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Promoting Your Not-for-Profit through Public Relations

Public relations is vital to the success of not-for-profit organizations. No matter how important your cause is, you should not expect that everybody will know about it or even about your organization. Proactive communications is essential to success. From building awareness and credibility to supporting fundraising efforts, a well-executed, strategic public relations program can make the difference between achieving one's goals or falling desperately short of them.

In fact, not-for-profits stand to benefit a great deal from successful PR programs. The following tips and tactics will illustrate how easy it is to launch your public relations—no matter how large or small your organization.

Tips and Tactics to Get Started

The ultimate goal of most public relations programs is to generate positive media coverage in the publications and outlets that are read by an organization's target audiences. It's no different for not-for-profits.

Whether the media coverage you seek marks the beginning of a campaign to influence the public on a particular issue, initiates a fundraising campaign, or is simply the basis for increasing awareness of your organization, there's a good deal of advance preparation that needs to take place before you land that story.

There are five important tactics that your organization can use to generate the desired media coverage, whether you have a dedicated PR person or not:

  • Framing the story and writing a news release
  • Targeting and connecting with the appropriate media
  • Distributing your news
  • Developing experts and promoting them as a reliable source
  • Monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of your efforts

Framing Your Story and Writing Your News Release

News releases are a great way for a not-for-profit to build awareness about a cause or to begin a fundraising campaign. A news release should be written in a journalistic, rather than a marketing, style. It should be objectively written as though a reporter were writing the story for you. Most important, your release needs to "inform" people, NOT just "sell" them something. It should include a headline that grabs the reader's attention and speaks directly to the "news"; a lead paragraph that contains the information most relevant to your message, such as the five W's (who, what, when, where, why) and a short boilerplate description of your organization. The release should always list a contact who can be reached at any time in case a reporter has follow up questions.

If you are initiating a campaign to raise funds, make sure you include information on where people can make donations and a link to your organization's Web site for more details on the cause and campaign.

Targeting, Influencing, and Reaching Appropriate Media

Knowing where members of your target audience get the information that drives their decisions is one of the most important aspects of a PR program. Once you have this information, determine which reporters cover news related to your organization or causes. There are many ways to do this, some more time- and cost-effective than others. They include:

  • Subscribing to the publications read by your target audience
  • Utilizing search engines to find on-line editions
  • Following media-focused newsletters or publications to keep abreast of changes at outlets
  • Using a media database that provides:
    • On-line access from anywhere
    • Worldwide contacts
    • Geographic, subject, beat, title, pitching tips, search capabilities
    • Distribution and delivery mechanisms
Whatever method you choose, familiarize yourself with the publication to learn what each reporter covers and what interests him or her and his/her audience.

If you've used a media database to create your media contact list, you should consider distributing your news release directly to this list. In addition, consider using a newswire service, one of the most cost-effective ways of directly reaching the media—as well as potential donors or sponsors.

Distributing Your News

Newswire services provide a huge benefit to not-for-profits that are trying to establish themselves, increase awareness of their causes, raise money, or solicit sponsorship funds. For as little as $105, a commercial newswire can distribute your news release electronically to thousands of major and secondary daily newspapers, weeklies, relevant trade journals, broadcast outlets, and wire services (i.e., Associated Press and Reuters).

The benefit of using a newswire doesn't stop there. Ever wonder how all those news releases get posted on Google? Through a commercial newswire service, the only way to get visibility in such portals as Google, MSN, Yahoo!, AOL, and Excite. Newswires let you reach hundreds of thousands of individuals, decision makers, and other influential people through the Internet.

Some services even offer search engine optimization tools, which make news releases more likely to show up higher in search results on leading search engines and keep them on these search engines for up to six months. This is an extremely effective way of reaching donors or sponsors directly with your news when they are searching for information on particular subjects. Include a URL that links to a donor opportunity to make your news release an even more effective tool. Plus, the keyword reporting features provided with these optimization services can help you tailor future messaging and gain a better understanding of how your audience seeks information on your organization.

Developing Experts and Promoting Them to the Media

Developing experts within an organization and creating platforms from which they can provide their opinions is vital to securing lasting media coverage. A nonprofit should always have a few experts on hand to discuss the organization's objectives, explain the cause or point of view on a particular subject in detail, and provide support to sponsors and donors.

Profiling key spokespeople on the organization's Web site or in widely available expert databases gives reporters easy accessibility to these experts. If your expert can respond to something that is currently in the news, consider sending out a media advisory alerting reporters to the availability of the spokesperson and his/her position on the topic.

Monitoring and Measuring the Effectiveness of Your Program

You should always know what articles or postings have been written about your organization or what news of interest to your nonprofit has been published on the Internet and in print. There are tens of thousands of Web sites and other on-line information sources that could potentially post something of interest or importance to you, and there are several methods you can use to find this information.

The most basic approach to "monitoring" is manually searching the Internet by inputting keywords into search engines, which can be time consuming and redundant. A more sophisticated approach is signing up for RSS feeds or subscribing to a service that monitors news sources and provides reports that link to articles based on specific keywords. These services allow you to stay on top of what's being said about your organization and about entities with differing viewpoints, enabling you to make more informed decisions, tweak messaging, and get an overall gauge of the organization.

"Measuring" the effectiveness of a PR program is a major challenge for all organizations, whether they are not-for-profits, government agencies, or even associations. Measurement, however, is key to analyzing the impact of certain messages, changing messaging mid-program, and assessing the quality of coverage. For many nonprofits, monitoring and measuring might appear to be luxuries you can't afford; there are, however, cost-effective services that can go a long way toward helping you understand how your audience may be viewing your news.

With a program or campaign that includes all of these fundamental elements—news releases, targeting and distributing to appropriate media, developing experts, and monitoring and measurement—you have a full-circle approach to your public relations efforts.

Daniel Selnick, PR Newswire
© 2005, PR Newswire

Daniel Selnick is vice president for Public Policy Services at PR Newswire. PR Newswire offers not-for-profits a complete range of products and services uniquely designed to assist in increasing visibility with their critical audiences-the media, the public, donors, sponsors, and decision makers.
Topics: Communications