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Media relations for nonprofits: A primer, reading list and advice from the pros

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Do either one of these two scenarios sound familiar?

The phone rings. It’s a producer, looking for a guest on a panel discussion and they want a representative from your nonprofit to appear in the studio that day. You start to panic.


The phone doesn’t ring. There are no calls from producers and no one wants anyone from your nonprofit to appear anywhere, at any time. You start to panic.

Don’t panic: it is possible to create an effective media relations strategy for your nonprofit, even if you’re starting from scratch.

Here is a five-part primer to give you the basics on media relations.

The three basic principles of media relations

1. If you fundamentally distrust the media, change your attitude or don’t be your nonprofit’s media spokesperson. (Yes, even if you’re the executive director.)

If you believe reporters’ questions are potential landmines to be avoided, or a cue for your tightly scripted message, don’t be your organization’s face for the media: you will project mistrust and manipulation. Your audience will sense that disconnect and will read or listen to your message warily, if at all. “The audience is savvy; they know when they are being spun,” says Kalene Morgan, a professor with the Public Relations Graduate Certificate Program at Humber College in Toronto. “Gone are the days when anyone could spin a story and have everyone believe it.”

2. Don’t be afraid to talk like a regular person...

People like humour and colourful turns of phrase; they like a well-told story; they respond when there is a person speaking to them, not a spokesperson staying “on message.” It does take talent and practice to become an effective, creative voice for an organization: that learning curve can be frightening and is one reason why people default to carefully scripted talking points. Give your organization a human voice so it can stand out from the pack.

3...but do get to, and stick to, the point.

Remember that the interviewer has a deadline (or an upcoming commercial break) and wants to get the maximum amount of information and colour in the least amount of time. “Maximum amount”, however, doesn’t mean, for example, every statistic you think is important: one number, brilliantly placed in context, or one short, evocative anecdote will be more memorable than a scholarly overview.

“An ED gets nervous and they ramble; I’ve seen this,” says Morgan. “They should rehearse beforehand. If you have a real rambler, get them to type their answer and see how long it is.” /p>

Her motto: “Know the answer; say the answer; then stop.”

The four reasons why your nonprofit's media relations might stink (and how to fix it)

1. The problem: You fear looking unprofessional and end up sounding beige.

“Charities’ messages are basically mush – is everybody on Quaaludes?” asks Allan Bonner, a communications and crisis management consultant in Toronto. Giving a boilerplate-style quote to a reporter or a robotic in-studio interview can permanently erode your position because, unless your nonprofit is eminently newsworthy, you probably won’t get a second chance with that reporter or program.

A solution: “You have an obligation to be evangelical if you think you have the solution to an issue,” states Bonner. But he cautions that an articulate, impassioned message requires rehearsal and practice: “People have to hear themselves say, 'The reason we’re doing this is...' and fill in those blanks. Or tell a story: 'Here’s someone we saved; here’s someone we couldn’t save.'"

2. The problem: You think “good media coverage” equals “feature story” and so you don’t look wider or pursue smaller opportunities.

By all means, pitch your organization as a feature story but understand that the only person who cares about your nonprofit and its mission as much as you is...nobody. If you have a thorough understanding of your organization’s position in its sector, and the sector’s position in the wider world, you can pitch better stories that include you and raise your profile, even if they’re not about you.

A solution: “Have modest goals,” says Bonner. “Target a certain number of times a year to have a letter to the editor, or an op-ed piece. Send a backgrounder. Open a line of communication.” You can also use social media like a blog, a Twitter feed or your own YouTube channel as do-it-yourself media outlets, driving traffic between them and your website to maximize exposure to the work of your organization.

3. The problem: Your organization’s ED is boring or busy.

If your organization’s executive director is a lacklustre speaker or only available via BlackBerry, that puts your nonprofit near the bottom of the interview list, regardless of how wonderful your media spokesperson may be. When media outlets want an interview or guest, they start at the top of the organization and only reluctantly work their way down the hierarchy; typically, the media don’t want to speak to spokespeople.

A solution: Try to get your nonprofit represented in print. “You don’t need mediagenicity to write an op-ed,” observes Bonner, who also suggests training more than one contact at an organization – and skirting the media’s bias against using spokespeople by giving a spokesperson a senior title, for example, making them the editor-in-chief of the nonprofit’s newsletter.

4. The problem: You make the media jump through hoops and come across as rude, uncooperative and/or paranoid.

Has your nonprofit committed any of these cardinal sins: asking a journalist to provide his/her list of questions before an interview; only answering questions by email; or releasing a statement in lieu of an interview? Whenever you make it hard for a journalist to do their job, you do your organization a disservice: at best, you will seem unprofessional and inexperienced; at worst, you will appear to have something to hide.

A solution: If you’re feeling caught off guard, ask the interviewer what their deadline is: if they need copy within the hour, ask to call back in 10 minutes, and use that time to sort your thoughts, pull up any relevant information and find a place to talk. If they have longer lead time, make an appointment for another time and ask if there’s any background information they need beforehand (this can help you feel out their story angle), then send it promptly.

Advice from the pros

Pack the parachute

Media interviews can feel like a jump from a high-flying plane but as any skydiver will tell you, that can be exhilarating...if you pack a parachute.

Rehearsal is the parachute, not only for the nervous but also for those who are comfortable in the spotlight or who are news junkies. “Some people think that they know how interviews work because they consume media – but they don’t,” warns Kalene Morgan. Being a news junkie doesn’t make you a master communicator, but role-playing with a partner will provide a valuable insight into your level of skill.

“For example, a good media relations person will come up with sample questions and point-form answers for each question for the executive director beforehand,” says Morgan. “If you have done the prep, it will be a more natural interview.”

Keep it simple

Allan Bonner feels that many in the nonprofit sector are keenly aware that there are numerous issues and approaches relevant to the work of their organization. However, this multiplicity of perspectives can cause them to “overcomplicate issues or their answers to questions.” Simple, though not simplistic, storytelling is important.

Preparing for TV and radio appearances

During a radio or TV pre-interview, listen to how researchers and producers ask questions and pay attention to the kind of feedback you get, whether it’s a laugh at a joke or a request for clarification. “There’s a lot to be learned from a pre-interview for a TV show: the producer who talks to you will most likely be writing the questions for the host,” Morgan notes.

Make sure to offer the producer anything they need about your nonprofit, such as relevant studies, website links and news clippings, at the beginning and end of the pre-interview. Keep a blank email open and have any documents ready on your desktop so you can email the interviewer what they need as soon as it is mentioned; do the same with your nonprofit’s website so you can send links to the appropriate webpages.

Preparing for print interviews

Many interviewees believe that a print reporter’s job is to take their words and turn them into a cogent, edited article. This is only partly true.

“The main mistake I see is people expecting the journalist to turn their words into proper English: you’ll be disappointed,” says Bonner. “You have to pre-chew it for the journalist.” Don’t assume that your long answers are giving a print reporter a lot of good stuff to choose from; you might be unknowingly cultivating a reputation as a windbag.

Are nonprofit media relations different?

“Media relations [for nonprofits and for-profits] have the same principles: it’s about telling a story; it’s about having a couple of key points that you want to get across in an interview and stories that match and illustrate those points,” says Kalene Morgan.

Bonner sums it up this way: “The media doesn’t particularly give a damn if you’re making no money, a lot of money or working for the government; they care if what you’re saying is newsworthy.”

Three media training exercises you can do right now

1. Hamlet’s Soliloquy

THE EXERCISE: Alternating with a partner, read Hamlet’s “To be or not to be...” soliloquy in a different mood and speaking style. Each reader will create their own style list and their partner has to guess the mood and speaker. Some suggestions: like you’re an impatient teacher explaining something simple to a student you don’t like; like a shy person trying to make conversation with a stranger in a noisy bar; like a used-car salesman looking to unload a lemon on an unsuspecting buyer; or like a loving parent teaching a child how to tie their shoes.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN: Content isn’t everything. People can hear quite clearly what you mean, not just what you say.

2. IFB Roleplay

IFB is the name for the earpiece that you will wear if you are doing an on-camera interview in a different studio from the interviewer, so you can hear the interviewer and any other guests. This type of interview is also known as a double-ender. This exercise works with or without a video camera, though, obviously, you will be able to critique your own performance later if you record it.

THE EXERCISE: Sit on a chair facing a blank wall and put an earphone in your ear, tucking the cord down the back of your collar and under your shirt or jacket.

Set a timer for three minutes.

Have one partner ask you questions about your nonprofit from another room or while they stand behind you, and have another partner play the role of a fellow panelist who disagrees with everything you say, also from another room or standing behind you.

During the interview, sit and gesture naturally as if you can see whom you’re talking to; when you are not talking, react to what they say with facial gestures as if they can see you; make sure the earpiece doesn’t fall out; keep your hand gestures roughly around the area of your sternum, though not touching your chest; and keep your eyes on one spot on the wall.

While you talk, the interviewer will keep a tally of how often you nodded, shook your head and gestured with your hands at the proper height or interjected. At the end of three minutes, add up your numbers: fewer than 30 gestures and responses in three minutes means your performance was in trouble.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN: In an artificial context, it takes a flair for performance, plus hard work and concentration to have “natural” facial expressions, body language and conversations.

3. Front-Page Brainwave

THE EXERCISE: This exercise should be done quickly, so set a timer for ten minutes maximum and get a pad of paper, pens and a red marker.

Take the front, business and entertainment sections of a newspaper (local, national or both) and divide them among group members (you can also do this on your own). Scan headlines and opening paragraphs of each news story, and put a red checkmark beside stories that directly relate to the work of your nonprofit and/or your sector. Tally the check-marked stories and make a note of the total on the pad.

Put a red box around the headlines of stories that have no relation to your nonprofit and number each box. When you finish, number the pad of paper to correspond to the total number of boxed stories: if you have 15 red-boxed stories, for example, number the lines on the paper from 1 to 15. For each, the group must write down at least one way in which the red-boxed story could relate to the work of the nonprofit, its values and/or its sector. For example, a story about an oil spill cleanup might not relate to your youth employment program. However, the accountability issues of the oil spill might have counterparts in your work – and could even provide you with a topical metaphor for a future communications piece. Be creative.

EXTRA-CREDIT ASSIGNMENT: Go through the entire newspaper and make a list of each advertiser and the size of their ad. Could any of these businesses be potential donors or sponsors for your nonprofit?

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN: At a minimum, you will have a snapshot of the current newsworthiness of your nonprofit and its issues and see where the gaps in coverage are. On a deeper level, you will learn how to place your work in context and how to create relevant linkages to almost any news story. You will also learn whom the paper sees as its audience, not only by the types of stories they publish but who the advertisers are. This will be a useful skill for editorial meetings and pitches and also for your nonprofit’s daily media monitoring.

Four counter-intuitive books to read (plus four standard texts)

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

Because their fundamental goal is persuasion, media relations, public relations and advertising are closely related and there is significant cross-pollination between them. The must-read for anyone who wants to learn the mechanics of persuasion is Ogilvy on Advertising; most how-to books and media consultants still crib strategies from Ogilvy’s playbook even though it was published in 1985. As a companion piece, read A Big Life (in Advertising) by Mary Wells Lawrence for an in-depth look at how anything – from a cigarette to an airplane to antacids – can be turned into a gripping, persuasive story.

Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

Are you struggling to add depth, colour and interest to your nonprofit’s messaging? Maybe you need better metaphors. “Metaphor is the currency of knowledge,” says Luca Turin and he has made a career turning his highly specialized training in physiology and chemistry into metaphors that describe something as evanescent as the chemical notes in perfumes (one of his scent metaphors: “Burt Reynolds on a bearskin rug”). Read this book to be inspired to tell your organization’s story with new words and images.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

This classic guide to writing should be read by every communications person, if only for its no-fail advice on overcoming writer’s block: write anything; just keep your arm moving and the good stuff will come. Goldberg’s “Just write it” ethos also values the power of “first thoughts” – the intuitive flashes that are often edited out of existence by one’s inner censor but have the most impact. This book will give you the tools to write with confidence.

The standards

Media Relations by Allan Bonner and In the News by William Wray Carney

Bonner’s book is like a guide for paramedics, with to-the-point advice, ready-to-use templates and a no-nonsense attitude. Carney’s book is like a medical school text, with in-depth discourses and a long-range view. There are interesting areas of overlap and difference between these two books, and both are good additions to your nonprofit’s bookshelf.

The Canadian Press Stylebook and The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling

The Canadian Press sets the standard for journalistic writing in Canada and virtually every newspaper and magazine conforms in some way to “CP style.” The Stylebook is almost like journalism school between two covers; it’s worth having so you can tailor your communications to the requirements of a working newsroom. Both books are updated every few years and print versions are available in the reference section of most major bookstores and online by subscription from CP’s website (

Benita Aalto is a writer and communications consultant with extensive experience in corporate communications as well as in print and broadcast journalism. She has been a featured guest on TVO, CTV, CBC Newsworld, and CBC Radio, among others.

Photos (from top) via All photos used with permission.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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I clicked on this article expecting to see the same old "write down your key messages" advice, but I think you have wonderful insight here. I've worked for organizations that wanted the happy, warm fuzzy stories in the news, but were terrified that an interview would turn into an expose or a position statement could be seen as a jibe against a funder. My advice? If you don't trust the media or can't accept the risk that putting your story "out there" involves, don't do it.
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