When you read the papers or turn on the news, it sometimes seems like all you hear about is negative stories. Car crashes, robberies, injuries, fires, political scandals, economic struggles — if it bleeds, it leads, the old adage goes.
But what do you do if you're a nonprofit that's creating positive change in your community? How do you grab attention for good news in a media environment that tends to focus on the pessimistic?
CharityVillage® spoke with several public relations experts to find out how.
1. Build relationships with media
Undoubtedly, you've heard this before. But it bears repeating, since developing relationships with reporters is a crucial first step to getting your organization's voice heard in the news. Once a relationship is established, it's more likely that your emails and calls to the media will be answered.
"The media will focus on the negative things and that's their job, frankly," says Mark LaVigne, a media relations expert who sits on the PR and Communications Committee of Canadian Puplic Relations Society. "Bad things happen. The whole point of building a media relationship is it's best to begin proactively."
To begin this process, do your homework and find the journalists who report on your organization's areas of focus. Then reach out to them with interesting stories, statistics and angles.
Claire DeVeale-Blane, communications manager of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), has found success focusing her attention on pitching business media, as one of her nonprofit's goals is to make the business case for hiring skilled immigrants.
"Build relationships with the media that you're interested in," she suggests. "You want to focus your energy where you're going to see the biggest return. And building relationships with the media doesn't mean calling them incessantly and making sure they know who you are; it's also being responsive when they call you."
2. Establish your reputation as an organization with good news to share
When Nadina Kaminer, communications manager at YMCA Calgary, has good news, she knows the media will take note. She carefully selects the pitches she sends out and ensures the stories are consistently positive, since that is what her organization is all about.
"Because of what we have sent media in the past, they know that when they get something from YMCA Calgary, it's going to be something nice," she says. "The media are inundated. So you want to set a certain level of reputation and expectation when they see your name or your brand mark."
Kaminer says that in order to receive attention for positive news, organizations have to develop a practice of sending good stories out in the first place. An "if you build it, they will come" approach, if you will.
"[Media] are human too and they want to see nice stuff just as badly as anyone else," she says. "If we want to gather attention for good stuff, we need to take a step back and go to that place where we are sending selective pieces of niceness."
3. Provide plenty of materials for media on a variety of platforms
In today's fast-paced media culture, newsrooms don't always have the resources to be everywhere at once. Preparing media-ready content that can be accessed at the click of a mouse might make the difference between gaining media coverage and having your pitch tossed into the recycling bin.
"Just because media can't be there, that doesn't mean they don't want to cover the story," LaVigne points out. "Provide the news to them on an electronic platter so they can use it when they need to."
Write journalistic-style articles, take plenty of photos, upload videos and record radio clips, then have the material ready for download on your website or send it to media outlets on a disk. These elements don't have to be costly — many organizations use volunteer photographers for high quality photos, and you can find inexpensive hand-held cameras that take great videos. You can also use the skills of bright public relations students or interns, who can create content for you while gaining valuable work experience.
LaVigne, DeVeale-Blane and Kaminer have all packaged stories for media outlets as part of their PR strategies. Kaminer has had several newsrooms plug in her content when they've had extra space.
"Make it as easy as possible for media to cover whatever you're doing," she advises. "If they literally do not have to leave the newsroom in order to run the story, I'm going to stand a good chance of gathering some attention."
4. Target your story to smaller, specialized markets or specific reporters
It's nice to be featured on the front page of a major newspaper or be the lead story on a national news-cast, but those media opportunities are few and far between when it comes to happy, positive news. Don't discount community papers, ethnic media, trade publications, blogs and websites. These are strong sectors that often have fairly large, local readerships who may be more willing to get involved in your organization than the audiences of a national news outlet.
"Community papers are a great way to get out information to the local community about what's going on," says Brenda Jones, a PR consultant at Nyac PR who has worked with a number of nonprofits. "They are a bit more open to that, partly because a lot of them don't cover the day-to-day news. It's really important, though, that you understand they're very region-specific and work with that."
While media advisories and press releases can be useful, even when pitching a large market it's better to target an individual reporter, preferably one you've spent time developing a relationship with, says Jones.
"You really have to pitch individual reporters. If it's a busy news day, press releases or media advisories don't have the same shelf life as a one-to-one pitch," she says. "If you can get one really great TV story, then sometimes that's better than sending out a press release to 12 media outlets and it not being picked up at all."
5. Make your media pitch creative, fun and visual
If your news is on the lighter side, make sure it's interesting enough to grab attention. Everyone likes a captivating story, and the media are no different. Get creative and have a great visual to go along with your pitch.
"Unless there is an incredible visual or soundbite opportunity, we don't send [the pitch] out," says Kaminer. "We don't want the media to start going, 'Well, there's no story here'."
Regardless of your organization's focus, find a client or spokesperson willing to share a compelling personal story to bring your issues to life.
"The number one thing that I emphasize with clients is to highlight the personal connection," says Jones, "so ensure there's a human interest aspect."
6. Select strong spokespeople, prepare them and pitch them to appropriate media outlets
A unique angle is valuable, but having a great spokesperson who is able to convey your message can make or break the story.
"We've always tried to find spokespeople that are reputable and credible, because our mandate has always been to make that business case [for hiring skilled immigrants]," says DeVeale-Blane.
Jones cautions that not all spokespeople succeed at all forms of media. Someone who is articulate with a newspaper reporter might not translate as well on television.
"You have to assess the strengths of weaknesses of the interview subjects and ensure that you're pitching the appropriate medium," she says. "For example, if the spokesperson you have takes long pauses before they speak, they're not going to be appropriate for live radio. If you pitch someone who really flops, then that reporter or show host is going to be a little more reluctant next time to book your guest."
Pick your spokespeople carefully, then coach them on key messages and how to speak to reporters so by the time they do the interview, it has a better chance of going seamlessly.
7. Pair up with other community groups to share ideas
If you don't have the resources to design a strong media relations approach, or if your nonprofit doesn't have staff dedicated to public relations and communications, team up with other similar organizations to get your stories out to the media.
"You can reach out to other people and find out what they are doing to share resources and ideas," Kaminer suggests. "Why not share an event? Start a social media group if you're not sure what to do. And then you can have some support."
8. Leverage social media
With social media, you can push content out via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Flickr and countless other applications, which may increase your chances of getting noticed by a reporter. Follow your favourite journalists on Twitter and interact with them in that space, or comment on their blogs.
Kaminer says that because people tend to share positive things through social media, traditional media is looking for more positive content to keep up with that demand.
"Who re-tweets negative things? We just don't," she says. "The tone is changing and the world is changing as a result of social media. Social media are saying to media outlets out there, 'Hey, guess what, people don't want to hear the negative. Don't tell me the bad, tell me what's going on and tell me how to fix it. Tell me how to help'."
Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and holistic nutrition student. Find out more about her writing services at www.sondibruner.com, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.
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