21st Century press release: creating your own content


Nonprofits and their need for media attention have been on my mind lately. I reviewed a new version of a textbook on advocacy and organizing that I have used in class before, and I noticed that the section on writing press releases and holding press conferences is virtually unchanged from previous versions. A few days later, I was talking with a nonprofit organization that is planning a press event in the state capitol and helping them think through how to manage their information dissemination for maximum impact. Later that night, I was going through my RSS feed, checking out updates. And, then, as these things often happen, all of those encounters mixed together in my brain at some point (probably while in the shower; I do my best planning then!), and got me wondering whether nonprofit organizations really need traditional media outlets to tell their stories in the same way, and to the same extent that we used to.

In the age of blogs and social media, how can we modify our press strategies to not only get our message out but, more importantly, start a conversation with those most likely to support our work? How can we use new media technologies to change the context around our work and influence the kind of traditional coverage we get? How can we use that traditional media to drive traffic to the more interactional sites where real relationship building can happen?

Do we still need press releases? Should we still have press conferences? Do we need a blog?

I think, ultimately, that the answer to all of those questions is ‘yes’. That doesn’t mean more and more work for nonprofit communications folks, though (read: the people who wear a ‘communications’ hat in addition to dozens of other things that they’re doing). Here are my thoughts on how to bring these goals together with today’s technology, and in today’s media environment, along with some fantastic links to nonprofits that are using an official blog to great effect.

  • We still need traditional media to reach those who use it as a primary media source, but we need to be smart about that audience and about the limitations of the venue. I have written before about some of the challenges facing newspapers and other traditional media outlets, and about the importance of recognizing those in preparing our content–helping with stories, understanding their deadlines, submitting things that appeal to the demographic slice where your target audience overlaps with their reader/viewership.
  • This also means thinking about how traditional media are using new media like blogs, online content, and social networking themselves–how can you connect to media in those contexts in ways that will generate coverage for your organization? Are you ‘friends’ with your local reporters on Facebook? Following local media on Twitter? Do you read blogs by reporters that cover your areas of work?
  • All of your traditional media should funnel folks back to your own, organization-generated content. That was part of the discussion I had in advance of this Topeka event–all press releases should have your organization’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed link, and blog (as applicable). You should also think about ways to get media coverage for your new tactics. This does NOT mean sending out a press release because you started a Facebook fan page (yes, I have seen it done). But it does mean that raising a significant amount on money through social networking may, in fact, be newsworthy, just as a fundraising event would be. Think about what that success says, not just about your organization, but about the changing face of nonprofit media engagement. Pitch it to the newspapers, radio stations, and/or television stations in a way that doesn’t denigrate what they do as news providers. And direct people to connect with you through those sources, too.
  • Perhaps most importantly, prepare different kinds of content for the different venues. Think about your traditional media work primarily as reaching out to those with whom you don’t currently have a relationship and setting the general tone of conversation about your issues/work. And then create your own content, where you have more control over the outgoing message AND can invite meaningful exchange–in your social networking and blogging platforms.
  • Frame these ‘new’ media activities as MEDIA, to get organizational buy-in for them. Most nonprofit CEOs and Boards of Directors understand the importance of media coverage, but many are more skeptical about social networking’s real impact or about the tremendous time commitment of a blog. Helping leaders at your organization see how the two can feed each other can help to overcome some of this initial hesitation and build a better strategy across the board.
  • Finally, there are times when you may want to skip the whole “write a press release, work the phones, try to get coverage” thing. When the people with whom you mainly want to communicate are those with whom you already have some sort of relationship, or when you hope to really generate conversation, more than anything, a well-written, well-connected agency blog can do this more effectively and efficiently than traditional media. There are some good resources available for nonprofit organizations interested in starting a blog, so I’m not going to reiterate those points. And here are some
    great examples of nonprofit organization blogs; if you’re interested in those written about nonprofit work, I’d be happy to share my RSS reader with anyone!

    Citizens’ League of Minnesota–website features two different blogs related to their efforts to engage people in Minnesota in discussions about progressive policy work.

    Oceana–a conservation group using a blog to invite conversation about people’s experiences with ocean wildlife.

    Oxfam News blog–this is my personal favorite of this list; I love the first-person accounts of Oxfam’s work around the world and the call-to-action in nearly every post

    First Book–this is an organization that gives books to programs that serve low-income kids; what I like about the blog is that it appeals to people not just as donors or volunteers, but also as parents and readers, with reviews and news on child literacy. I’d check this site out even if it wasn’t for a nonprofit organization.

    One thing that you’ll notice about many nonprofit blogs is that some of the best ones are for more advocacy-oriented nonprofits. Not that that’s a bad thing, obviously, but there’s also tremendous possibility for direct service nonprofits to use blogs. The links above give great suggestions for how to set up your blog (technology to use for hosting, how to encourage sharing and linking, how to think of topics, etc…). I’ll just end with a few ideas for social service nonprofits, in particular:

  • Highlight a volunteer per week–a photo, an interview, and, of course, a call to potential volunteers!
  • Profile client success stories, ideally in the clients’ own words
  • Highlight public policies that impact your programs, and include information to help readers take action
  • Discuss issues facing your nonprofit, using your blog to ‘crowdsource’ ideas from other nonprofits and from leaders in the community

    What about you? What are your favorite nonprofit blogs? How is your organization using a blog? Or how might you? What help do you need to get started? How is your traditional media work informing your social/new media, and how it it being transformed by the multiple and evolving connections you have to your various ‘publics’? How might you modify your press work to reflect this new environment?

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