yahoo to compile this information, as well as contacting other organizations for advice.
You don't necessarily have to have reporter's names - sending something to "Attention Calendar Editor" at a newspaper will get to the right person as quickly as putting that person's name on it. And given the high turnover in media, it's certainly easier to maintain your database of media contacts this way.
Also, look for reporters at national media outlets who cover your specific geographic area or cover a topic that is closely aligned with your initiative's mission. Regularly monitor free online news sources, such as YahooNews, to find such reporters.
Don't wait until you have a press release to send to gather this contact information!
- Do you know how to write a press release? If not, type in these words:
Sample Press release
into Google; you will get a long list of web sites that feature sample press releases. For your press release contact information, put your cell phone as well as your office phone, if you are not in your office most of the time.
- Do NOT contact ALL media outlets EVERY TIME you send a press release (if such is more than every other month). If you do, you will overwhelm the organization, and reporters and editors will stop reading your materials. Also, some publications are highly-focused: a weekly neighborhood or community paper may interested only in activities that DIRECTLY and OBVIOUSLY involve their particular community or population served. Therefore, you may have to tailor press releases to these publications to illustrate this connection clearly.
Who gets what information, and when? The following is a general overview, but you will need to tailor this for your own organization's events and resources, as well as per your goals for media outreach. For instance, I directed public relations activities for a professional association in Austin, Texas for two years; this organization had a limited space for its monthly meetings. My first efforts more than filled the room -- much to everyone's discomfort. The association did not want to move to a bigger space and could not provide microphones for speakers. So I scaled back by outreach efforts, generating enough attendance just to fill the room and meet the annual membership goals.
Working with other staff members, develop an outreach calendar: What are the dates of events your organization will sponsor in the next six months? What about events that will involve your Executive Director or other key staff (a high-profile speaking engagement to a key group or conference, for instance)? What about the launch of a new program or service? The launch of your annual fund raising campaign?
Once you've developed this calendar of events, you can set your dates to contact the media. Your press release "send" schedule should follow this basic model:
- Calendar editors (including those that manage online calendars) get press releases that announce events, workshops, etc. These should be sent two - three weeks in advance for daily and weekly publications; they should be sent at least eight weeks in advance for monthly publications.
- Assignment editors at TV stations get press releases two weeks in advance that announce events you think would provide good visuals for the news. Remember that TV stations are looking for lively visuals (faces and movement). You should also fax a reminder to the assignment editor 12-24 hours before such an event -- a one page fax with just the who, what, why, where, when, how, a contact name and why this event is particularly "filmable" (this is one of those cases where a fax is still better than email).
- Beat reporters (people who are assigned to a particular subject or issue area, such as education, entertainment, senior issues, sports, etc.) should get press releases ONLY for events, workshops or services that relate to their particular focus. Send these two - four weeks in advance.
- In urban areas, most radio stations have a music format, and have very limited time for public service announcements. Send your press releases to only those radio stations that feature regular news times, audio event calendars or public affair shows, following the sending guidelines above. For other radio stations, consider event partnerships; are you hosting an event that would be a good place for a radio station to set up a live broadcast? Or are you trying to target a particular community or population that also makes up most of an audience of a particular radio station (for instance, if an organization is hosting a conflict resolution workshop for youth, perhaps the radio station that teenagers listen to most in the area would be willing to sponsor this event and promote it on their station)?
- In addition to announcing events, you can send press releases to:
- announce new activities, the latest results of or changes in your programs and services
- highlight particularly effective, unique, innovative or interesting volunteer activities
- announce how a particular piece of pending or recently-passed legislation will affect your organization and those it serves
- announce the results of your latest fund-raising efforts, a new grant you have just received, or a partnership you have formed with another organization/other organizations
- announce your latest annual financial report
- announce awards your organization is giving or receiving
- announce staff changes
- announce an impending visit to your organization by an internationally-recognized expert
- acknowledge a particular day of focus that relates to your organization and its work
(for instance, if you are an environmental organization, send a press release relating to Earth Day, about two weeks before the day itself; or, if you are an organization with a program or programs focused on women, send a press release relating to International Women's Day)
- Non-press organizations and other non-press representatives should also get your organization press releases (as appropriate); this is how you will build a public reputation and become associated with public policy issues that might affect your organization's target population. As a result, these organizations may start directing calls from the press to you when they get them, as appropriate:
- city (mayor, council people), county, state (legislators) and federal officials (congresspeople and senators) that represent your area
- chambers of commerce (most areas are served by more than one -- there's the main one, but there also might be a Black chamber, a women's chamber, etc.), tourist association, arts council, etc.
- send press releases announcing major events or activities to local consulates or embassies representing other organizations (they might refer foreign press to you)
- if you are in the USA: the United Way (even if you are NOT a United Way agency)
- nonprofit development or support centers that serve your area
- nonprofit and public sector agencies in your area with a similar focus
- professional associations and civic groups
- university departments that have studies that focus on the same areas served by your mission; for instance, if you serve children and youth, send information to the teacher-training school within a university
- Should you send press releases primarily via email, fax, phone calls or post? It depends on your resources, the news you are providing, and who you are contacting. Email is less of a cost than the post or fax, but some reporters are so overwhelmed by junk mail, solicitations and email press releases that your information could get lost in the sea of cyberspace. I got my start in press relations in the pre-Internet days (in fact, in the pre-fax days), sending press releases primarily by postal mail, but I do use email now, most of the time, and with excellent results. I supplement this with phone calls and/or faxes to reporters when I'm targeting someone in particular for coverage. Different situations call for different communications methods, and I'm constantly altering my delivery methods based on the ever-changing times and the results of my most-recent efforts. I can't give you an absolute formula; you are going to have to figure this one out for yourself.
- Make sure the press see your executive director and other key staff and board members as accessible. For instance, the head of your organization should have lunch or dinner occasionally, one-on-one, with key local reporters, not necessarily to pitch stories or to do an interview, but just to network and cultivate a relationship. However, staff members should NOT consider these meetings off the record; they need to watch what they say and conduct themselves as representatives of the organization at all times.
- Consider arranging with a local or national newspaper for your executive director or another key representative to write an editorial or commentary for the paper in conjunction with a current "hot" issue or a day with special significance. You can ghost-write the column with him or her. The editorial will probably have to be submitted three weeks before the day the column is to run.
- Consider making an exclusive pitch to a reporter. For instance, if there is a fantastic, exceptional success story regarding someone your organization has helped, you could call a trusted press person with whom you have a good relationship, and offer to set up an interview and photo opportunity regarding this person only for that particular press person.
- If your organization feels an event is inappropriate for a camera crew (for instance, a dress rehearsal for a play the night before opening, or a group counseling session with children), what alternative can you give the crew? Always have alternatives ready when a film crew calls.
- Also, ALWAYS notify people they are going to be (or might be) photographed or filmed BEFORE it happens! You don't want someone throwing a fit for the evening news. If children will be present, get parental permission first!
- Not all press relations is about good news: you may also have to engage in press and other outreach to counter misunderstandings, rumors and myths, or to counter online criticism. That will be much easier to do if you have followed the above guidelines and established a good, ongoing relationship with the press.
Evaluate & Celebrate Your Efforts
Evaluate your media outreach efforts every few months: Are stories being generated? Are press people attending your events? Are more people attending your events or calling your organization?
The person who answers your phone, or anyone who signs anyone up for an activity at your organization (volunteers, donors, people who attend events, etc.), should ask these people, at the time they are signing up, how they heard about your organization, the activity or the event. This will help you to learn how effective your outreach activities are, and help you plan strategically for the future.
Also, make sure other staff members know the results of your efforts:
- Distribute copies of all articles that appear about your organization, positive or negative, in newspapers or online, to all staff and board members. As resources allow and as appropriate, also send copies of stories to volunteers, donors and customers/clients.
- Find space in a public area at your organization or a place that staff frequent (the break room or a hallway, for instance) for a "brag board," where you will post articles about your organization that are published in newspapers or online. (NOTE: I once got a raise because the Executive Director stood in front of the brag board and was stunned that so much press had been generated; he'd seen the articles as they had come out, but seeing three months of positive newspaper articles posted on a wall made a BIG impression).
- Also watch the "Letters to the Editor" column for things that might relate to your organization, and distribute them appropriately. If your Executive Director or other staff member writes a letter on behalf of your organization (with pre-approval from the organization, ofcourse), make sure all staff and board members get copies (and, as appropriate, make copies for volunteers, donors and clients, particularly if it is rebutting a negative article).
- A notice should go out to all staff and board members if a TV, radio or online broadcast is going to feature on your organization (more than just a mention of the dates and times of an event).
- A notice should go out to all staff, board members, volunteers, donors and customers/clients if there is a partnership with a particular media outlet for an event your organization is sponsoring.
The Role of Volunteers in Media Relations
Can volunteers help with media relations? Should volunteers be involved with media relations? The answer to both is yes -- but with some cautions.
Many organizations are too small to hire a full-time paid media relations person and, therefore, must rely on volunteers to help with media relations. Great assignments for volunteers in this role, including pro-bono consultants, include:
It's preferable for a full-time or part-time paid staff person, who is in the office regularly and frequently, to be the media contact person, however, as most volunteers are not in an organization's offices regularly and frequently, and therefore may not be around if a press person calls. If you have no choice but to have a volunteer to be your media contact person, make sure that person can make the necessary time commitment, every day and for a substantial length of time, to fulfill all activities associated with basic media outreach that has been defined here.
- researching media (looking for and documenting local, regional, national and international media contacts)
- monitoring media (using tools like Yahoo News Search) to find stories about your organization, or reporters doing stories relating to your organization's interest that could be good to approach)
- drafting press releases
- suggesting ideas for press releases
- drafting press strategies
But Not Everyone Is Reached By the Press...
Reaching the press is vital for your organization, but it must be done with the realization that not everyone is reached by the press. Not everyone reads, or has access, to newspapers or online news, and not everyone has access, or listens, to radio, TV or online broadcasts. Representatives from your organization will have to reach out, often face-to-face, to conferences, communities of faith, farmer's associations, women's cooperatives, professional associations, schools, universities, student groups, informal groups and various other associations, formal or not, to get your organization's messages out and understood to everyone you need to reach. You will also have to think about posters and handouts, and in some cases, even live performance methods (theater, dance, puppets, etc.), in order to reach everyone with your information.
Press relations is oh-so-important, but remember that it's only one part of your overall community outreach.
- The Care and Feeding of the Press by Esther Schindler and the members of the Internet Press Guild is a good guide to people who pitch stories to the online press. It's from the press's point of view, and offers good advice about writing your press releases and making your pitch.
- Outreach Via the Internet for
Not-for-Profit or Public Sector Organizations
It's more than just putting up a Web site; it involves finding and posting to appropriate Internet discussion groups, sending emails to current and potential customers, perhaps even starting your own online community.... it's pro-active, interactive and ongoing.
- What are good blog topics for mission-based organizations?
The word "blog" is short for "web log", and means keeping a journal or diary online. Blogging is NOT a new concept -- people have been doing it long before it had a snazzy media label. The appeal of blogging for an online audience is that it's more personal and less formal than other information on a web site. Readers who want to connect with an organization on a more personal level, or who are more intensely interested in an organization than the perhaps general public as a whole, love blogs. Blogs can come from your Executive Director, other staff members, volunteers, and even those you serve. Content options are many, and this list reviews some of your options.
See more resources re: Community Relations, With and Without Technology
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