Nonprofit Public Relations Tips

A How-to Publicity Primer

Nonprofit Public RelationsThe good news for nonprofits feeling a bit perplexed about publicity-seeking is that the media is indeed always hungry for content. So whether your nonprofit is local, regional, or national in its scope, the key is to reverse-engineer what they’re seeking and provide compelling information to them in a timely manner.

Events and anniversaries present prime opportunities as the two key questions an editor or producer typically asks when being presented with a pitch is “why you?” and “why now?” So if you have a milestone coming up, planning your media outreach to fully leverage the opportunity is key as you may not have a similar opportunity for some time thereafter. For those needing to manufacture a newsworthy “event,” you might try camping onto one of the even zany holidays which can be unearthed by researching sites like or

Timing and targeting

In getting underway with your media outreach, if you have the latitude, try to do some diligent advance work in terms of sussing out any competing events being held at approximately the same time – if needed, you might consider rescheduling to achieve a clearer window of exposure. A nonprofit whose 25th anniversary I oversaw publicity for last year chose Memorial Day weekend for their mega event which was helpful for those attending (namely 500 volunteers who traveled from near and far to construct 25 homes for poor families over the course of two days), but nevertheless timing which ultimately proved a challenge in courting the media — especially given this particular event was also held across the border in Mexico and had no relevant tie-in with our American holiday of honoring our veterans. In this example, you can well imagine how many events were happening nationwide over that same high profile 3-day weekend.

Once you’ve done your best to ensure you’ve created the optimal timing for raising your organization’s profile, the next critical aspect is correctly targeting the media as well as utilizing appropriate lead times. If you’re seeking coverage in a monthly publication, you need to contact them a solid three months advance. For daily newspapers and radio, three to four weeks is typically sufficient. It might SEEM that contacting a given media outlet sooner yet would somehow give you an advantage, but you would be wrong in most instances. So, while a bit on the nerve-wracking side to pitch closer to an event, that’s nevertheless a matter of respecting the media’s own internal timetables.

Do your homework to ensure you’re reaching out to the most appropriate media in terms of the audience they serve and ensuring your message is of appeal to them. You may want a given media, but it’s instead all about why they should want you(r story). I also cringed when a well-meaning client suggested offering pay to a journalist – that’s completely unethical and would be a total nonstarter. That whiff of desperation also won’t endear you to a media professional.

Particularly important is thinking about which medium will be best to tell your story. Is it something that needs to be explained or discussed? Perhaps radio interviews would be ideal if so. If you want TV coverage, is the story “visual?” — showing will be the determining factor here, and having video footage to incorporate is typically essential for television. Also be aware that competition for coverage in physical print publications is stiffer than ever due to their lamentably waning ranks. So you can also research relevant high traffic websites and/or bloggers for exposure (use the same lead time referenced above for daily newspapers). Some first tier media publications also have separate online divisions and it is somewhat “easier” to get coverage with them as they are unrestricted by the economics of ink, paper, and postal costs.

Public Relations Tips for NonprofitsDo’s & don’ts of pitching

What is most helpful as you commence pitching is, again, to focus on what’s in their best interest. So timing a well-crafted and compelling summation of your upcoming event (or anniversary, etc.), and using the proper lead time for contacting them is vital. But given the relentless time pressures in this industry, DO keep it on the lean side initially. In fact, a key strategy I employ is laying out the salient points and then asking permission to send additional information – especially re: a press kit. Contacting someone for the first time and inundating them with attachments is generally received very unfavorably by the media.

When you do supply them with additional information, keep that on the lean side too as they simply don’t have time to wade through lengthy manifestos and mission statements, wordy bios, etc. Bullet points work well and keeping key information organized onto a single sheet of paper per component if possible is very well-received, e.g. a fact sheet, event flyer, roster of executives/staff, etc. Another helpful tool if an event/story is highly visual is to setup an online Press Room to organize and house various documents (.pdfs) as well as both high resolution and low resolution images and/or a collection of video clips with running times notated. If you’re interested in having ongoing media coverage, the investment of time to setup this resource initially will serve your organization well over time as it telegraphs a welcome level of professionalism to the media. Be sure to label everything clearly and make the Press Room easily navigable.

If event-oriented approaches don’t dovetail with the nature of your nonprofit or its current focus, stay sharp in turning around quick responses to news stories which relate specifically to your mission or goals. Once more, research is critical in terms of making contact with a journalist who covers that specific topic/beat or news director, etc. The media is continually needing to cite expert opinions – so be one for them. Again, keep your initial outreach lean in commenting on a developing news story is recommended; for example one that brings up a moral issue which relates to your work, proposed legislation, etc. Each individual pitch should always include your full contact information including all phone numbers, etc. Be prepared for the need to respond to follow-ups of theirs after-hours and DO reply quickly if this occurs. When an editor or producer wants more information, they’ll ask for it — and by pitching leanly you’re more apt to garner their attention, especially having not bogged them down by sending too much extraneous information on the front end.

If possible, snag a celebrity…or two, or seven

A significant game changer for any nonprofit is the acquisition of a celebrity endorser or participant – this was the tipping point for securing significant media coverage for the mega homebuilding event in Baja referenced earlier as nearly 20 Olympic athletes (the majority of whom were medalists) joined the build that weekend. The key in partnering with a celebrity is ensuring something about them resonates directly with your nonprofit’s work and/or the nature of the event itself ideally. For a nonprofit in Sonoma County who works with struggling families, I lined up the top-rated local radio personality to emcee the event along with the guest speaker who was a highly popular local Congresswoman, formerly a single mom on Welfare. “Celebrity” is anyone recognizable who will resonate with and help expand your story – both to your donors as well as the media, and keep in mind their sensibilities are likely shared, especially if you’re operating on the local community level.

While these are just a few elementary but hopefully helpful tips vs. a comprehensive guide, an overarching principle to keep in mind is that “the media are people too.” So be friendly, warm, (although not chatty), professional, don’t bug them with too-frequent follow-ups, and for heaven’s sake, no whining (!) or acting entitled to coverage. Highlight instead why sharing your news will be of interest to their audience of readers, listeners, etc. vs. emphasizing what’s in it for you—alas, that’s simply not a selling point on their side of the equation. Be respectful which includes checking spellings and pronunciations, even gender, to ensure your greeting is accurate. Our names are ours alone and nothing gets an exchange off to a more awkward start than having to apologize for having made a blunder of theirs. For example, I have a nickname which is commonly a man’s name, Sam, but I’m female. So I’m not keen on calls that begin with someone asking for Mr. Jernigan. Similarly, the editor who oversaw a story on a client of mine in Elle Magazine was herself named Alex. And since S.A.M was an acronym born when I had a different last name, so I also don’t appreciate being addressed as Samantha.

Nonprofit Public Relations TipsAt this point in our culture, I do just use the informality of first names for media outreaches and this is pretty universally accepted, and I then respond with however they sign off in their email reply. The People editor who assigned a writer for our mega Memorial Day nonprofit event is named Elizabeth, but when she wrote back she signed off as Liz, so that’s also how I addressed her from then on, but let them greenlight their own nickname — we all remember the lil’ ditty about what happens when we assume.

Lastly but definitely not leastly, regardless of whether you’re courting the notion of follow-up exposure with a given media after landing an interview booking/coverage by them, be gracious and DO send a handwritten thank you note in the mail to the producer/editor after the fact. You’ll not only brighten his or her day when it’s received (remember, they’re a fellow human!), but you’ll have left a positive impression on behalf of your nonprofit. And, after all, that’s the whole point of pursuing publicity in the first place, right? It’s also fine to send them any newsy tidbit a month or two down the road – you never know, and cultivating a potentially ongoing relationship as an expert source of theirs is a possibility. Just don’t add them to your roster for donor appeals or regular ezine updates, etc. as the last thing a busy media pro needs is more clutter in their in-box. Cheers and g’luck…!

Responding Before and After a Crisis Is as Important as When It Happens

Nonprofit PR AdviceThe last time I checked, nonprofits were still businesses.

  • People are served by a nonprofit’s actions.
  • A nonprofit has staff that addresses those people’s needs.
  • Planning is involved to ensure the business mission is carried out.
  • There is money exchanging hands.

So tell me why a nonprofit and for-profit organization are different again?

I DO know the difference.   I have been in the PR business for a long time yet have never understood why nonprofit organizations are categorized on their own.   They contribute impact and influence to our communities like for-profit brands.  They deserve more accolades than they typically get…

…except when things go bad.  When that happens, people dart away quicker than a blink of an eye.

Just ask the folks at the Susan Komen Foundation when it ended its Planned Parenthood funding how a small decision can impact long-term reputation, and how its poorly executed response perpetuated reputation damage.  Or ask the Board of Directors at the Wounded Warrior Project about why it took so long to address its executives’ alleged lavish spending on themselves as opposed to where funds were most needed.

Despite the best intentions, many nonprofit executives don’t prepare for these episodes.  What’s more we human beings often become impulsive, emotional, and irrational when a crisis arises—and they are the very three responses that won’t help your cause.

But smart executives plan for a crisis before and after it happens—as opposed to during it.  That is what ultimately fuels long-term survival.

Life Insurance for Your Reputation

Preparing for your “plane crash” makes other crises more manageable.  For a few moments, step away from your nonprofit role and step into the shoes of an administrator for your city’s busiest hospital.  Along with managing daily operations, she is also holding disaster drills to ensure the hospital is ready for any situation that comes its way.  When disaster does strike, she manages public safety officials and the ambulances carrying patients so they get the best care; she manages staff and current patients within the hospital to ensure they are safe; she works with communications teams to keep media agencies informed; she has messages to inform families, media and others about the situation.  Web sites and phone numbers are ready so patients and members of the community can learn about loved ones.  Information is her ally.

We would never wish for such an incident, but planning for YOUR worst case scenario with the right information allows you to align staffing and operations, and how needs change when Boards and executive teams have to flip the switch to “code red.”  Thinking about the worst also allows you to plan ahead when things don’t cost as much to do—as opposed to when the crisis hits and your Board is authorizing spending that offsets organizational mission.

Think about the effects of your actions before AND AFTER making your decisions.   No matter what Boards of Directors say to the contrary, there is always room for second and third opinions about a decision being made, the timing in which it is being enacted and (important to this day and age) how social media could respond to the decision.

Bringing back our example at the Komen Foundation, the YouTube video and countless posts on Facebook and Twitter about how poorly executed the plan was did so much damage to the reputation of the organization; no one had sought opinions about how or if the decision would affect the reputation of the brand or those associated with it.  The organization and its PR team spent countless dollars and resources trying to restore its reputation—and to this date, it’s still not totally forgotten.

Review AND MEASURE policies for future needs.   When a crisis hits, you need fingers on the pulse of what your stakeholders and influencers think about a situation.  Importantly, though, you need to stay in constant communication with them so they know you’re addressing the problem—and proving it to them.  Stakeholders know when an adverse situation is being swept under a rug.  They don’t want to see statements; they want to see proof that change is happening.  Measurements go farther than process; show your stakeholders what the changes look and feel like—and secure their inputs.

To be sure, no two crises are the same.  But a little planning ahead of and after the issue can go a long way.  How far do you want to plan?  That’s up to you.

The “New PR” Can Deliver Big (and FREE) Results for Nonprofits

Nonprofit PR Advice - Excellent ReadPublic Relations as a discipline has undergone significant changes in the last 20 years. Gone are the days of mailing press releases and placing dozens of calls a day to a long list of reporters that might possibly be interested in your story (truth be told…they mostly hung up on the callers). Though some lament the changes since they have mostly resulted in fewer face-to-face or even voice-to-voice communications, the reality is that used effectively, new technology has advanced our ability to successfully execute a PR campaign. PR strategists can now track the success of messaging, what reporters are writing about (how often and for whom), who is reading the content (where and when) and much more. There is a new software application being launched what seems like every month to help PR professionals do their job more efficiently. But, the traditional foundation of PR remains the same – spread the message in earned placements.

Given the challenges that nonprofits face – staffing, budget, resources – PR is one of the most effective and efficient ways for a nonprofit to spread its message. Despite what many communications professionals learned in college (hours and hours of lectures…ugh) most PR is not about crisis communications or promoting a household brand. PR is about communicating your organization’s message to the people that are most likely to communicate it to the audience you most care about. It pretty straight forward. PR isn’t rocket science, but it is knowing what to say, how to say it and to whom you want it said. And, through measurement, making sure all of that is getting through to your audience.

PR is an elegant use of messaging and tools carefully developed and executed to reach your audience. However, before an organization can begin “communicating,” it must first determine who it wants to reach. Who is the audience that can most positively impact the organization? Next, develop the message/messaging that will best resonate with that audience (for example: determine if your messaging should be formal, casual, quantifiable data, emotional, etc.). Once you’ve tackled those – audience and message – the research begins. If you don’t already know the reporters, bloggers, or influencers that are writing about and talking about your organization and its key issues (don’t worry – most people don’t know or only know a few), then you need to do your research and develop a list of those contacts. Once your first steps are complete, it is time to start cranking out content and putting it to work!

There are a variety of content tools that PR professionals use to communicate an organization’s message to the media and the broader target audience. They include:

Press Releases – despite what some reporters say, the press release is not dead. However, it has evolved. Short news announcements that briefly outline the news are far more preferable than long, detailed press releases often used in the past. Graphics and photos are also always appreciated. Even better news for nonprofits is there are a wide variety of free press release distribution services so the cost of sending your announcement to the media is zero.

Media Advisories – these aren’t dead either and as “mini-releases” they are shorter, who, what, when, where-style announcements that are ideal for announcing events.

Social Media Content – this covers a great deal, but the good news for nonprofits is that content developed for social media can be re-purposed in a wide variety of ways. Not repeated, but reworked so similar content can be used for blog posts, Facebook posts, tweets, pins, etc.

Email Pitches – since a large number of reporters are now covering several beats and media outlets are understaffed, they tend to largely prefer pitches via email (vs. phone calls). The content that is being used for social media and press releases will also likely be the basis of a good email pitch. The keys are to make it short, sweet, compelling and actionable. Sell your story/issue/concern in a few sentences and ask for the next step (specify the action you want them to take or the follow up action you plan to take). Above all…be professional and human.

Phone Pitches – much of the approach that works in email pitches, works in phone pitches with the important addition of when you get them on the phone, show reporters the courtesy of asking if they have time to speak with you.

Issue Statements – nonprofits are in the ideal position to make statements about issues being discussed in the media. The key is to develop and distribute the issue statement in a very timely manner. As soon as news breaks that the organization can speak to in a meaningful way, draft a quick statement to that effect, offer the name and title of the person that can be interviewed on the topic and distribute it to the media (this can be done via press release distribution platforms or email).

Awards – don’t miss any opportunity to be recognized for your great work. Although there are some paid awards that wouldn’t be ideal for a nonprofit, there are many free ones that all you have to do is complete the nomination form. And, if you win an award, don’t forget to tell everyone about!

Speaking Opportunities – share your success with others. Sign up to speak at conferences where you can share best practices with other nonprofits.

And more!

With smart planning and the commitment to doing it right, PR is an incredibly effective tool for nonprofits to get their message out. Don’t miss the opportunity to put it to work for your organization.

Nonprofit PR: Where do I even start?

In between working toward your mission, firming up your donor base, reporting to your board, and recruiting and managing volunteers, time runs out before you complete your to-do list. There is simply not enough time in the day.

nonprofit PR adviceEven more troubling is that you have been so focused on operations, you haven’t had any time to promote your organization’s good work. Unfortunately, this is a missed opportunity because positive publicity would help increase awareness of your nonprofit, reach more donors and volunteers, protect your reputation if the road gets rocky, and get in front of new audiences who could potentially help you achieve your goals.

When you do finally get a few minutes to think about publicity, promotion or reputation management, the to-do list seems endless. The best place to start on your public relations strategy is on the foundation elements: online media room, organization backgrounder, biographies, fact sheet and media list. Taken one at a time, these elements are doable and affordable. When assembled together, they provide a cohesive platform for proactive communication and reputation management your nonprofit can build on for years.

Online Media Room

This is a dedicated space on your nonprofit’s Web site just for members of the media. Reporters and bloggers have their own way of talking and writing. By offering them information on a Web page just for them, you are showing media you respect their unique needs. The actual Web doesn’t need to be fancy – in fact, if it is too slick or polished, it may turn reporters off. However, it should be easy to:

  • access – one click away from the home page, usually under the “About Us” section;
  • navigate – clear sections, links and search capability; and
  • download information – no passwords or registrations required.

According to the 2014 TEKGROUP Online Newsroom Survey Report, “97% of journalists think it’s important for organizations to have an online newsroom.” The news or media site should include the essential materials that will educate a reporter on the organization and its mission, and encourage further communication with the organization, including:

  • media contact information – who reporters should call or email with questions or requests, and if possible, include a hyperlink to launch an email to that person;
  • news releases – recent and those older than 12 months;
  • downloadable assets – logos, high-resolution photos of leaders or images that depict your organization’s impact, videos;
  • social media links – if your organization has Twitter, Facebook or other social media sites, include these links;
  • calendar of events – key upcoming activities and events help reporters plan timely coverage
  • background materials – such as annual reports/donor reports, biographies, organization backgrounders, and fact sheets (see below); and
  • links to other coverage – if possible, add in links to other stories your nonprofit has appeared in the media previously to help provide context for reporters.

Organization Backgrounder

Nonprofits need to convey their story to reporters in a simple yet engaging way. Unlike a donor-focused Web site or a pamphlet to recruit volunteers, the background document does not focus on a call to action. Rather, its purpose is to make it easy for reporters to quickly understand the key facts about the nonprofit organization in two-three pages. After an introductory paragraph about the mission and vision for the organization, the backgrounder should include subsections covering:

  • services it provides and the populations it benefits;
  • how it plans to achieve its objectives;
  • major contributors;
  • leadership team;  and
  • key milestones in the organization’s history.


An organization’s leadership shapes its direction and contributes to its credibility and reputation. Reporters understand this and appreciate learning about the management team through brief biographies. Start with the president, but continue drafting biographies to cover key functional areas of staff, such as heads of programs, finance, and donor relations. All the biographies should follow a consistent format and structure. Each should start with a summary sentence covering the leader’s career, expertise and time with the organization. Then, commenting on the present position first, describe focus areas, responsibilities and notable qualities of the leader. Work backward listing previous experience while highlighting relevant accomplishments throughout his or her career. Conclude with college education and any current offices held in other organizations. Always accompany the written biography with a high-resolution photo of the nonprofit leader.

Fact Sheet

To help reporters understand the work nonprofits conduct and why it is important, they should develop a fact sheet. This two-page document helps frame the underlying issues that form the foundation of the nonprofit’s mission. For example, if a nonprofit focuses on animal rescue, a fact sheet would help explain the need for these services by outlining the number of abandoned domestic animals, the services the animal rescue organization provides, and the effect the services have on the cause. An organization can have multiple fact sheets to cover each of the issues it supports or programs it offers. Given the brevity of this document, use bullets to help communicate pertinent details a reporter can weave into a story.

Media List

Now that you have the core foundation materials, knowing the right reporters to contact will help you prioritize and focus your communication efforts. Start by listing the key audiences you hope to reach. Depending on your goals, you could think about potential donors, volunteers, neighbors or potential beneficiaries. For each audience, list the top-five media outlets they are likely to consume. Read, watch and listen to the content covered in each vehicle to understand its focus and coverage areas. In doing so, you will also determine the reporters and bloggers who would be most likely to write a story about your organization or cause. Capture this information in a spreadsheet so you will be ready to contact the right reporters when you have news of impact to communicate.

Nonprofit organizations are doing tremendous work to help our planet and its residents. However, the dedication and motivation in achieving their missions often consumes all of the work hours in a day. As daunting as it may initially seem, nonprofits should view public relations as a strategic investment in their long-term success.

Instead of trying to launch a major PR campaign, start small by addressing each of the foundation elements. Take them one at a time, focusing on quality over quantity. Before you know it, you will have a solid arsenal of PR tools you can tap into when you have exciting news to share or an opportunity to promote your cause and results.



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