How to Work with the Media to Promote Your Nonprofit

What if you want to reach all people, all the time? Sorry, but you can’t. You can, however, extend the reach of your nonprofit beyond the contacts known by your friends and family by approaching mass media — newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the web. Although some nonprofits pay for advertising to spread the word, most organizations rely on free publicity from the media.

Plan for effective publicity

Before contacting the media, first decide what story you want to tell and whom you want to reach with that story. What’s distinctive and important about your organization’s work? Why is it newsworthy? Be honest: Analyze your idea as if you’re a news editor who has to choose among many different stories from many sources. How does yours stand up to the competition?

Ask yourself about your proposed story’s relevance: Will it affect the lives of its readers? Is it timely? Does it contain conflict, intrigue, or prominent people? The journalism column at about.com includes useful articles about how to decide whether something is newsworthy and how to structure a story.

Reporters often have more story ideas than they have time to cover them. You can increase your chances of coverage if you write (or record or film) a basic document and vary it to address the different media interests that you appeal to, making use of your multiple story angles.

Develop a media list

A media list is a compilation of names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers of contacts at local (and maybe national) newspapers, radio and television stations, magazines, and websites.

Your media list is a valuable tool that you refine and expand over time. Some metropolitan areas have press clubs and service organizations from which you can buy membership lists, providing a basis for your list. Cision is a comprehensive online media service. Its databases encompass contacts at online, print, radio, and television outlets. A full membership to Cision can be expensive, but one-time searches are reasonable.

Journalism is a rapidly changing field with frequent layoffs and employee turnover, so it’s important to update your media list often.

In general, your objective is to build two working lists, one that you use with practically every news release you send out and the other for specific opportunities for publicity. The latter group may include the following:

  • Social and entertainment editors to whom you send news of your annual benefit gala

  • Social and business editors to whom you announce new members and officers of your board

  • Opinion page editors for letters to the editor

  • Sunday magazine supplement editors for in-depth profiles of leaders in your field of work

  • Features columnists for amusing anecdotes or unusual news

  • Writers of blogs on topics related to your work

The media’s timeline

Different media outlets require different amounts of lead time. In an ideal situation, you want to begin your efforts to reach the media four or five months — or even longer — in advance of that hoped-for coverage. The first two months are spent creating news releases and public service announcements and shooting photographs. Always check with the publication beforehand to find out how much lead time is necessary.

Many organizations create a media section on their website where they post news releases, background information, and high-resolution images with captions and photo-credit information. This tool enables your media contact to expand upon the information you send and download the photos he prefers for publication.

After you’ve done the initial legwork over the first couple of months, then you start distributing the materials:

  • Most monthly magazines need to receive your news release and photographs at least two — preferably three — months in advance of publication (even earlier if they’re published quarterly or bimonthly).

  • At the same time that you’re e-mailing your release to magazines, send advance notice to your most important daily and weekly outlets.

  • We recommend sending public service announcements two to three months prior to the time when you hope they’ll be used. Although most stations have set aside time for broadcasting nonprofits’ announcements, they need time to rotate through the many announcement materials they receive.

  • News releases to daily and weekly papers should be sent four to six weeks in advance of the event you want covered. You may also send follow-up releases approximately ten days prior to the event. You certainly want to make follow-up phone calls.

  • Releases inviting members of the media to attend a news conference or witness a special event or announcement may be sent three to ten days in advance of the event. If a news outlet is reluctant to cover your announcement, invite a reporter to visit your program and see your good works firsthand.

Take rejection graciously if your media contact decides not to use your story. You need to be able to go back to these people in the future. If you receive a rejection, ask the reporter for honest feedback about the kinds of stories that would better fit her needs.

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