What the heck is "earned media" and why should your organization care?
By Tim Jacobson
~The Nonprofit Provocateur~
“If Jesus were here today, he wouldn't be riding around on a donkey. He'd be taking a plane, he'd be using the media.” -Joel Osteen
We live with a 24/7 news cycle, which can be a big plus for nonprofits hungry for publicity. Newspapers and local TV stations constantly hunt for stories, including positive, feel-good news. Your organization is, or should become, a fountain of positive activity and measurable results to improve the welfare of living beings—people, animals, or both. All you need to do is get this information in front of members of the media and your supporters and potential supporters in a timely and compelling fashion.
Garnering Great Headlines - Step-By-Step
By following these steps, your nonprofit organization should be able to consistently obtain prominent, free (earned) media coverage through a variety of news outlets.
Step 1: Do Good Work
The foundation for generating substantial news coverage is generating substantial, good news. Content is king. Because you are passionate about your cause and because the need for your organization’s services is great, there should be ample opportunities for your group to engage in noteworthy activities.
You don’t have to cure cancer or solve the problem of global climate change in order to merit prominent news coverage. Many small, positive accomplishments by nonprofits get recognized—at least for organizations not located in major media markets where there’s greater competition to make the news. Here is a list of ideas for news stories:
- -Programmatic success: Has your organization helped someone or some thing? Has your organization achieved a substantive goal?
- -Events: Has your group led a public celebration or maybe a nature hike? Is your annual fundraiser approaching?
- -People: Have new people joined the board of directors or the staff or become a volunteer?
- -Fundraising progress: Has a capital campaign been launched or a fundraising goal achieved? Have you obtained a report on the results of your annual fundraising event?
- -Tips for the public: Do you have timely advice that can be shared with the public? For example, if you are a child welfare or safety organization, try to get on the news before Christmas to talk about dangerous toys. If your group involves nature or conservation, try to get on the news to let people know what pretty birds they might expect to see with the arrival of spring.
- -Photo ops: Does the mission of your organization provide good photo opportunities? Are there cute little kids or wildlife or scenic vistas that could be photographed for newspapers or videotaped for TV stations?
Step 2: Watch, Listen & Read
Be aware of the types of news stories being run about other nonprofit organizations, and figure out what kind of stories gain traction with the media outlets in your market.
Step 3: Cultivate Relationships with Editors and Reporters
Get to know the local reporters, newspaper editors, and TV/radio news directors. Offer to take an editor or reporter out to lunch sometime, or offer to meet for coffee, to acquaint the person with you and your organization. There doesn’t have to be anything particularly newsworthy going on at the moment. Just get to know them and build the relationship. That way, when you do issue a news release, your contact is more likely to pay attention and look favorably upon it.
When a news story has been published about your charity, make a point of thanking the media outlet. Even a simple e-mail will be appreciated. All too often, media folks receive negative feedback from their readers, listeners and viewers. Happy people are less likely to contact them. This is a great way to stand out from the crowd.
Step 4: Craft Compelling Stories
In a separate article, I’ll tell you how to construct a compelling narrative. Don’t merely spit out the facts of what your organization has accomplished. Infuse the facts with emotion and context. Move people through a story by building tension or suspense until the story reaches a climax. Make clear who the protagonist and antagonist are—who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad guy? What obstacles has the good guy overcome to reach the achievement being announced?
Step 5: Create Multimedia Content
Don't wait for news organizations to create news content for you. Do it yourself! Journalists are busy people, and they run from one deadline to the next. Make their lives easier. You can do this by creating well-written news releases and by supplying beautiful photographs and/or video footage with your news releases.
Consider creating public service announcements (PSAs) about your organization or about public events you’re hosting (audio, video and/or print). Media outlets may offer to create these for you—either free or at a reduced cost.
One of the most creative such endeavors I’m aware of involved a nonprofit organization that convened a meeting of about a dozen community leaders in the offices of a group of radio stations owned by a person supportive of the charity. They held a group discussion about what these leaders liked about the work of the nonprofit and what value they thought the group brought to the community. After the group brainstorming session (which got them all thinking in very positive terms about the organization), one of the leaders was taken into a recording studio to record a radio public service announcement while another was taken into the station manager’s office where the person sat on a sofa and was videotaped talking about the good the charity performed in the community. Each person recorded both a radio PSA and a TV PSA. As a result, the nonprofit ended up with two-dozen PSAs. The group of radio stations broadcast these PSAs periodically for free over the course of several years. Similarly, a local TV station agreed to broadcast the video PSAs, which were edited by a videography intern, for free. As a result, the nonprofit received about $100,000 or more of free airtime, which substantially raised its visibility in the community. At the same time, although likely due to multiple factors, the charity’s membership numbers grew dramatically.
In a future article, I’ll discuss circumstances in which your nonprofit organization may want to convene a formal news conference and other situations in which e-mailing out a news release, along with making some phone calls, is sufficient. I’ll also cover ideas for how to conduct a compelling press conference.
‘Like’ and/or 'Share' this article below if you agree that earned media is useful for nonprofit organizations, and use the comment field to add your own thoughts or examples of how you've seen this put into practice. I'd like to hear from you!
Tim Jacobson is president of Visjonær Consulting & Communications. He's been a board member and executive of a number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's the executive producer of a conservation-themed documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, author of the book Explosive Nonprofit Marketing: Tips from the Trenches, to be published in 2014, and author of the Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been interviewed dozens, if not hundreds, of times by magazines, TV and radio stations and newspapers and has held successful news conferences in places like the precipice of a cliff overlooking the Upper Mississippi River as well as in plain old conference rooms. Dozens of his news releases have been printed nearly verbatim in several newspapers, and he has authored several newspaper op-ed pieces and magazine articles.
This article is copyright (c) 2013, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.