Mar 02, 2012

Dear Gracie: 6 Secrets to Successful Nonprofit PR

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Dear Gracie,

I’m looking for tips on nonprofit PR. What are the unique challenges? Any advice on how to find a good nonprofit PR rep? What do nonprofits need to know about PR? What do PR agents need to know about nonprofits?

Nonprofit Newbie


Dear Nonprofit Newbie,

10 ProfNet experts share their advice on nonprofit PR:

1. A knowledgeable PR consultant/agent is essential

“Chemistry between agency and client is critical,” says Hilary Kaye, founder and president of the boutique PR agency HKA, Inc. “Finding a partner that cares about the work the nonprofit does and excels at PR is ideal.”

Nonprofits can be challenging, frustrating and rewarding all at once, so nonprofit leaders should look for a PR rep or firm with lots of experience working with nonprofits, suggests Susan Tellem, partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations.

“Many nonprofits focus on complex issues that require some knowledge to understand,” says Suzanne Morse, senior director at O’Neill and Associates. Nonprofits might be dealing with the state or federal government, or trying to solve a complex social problem, for instance, so an agent who has relevant knowledge can be brought up to speed quickly.

But do nonprofits need PR?

Nonprofits need PR for the same reason as for-profits: to gain greater credibility and recognition before their target audiences, says Kaye.

When the competition for attention and dollars is as severe as it is now, nonprofits make a big mistake when they avoid having a PR campaign, she explains. Marketing, advertising, telemarketing, direct mail, etc., might be important, but those avenues lack the credibility that comes with unbiased media coverage.

PR also help nonprofits stay current and visible, which is important for fundraising opportunities in particular, explains Judith King, lead partner and co-principal at The Morris + King Company. It’s vital for nonprofits to find their fundraising base, wherever they are — be it new or traditional media.

PR agents can also help nonprofits develop messages, facilitate interviews with reporters, provide written information to reporters, prepare nonprofit leaders for interviews, and conduct follow-ups, says Morse.

Kaye notes that her PR firm has had tremendous success acting as “matchmaker” between for-profits and nonprofits. Connecting two organizations can have tremendous results for both sides of the equation, with the nonprofit benefiting from the extra funds and the for-profit benefiting from the positive publicity.

For nonprofits short on cash, Tellem suggests visiting local colleges to find a senior undergraduate or graduate student in communications who could help out with PR tasks for a low fee (like $10/hour).

2. A business-like nonprofit will attract donors

Nonprofit people often hope that money will flow in just because the charity is so great, but it takes more than that, says Tellem.

Even in the nonprofit realm, you need a for-profit mentality, agrees Jennefer Witter, president of The Boreland Group. No one will provide grants, sponsorships or donations to a nonprofit that is poorly managed.

That means financials need to be in order, and a business plan and board need to be in place, continues Witter. “Many times, a well-meaning charity will fail simply because the business acumen needed to start, grow and maintain an organization is not there.”

To attract funders, a nonprofit’s PR program should promote the business end of the charity too, says Witter. For instance, nonprofits can showcase board members, or promote facts on continuing growth.

Sites like Charity Navigator and Better Business Bureau are used now more than ever, adds Witter. If a nonprofit looks weak on those sites, it will miss out.

However, due to typically smaller budgets, nonprofits rely more heavily on creative PR strategies and community support than a regular business, says Tequoia Urbina, CEO of Urbina Consulting.

Donors and funders are obviously very important to nonprofits, but it is rare to encounter a nonprofit that primarily sought PR because of a need for dollars, explains Morse. Usually, a nonprofit’s goal in seeking PR help is much more philanthropic, but also indefinable. While for-profit companies have obvious goals that can be PR success can be measured by, like increased revenue, for example; nonprofits are measured by something less tangible, like influence or the ability to effect change.

3. A unique, inspiring story is vital

“Nonprofit PR needs to be based on the same premise that is successful in for-profit organizations,” says Steve Capoccia, account director at Warner Communications. “Tell a good story, and link the story to a call for action.”

For example, a food bank that is short on goods to distribute needs to tell the story of what two bags of groceries means to a struggling family. What happens when those two bags of groceries aren’t on the table?

“What’s significant about this market is the importance of understanding what your client does and how it relates to the general public,” says Jeff Lavery, account manager of Rhino Public Relations. “Forming a connection between the reader and what services your client provides is critical not only for raising awareness of its mission, but also supporting all aspects of nonprofit management, from fundraising to increasing volunteer engagement.”

PR professionals working with nonprofits therefore need to understand the audience the organization is trying to influence, and determine which messages will work best to persuade, says Morse. “Those messages have to go beyond the self-interest of the audience member and usually connect to a much larger social, political or economic concern.”

A viewpoint expressed by a nonprofit can turn some audiences off, while simultaneously invigorating others to participate more actively, explains Capoccia. For example, political action groups can represent extreme examples of audience segmentation, typically utilizing a “you’re with us or against us” mentality.

It’s also important for nonprofits to differentiate themselves from other similar nonprofits, says Lavery. “For example, several nonprofits in a given region may all serve the homeless population, despite having distinct goals for supporting that group. For PR professionals, it’s important to articulate how your organization is making a concrete difference in the community it services, and how it sets itself apart from other nonprofits.”

4. Celebrities can be great for promotional events

Unlike for-profit organizations, nonprofits frequently raise money through special events or observances, says Tellem. For example, she started World Turtle Day (May 23) 12 years ago to raise awareness about the plight of turtles and tortoises, which is now celebrated all over the world. “It gives us a hook to raise money,” she explains.

Because nonprofits generally have fewer resources than for-profits, these types of organizations often seek pro-bono services and donated products, like auction items, says Tellem.

A lot of nonprofits (especially in celebrity-heavy City of Angels) will try and get as many celebrities for a red-carpet event as possible, Tellem continues. But don’t clutter a nonprofit event with a bunch of C and D listers; when a lot of celebrities are at one event, they tend to talk about their latest movie or their outfit — which doesn’t do anything for the nonprofit.

Just look for one celebrity who fits the cause and is willing to learn about the issue inside and out, says Tellem. For example, Bruce Willis, who is the national ambassador for foster children, attended one of Tellem’s events for foster kids. “He was fabulous,” she says. “He stopped at every reporter to talk about the charity.”

5. Journalists want to help

“Local nonprofit organizations and charities have a publicity advantage that their counterparts in the for-profit world lack: media outlets want to help nonprofits spread the word about their worthwhile programs or initiatives,” says Sandra Beckwith, owner of Beckwith Communications and author of “Publicity for Nonprofits: Generating Media Exposure That Leads to Awareness, Growth and Contributions.” Nonprofits have the potential to enjoy the support of media allies.

“This is why cause marketing is so popular in the for-profit sector,” continues Beckwith. “Corporate marketers understand that a nonprofit organization can get positive media attention more easily than a corporation can.”

Conversely though, when a nonprofit makes a serious mistake (like, for example, the recent disaster involving Planned Parenthood and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation), it can seen by journalists as a betrayal, adds Beckwith. After journalists support a cause with airtime, articles, interviews and exposure — only to discover that they’ve been duped — journalists will be quick to expose wrongdoings, says Beckwith.

There is also a smaller pool of reporters and media outlets covering nonprofits, compared to the for-profit industry, notes Lavery. “This requires public relations representatives to get creative in their pitching to convey the business side of the nonprofit industry and seek out the reporters covering the nonprofit beat.”

And while events for nonprofits help create a buzz, media outlets can only absorb so many event stories from one nonprofit, Kaye warns. Don’t let media coverage move abruptly from one event to the next. “Build credibility for the group through tried-and-true media outreach with strong story lines about the nonprofit, its mission and its clients.”

“There is a finite amount of attention that media can give to worthy causes,” agrees Morse. Promote wisely.

6. Passion isn’t everything (unfortunately)

Volunteers at nonprofits tend to be passionate about the work they do, which is a good thing, says Kaye. “Unfortunately, most have little understanding or prior dealings with the PR world. Regardless of this, well-meaning volunteers who lack PR skills are sometimes asked to work directly with the PR agency,” she says. “This can be challenging.”

Nonprofits tend to be somewhat behind other sectors in terms of social media, agrees King. They tend to rely more heavily on traditional media outlets and tactics instead, so a PR agent’s responsibilities will include bringing them up to speed in the digital era.

“Many nonprofits just operate in their sector and simply don’t have the internal force needed to reach out to media,” explains Brent Lang, director of Community Impact Fund at The Surrey Foundation.

Paid staff members of a nonprofit are also usually stretched very thin, says Kaye. While this happens in the for-profit sector too, it is more pronounced in the nonprofit world. “A handful of paid staff may run a very large organization comprised primarily of volunteers,” she says. So whether a PR rep needs more information for a campaign or approval for a media placement, the dynamic of a nonprofit organization is different, and it can be chaotic at times.

That’s why it’s so important for PR reps to be passionate about the nonprofit’s work, King reiterates. To rally the troops, a PR professional needs to understand and truly believe in the mission and message of the nonprofit they represent.


Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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1 Comments on Blog Post Title

Antonio Naglieri (@antnags) 13:02 EST on Mar 2, 2012

Good read, but can’t help but wonder about this one: “Celebrities can be great for promotional events”.

What percentage of nonprofits could this possibly apply toward? Very few.

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