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Communicating 3.0 for Nonprofits: Succeeding in Your Messaging and in Maximizing Methods

Nobody ever said communicating was easy.

Taking a message and relaying it to an audience so that they not only understand it but act on it is an onerous task indeed. Especially for nonprofits, which often have to do so with limited resources. Adding to the challenge is the fact that in the Web 2.0 world, our jobs as communicators have changed dramatically. Social media, mobile devices, and the democratized Web have turned the ways in which we think about crafting messages and targeting audiences inside out.

The technology that powers much of today's communication, allowing us to blog, text, record, type, post, create, talk, and share, is at once enabling and disabling, exhilarating and overwhelming, connecting and disconnecting. We live in a world where presidential candidates use Twitter to announce their running mates and where nonprofit workers around the globe can document a human need their organization is serving by capturing video on their cell phones and uploading it to YouTube—faster than international news correspondents can feed footage to CNN.

But are increased speed, universality, and technological savvy making our jobs as communicators easier? Yes and no.

Similar to the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, today's "Communication Revolution" offers new opportunities to promote your organization's messages and leverage the latest technologies to amplify those messages. What we need to do, however, is a bit of self-education.

Take, for example, the traditional press release. Most nonprofits are familiar with this standard 400-word communication piece, and it's still an efficient, effective way to reach and build positive relationships with media, consumers, and other stakeholders. But in today's Web 2.0 world, we need to make sure we blend the best of yesterday's traditional PR strategies and tactics with the latest not-so-traditional strategies, tactics, AND technologies. The ability to understand, integrate, and leverage them is key to your future success.

The old adage holds true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. When creating a press release, the fundamentals of good communication, adaptations of the simple rules we learn early in our careers, are as important as ever, and continue—with the power of new technologies—to further successful communication strategies.

Know Your Story

Similar to a Hollywood movie's log line, if you can't boil down the essence of your story to just a few words, you don't know your story. And today's "McReader" won't take the time to learn it on his or her own. Deciding the goal of your message is key. A movie poster that simply reads, "More Fear Than You've Ever Felt," quickly communicates what we're in for. Deciding before you write a single word what you want your audiences to come away with will ensure that you stay the course and not mistakenly communicate what you had never intended. You must be succinct. The headline of your press release and the first two paragraphs must answer the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and include the URL for your Web site. The third paragraph must include an engaging quote from a spokesperson who can be interviewed for further information. Remember that 400 words isn't a lot, so make sure each word counts.

Know Your Audience

One-to-many communication is simpler and faster today than it's ever been. But just because you can reach almost everyone, everywhere, with your press release doesn't mean it's good practice to do so. The simple fact is that "everyone" is not your audience. Targeting your messages to ensure that you reach those most interested has always been important, but perhaps now it's more important than ever, because it's so easy to connect with traditional and social media audiences, consumers, analysts, and other stakeholders. There is no one-size-fits-all in communication, and the more we know about our audiences—the beats they cover, stories they are interested in, products they blog about—the better prepared we are to build and establish relationships with the right people on the receiving end of our press releases.

Know Your Pitch

The blogosphere is buzzing with thoughts on why traditional press releases are ineffective tools to communicate with media, bloggers, and consumers in Web 2.0. Many argue that in today's media-saturated, 24/7 news cycle, recipients simply don't have time to read press releases, and the days of pitching your story based on a 400-word release are gone. But is that really the case? The push and pull of news and information still exists in Web 2.0, as does the relationship between those who write and those who want to be written about.

How you pitch and to whom has evolved, and today you can Twitter pitch someone as simply as you can call them. But keep in mind that the perfect pitch comes only with a solid understanding of your story. Whether you're communicating it to the features editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy or to one of the Web's most powerful bloggers on behalf of children's charities, you need to make that person understand—quickly and clearly—why he or she should care about what you have to say, and how it's relevant to him or her. When you have a solid understanding of your facts and your audience and how they fit together, you greatly increase the chances for positive results from your pitch and your press releases.

Know Your Tools, but Also Know Their Limits!

The introduction of the Social Media Press Release (SMPR, a press release that may or may not incorporate multimedia elements and is distributed through non-traditional channels) into the communicator's arsenal has at once excited and troubled many in the profession. Many communicators see the SMPR as the perfect vehicle for reaching consumers, non-traditional media, and on-line communities and providing them with multimedia-rich content and collaborative tools. Purists see the SMPR as content-heavy, misdirected communication that is a poor replacement for true media relations, primarily because it bypasses traditional media altogether.

There's truth in both arguments, because what works well for some announcements and some audiences doesn't necessarily work well for others. Just as an SMPR is a poor fit for a media advisory, trying to convey sight and sound or promote two-way communication with text alone is almost impossible. The array of shiny Web 2.0 accessories available for our press releases can be distracting: embedded photos and video, social media tags, audio files, RSS (Really Simple Syndication), and more. But social media should only be part of a communication strategy, and you need to learn which tools work best to engage which audiences. Bloggers and thought leaders such as Shel Holtz, Brian Solis, and Todd Defren are great sources of information on trends and best practices for communicating in Web 2.0. Tapping into free Webinars on PR 2.0 also provides a wealth of knowledge as you learn from your peers and their best practices.

Know Your Opportunities, and Strike When the Need Is at Its Greatest!

To give your story more "legs," consider adding a photo and caption. A picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words. And when media outlets need to fill news holes quickly, there's no element easier to drop in than your organization's photo and caption.

In addition, pay attention to when opportunity is at its greatest. During October, November, and December, media outlets need more content because of increased seasonal advertising. Their staffs have not increased to accommodate this need, so they are looking for stories they can use verbatim. Turning your 400-word press release into a feature news release with universal themes, statistics, and human-interest angles broadens its appeal and increases its chances to make headlining news. (Next month, we'll look at 10 tips for writing a feature press release, which should come in especially handy for nonprofits this holiday season.)

Know How to Monitor Your Results

Nonprofits with limited resources have always had to be mindful of return on investment (ROI). In today's economy and new communication environments, ROI becomes even more important. In addition, given the power of on-line communities and forums to create buzz about a topic or organization, it's imperative to keep on top of what's being said about you—be it good or bad.

Successfully navigating Web 2.0 and effectively using press releases to communicate with new and converging audiences can sometimes be difficult, but by adhering to the rules of knowing your story, your audience, your pitch, your tools, your opportunities, and more, it's entirely manageable and incredibly results producing. (And it sure is fun!)

Next month: Tips for writing a feature press release

Paolina Milana, Marketwire
© 2008, Marketwire

Paolina Milana is vice president of marketing for Marketwire, a leading newswire and communications work-flow provider. She brings nearly 20 years of experience as a former journalist and a seasoned PR and marketing professional with several years at a major nonprofit.
Topics: Communications