Media Relations 101 for Nonprofits

Media RelationsBy Bryan Schwartzman

Media relations is one of those ongoing processes that nonprofits, particularly smaller, resource-strapped organizations lacking a public relations professional, tend to neglect. This happens for a variety of reasons: Since many nonprofits have more immediate, pressing concerns, media relations often ends up at the bottom of the pile. Many larger nonprofits also put media relations on the backburner, being slow to respond to requests and reaching out only when they are seeking coverage for a major event or announcement.

While it is almost always a mistake for a nonprofit to neglect development, as a former fulltime print journalist, I can understand why many nonprofits pay little attention to building relationships with journalists. After all, we live in an era when organizations, politicians, celebrities, and athletes often bypass the independent media. Instead, they opt to communicate with the public directly via social media and other channels. We’ve heard time and again about public figures circumventing the media “filter” – the connotation being that journalists distort words and ideas. Americans, for a variety of reasons both fair and unfair, hold the news media in historically low regard. A September Gallup survey showed that just 40 percent of Americans have a “fair amount” of trust in the media. Of course, the media is not the only institution with a public image problem: just 16 percent of Americans have a “fair amount” of trust in Congress.

I spent a dozen years in the newspaper biz, starting at a paper that lacked a website and didn’t give reporters email addresses and ending at a time when a story’s impact was measured in website hits, Facebook likes and retweets. I can attest that, reputations aside, most journalists I have encountered have been motivated by a desire to bring neglected stories to light, give voice to the powerless, and add value to public debate.

For your nonprofit, the benefits of receiving positive media coverage are simply too great to ignore. Would I advise nonprofits to jettison the strategy of telling their own story and instead focus exclusively on independent media? Of course not. Modern technology, especially social media, offers nonprofits the unprecedented opportunity to reach the public and donors directly, to control all aspects of their stories, and to educate a large audience about the missions they serve. But newspapers, radio, television, online publications, and blogs can also play a pivotal role in getting your message out, widening your audience, and, potentially, inspiring new donors. Few nonprofits can match the potential reach of a mainstream media outlet. Even those nonprofits with millions of followers know the value of media coverage: it both introduces the nonprofit to new potential supporters and informs current ones. And it can often prove the best of both worlds: positive news coverage can and should be leveraged via social media and other platforms at a nonprofit’s disposal, including traditional mailings.

Before moving forward, know that getting a story placed in print or on the airwaves is tougher than ever as news organizations have drastically cut down their staffs. Even though the web has, in theory, solved the problem of limited space, the new normal of smaller staffs makes it tougher to actually get an editor to assign your story to a reporter. Still, there are steps you can take to maximize your chances of garnering positive media coverage.

  • Assign a Staff Member: If you are unable to hire a professional to handle media and public relations, assign this responsibility to a staffer best suited to represent the organization. In a small organization, the executive director might be in the best position to handle it.
  • Know the Outlet: Before you consider sending out a press release to a news organization, make sure you are truly familiar with the outlet and the types of stories it covers. Pay particular attention to the stories it does related to your area. If your nonprofit deals with the homeless, how does the paper cover the issue? If you’re an education-oriented nonprofit, how does it cover education? Without being overly critical, can you identify any gaps in coverage? If it comes from a place of healthy, informed criticism, most editors and reporters are happy to learn from knowledgeable sources how the organization can more accurately present a particular issue.
  • Develop Relationships: Follow the work of a local journalist whose beat might include your nonprofit. (These days, this includes checking in on their social media accounts.) Choose a particular story that you have found insightful and send an email complimenting the journalist. Yes, reporters are inundated with email. But you’d be surprised how few emails journalists receive telling them that they did a good job. Believe me, such sentiments will stand out. They are far more likely to hear from critical and irate readers. Better yet, ask a reporter out for coffee or lunch. Journalists are working under constant deadline pressure, but a good reporter will usually make time to get to know an earnest potential source. A busy editor should at least be able to carve out a half hour meeting in the office. The meeting topic can be general and focus on how the newspaper covers a particular issue. Or you can use the meeting as an opportunity to introduce the reporter to your nonprofit. Once a reporter knows you and your organization, there is a good chance the journalist will at least look at your press release. It doesn’t guarantee coverage – there are always too many variables to account for – but it does give you a better chance.
  • Pitch Smart: When writing your releases or preparing your pitches, keep in mind that your organization is rarely the story: rather, the focus should be on the larger issue your organization is working on or the people that it serves/helps. News organizations love trend stories. For example, for houses of worship, a news organization might pass at covering your new service geared for children five and under. But if it were pitched as part of a story on what houses of worship are doing to serve families with young children, the news outlet might be persuaded to do a story and include your congregation among the several that it features. The more creatively you can pitch a story, the better you can argue that it impacts the intended audience, and the more likely a news outlet is to assign the story.
  • Not Brain Surgery: Writing is an inherently difficult task, but press releases don’t need to be great literature. They should be short and to the point, including a paragraph explaining why an event or program is important to cover. A press release is meant to invite a conversation, not determine an outlet’s coverage. If it gets the point across, has the relevant contact information and, when appropriate, the location and start time of a particular event, the document has done its job.
  • Think Twice: The media can give your nonprofit the kind of exposure that it simply can’t muster on its own. And the best part is you don’t have to pay anything for this significant exposure. But remember, you can’t control the press. Once a news outlet decides to pursue a story, you can try to influence and shape it, but the final product is completely out of your hands. That is why dealing with the media is different from directly communicating with your audience through blogs and social media. Who among us hasn’t gotten a little nervous wondering how a reporter will use our words. (And yes, honest misquotes do happen.) However, if you’ve got a good story, go to the press. But try to think two or three steps ahead. Some reporters are so deadline focused that they will only concentrate on the particular story at hand, but others will ask lots of seemingly unrelated questions. Be aware, even if you have a news-worthy program or event, if your board is in the middle of a major argument or if something has gone awry with finances, it might not be the best time to ask the press to look into your nonprofit.

If there is a crisis in the background, inviting press to cover something unrelated might bring the conflict out into the open.

Most of the time, interactions with the media will be positive and advantageous to your organization. After all, your nonprofit is working to make the world a better place and has a compelling story to tell. The media is always looking for moving and, yes, meaningful stories. If there is one piece of advice to take away from this article, it is this: build personal relationships. It will help you garner positive coverage during the good times and, having that connection may help you weather the storm if things don’t go as planned. In today’s competitive marketplace in which a million things are vying for someone’s attention, your nonprofit should use all avenues at your disposal – including the media – to communicate its needs, aspirations, and mission.

Bryan Schwartzman is the manager of marketing and communications for the Evans Consulting Group in suburban Philadelphia, a firm that helps nonprofits achieve their fundraising and strategic goals. The Evans Consulting Group advises nonprofits, manages fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, evaluates nonprofit business practices, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. An award-winning journalist, Bryan spent a decade reporting for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia and now helps nonprofits with storytelling and message crafting. He can be reached at