Some nonprofit organizations struggle with PR coverage while other, similar organizations seem to scoop up all of the media stories. Why is this? Often, it all comes down to an organization’s PR strategy and how a nonprofit is presenting itself in its messaging to the general public, across marketing materials and directly to reporters.Some nonprofit organizations struggle with PR coverage while other, similar organizations seem to scoop up all of the media stories. Why is this? Click To Tweet
At Prosper Strategies, we excel in developing nonprofit PR strategies and securing media placements for our clients. Two clients who serve as great examples of this success are United Way of Metro Chicago and The Great Books Foundation.
United Way of Metro Chicago is an organization that works with neighborhood partners throughout Chicago to tackle systemic issues like racism, segregation and intergenerational poverty. In their work with us, they’ve earned media coverage on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times, in The Wall Street Journal and more.
The Great Books Foundation is a 70+-year-old education organization that promotes in-depth, thought-provoking discussions about literature for students and adult readers of all ages and provides the reading materials, questions and instructor training to facilitate those discussions. They’ve earned media coverage from major outlets like the HuffPost, CBS online and more.
Your organization could see the same nonprofit PR results. For a moment, let’s take a closer look at the work we’ve done for both organizations as a way to provide some tips for securing great media coverage for your nonprofit organization:
Use storytelling in your PR outreach to demonstrate your mission in action
When you communicate why your mission is currently relevant in your nonprofit PR outreach, members of the media are more likely to pay attention. However, remember media coverage centers around human interest and reporters are always looking for knowledgeable sources. Take the demonstration of your mission a step further in your PR outreach by using a real-life story that brings your work to life for reporters.
As we prepared for PR outreach on behalf of the Great Books Foundation, we talked to principals and teachers about their experiences with the programs, and used their insights to guide our pitches. When reporters showed interest in the materials we shared, we offered to directly connect them with educators and students who could give them first-hand accounts of their experiences with Great Books. When stories about the Great Books Foundation published, they were rich with anecdotes from educators that also served to validate the organization’s great work.
Our approach for United Way of Metro Chicago was similar. As we explored media angles for them, we first gathered a variety of stories from their staff, community partners and program participants that allowed us to better understand their impact in action. We then chose from among these stories when planning our outreach.
One important note on storytelling: there can be a tendency for reporters to lean toward negative stories. If that’s the case with the reporter you are working with, don’t be shy to ask them what their angle is going to be and why they’re so interested in taking the negative route. If there’s room to clarify why these types of stories are harmful to your work, by all means, share that with the reporter and gauge their response. We find that often with some knowledge sharing, most reporters are willing to change their angle. If the reporter is still after the negative story, walk away, or at the very least, ensure the people being featured in the story have an opportunity to opt out of anything that might make them uncomfortable.
Align your nonprofit PR outreach with current events in a way that’s resonant and takes risks
Ask yourself: “Why is our organization and its work particularly important to the world right now?” Your answer to that question is what makes your organization newsworthy.Ask yourself: 'Why is our organization and its work particularly important to the world right now?' Your answer to that question is newsworthy. Click To Tweet
It may be scary to attach your nonprofit PR outreach to a particular issue, especially a political one, because you don’t want to alienate any donors or other stakeholders. But you have to remember that you can’t be everything to everyone. People care about what’s happening in the world, especially now, and you can get the attention you’re looking for by igniting the public’s passions.
During the 2016 election cycle, we had the idea to pitch a feature for Great Books Foundation on students participating in a Shared Inquiry discussion about a divisive topic (immigration, through the lens of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus”) to demonstrate that anyone, even young children, can successfully engage in civil discourse. We rode the media wave following the presidential debates and focused our attention on pitching the story to major national outlets with the hook that 6th graders can debate more civilly than the presidential candidates. The piece was picked up by CBS Online and did an amazing job spotlighting the organization’s work.
In United Way’s case, we’ve had great success framing the organization’s impact in neighborhoods throughout Chicago as more necessary than ever in response to the health, economic and social disparities associated with COVID-19. This has been a central hook in everything from our pitches about their COVID-19 relief fund (an obvious connection) to pitches about their Board Leadership Institute (a not so obvious one).
Spotlight the powerful personalities and expertise of your organization in your nonprofit’s PR outreach
You need at least one spokesperson who is well-versed in your mission, goals and initiatives to take the lead and be your voice for stories. The Great Books Foundation is particularly lucky to have multiple trainers and education and literature experts who can serve as the voice of the organization for any topic. Great Books Foundation team members have been featured in pieces on using literary discussions to combat school bullying, intersectional feminist issues and more. In United Way’s case, we typically default to their CEO as their main spokesperson, but have been able to successfully media train subject matter experts on a variety of topics, which has broadened the type of media coverage we can pursue.
Use events as an opportunity to leverage nonprofit PR
Timely events are a perfect opportunity to attract media attention for your organization. Conduct PR outreach out to reporters in advance of an event and tell them how the event will help you further your mission, who you will help and, most importantly, why your initiatives are particularly important now.
And don’t focus your nonprofit PR outreach only on major outlets. You can also seek out niche publications targeting audiences that are directly related to the event topic.
When the Great Books Foundation participated in a local event featuring a discussion on LGBTQ+ and immigrant experiences with a contributor to one of their anthologies, we secured event coverage in the Windy City Times, Chicago’s oldest LGBTQ+ news publication. And while circulation is small, the impact of a piece in this highly-focused newspaper was far greater than that of a more general publication.
United Way has seen similar results. When they released their report about the number of Chicago households that are designated as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or what many call the “working poor”) we had success securing coverage with both mainstream outlets like the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, and niche neighborhood outlets like Block Club.
Offer quantitative proof of impact in your nonprofit PR outreach
It’s no secret that reporters like numbers. Do you have any data that clearly demonstrates that what your organization does to help your constituents actually works? Or, do you have donor accountability information or mission measurement for annual reports? Supporting your pitches with data, particularly data tied to larger trends brings broader relevance to your story.
Through our work with education clients over the years, we’ve learned that education reporters take particular interest in proven methods with actionable steps educators can take to help students succeed and grow. The Great Books Foundation conducts studies on student test scores over the course of several years to assess the impact of their literature discussion programs. These studies have generated interest from major media outlets like The Washington Post and NPR as well as smaller education-focused news sites like The Hechinger Report and Edutopia.
I’ll leave you with one rule of thumb when it comes to nonprofit PR outreach: lean heavily on what’s unique about your organization and why that matters now. Does your leadership have an interesting background? Is your mission something that hadn’t been considered before your organization was founded? Do you have a unique take on solving a problem that demonstrably works? Focus on these aspects in your outreach to reporters and your nonprofit PR coverage will be far easier to secure.
If you have any questions about how you can secure more media coverage for your organization, contact us. Or, you can download our nonprofit public relations checklist.
What Makes a Good Story?
As you craft your PR strategy and plan your media pitches, whether to educate audiences about your focus area or draw attention to an event or program, ask yourself whether your story idea meets one or (ideally) more of the following requirements in our resource.
This post was originally published in June, 2017 and updated on September 4, 2020.