Revised with new information as of March
Basic Press Outreach for
(nonprofits, NGOs, civil society, public sector agencies, etc.)
Like fund raising, press relations is an ongoing cultivation process.
Your organization's strategy for press coverage needs to go beyond trying
to land one big story; you want various press outlets to know that you are
THE organization to contact whenever they are doing a story on a subject
that relates to your organization's work, and that you are a reliable
source for information and stories. In short, you want to be quoted or
referenced in a variety of stories, not just one.
Therefore, don't think that every press release is going to result in
press coverage -- it's not. But sustaining regular press contacts will
build recognition of your organization among reporters, and the result
will be ongoing payoffs down the road. As coverage for your organization
is generated, you won't just be reaching new audiences -- you will also be
reaching current volunteers, supporters (including donors) and clients,
reminding them of what your organization is doing and what they have
chosen to be a part of.
The Basics of Press Relations
The following suggestions are low-cost or no-cost activities. They don't
require money to undertake, as much as they require time and
What about online press release distribution services? For most nonprofit
organizations, these aren't worth the fee they charge.
- Make a commitment to return calls from the media immediately.
Whether it is a large newspaper or a small community radio show, if a
representative tries to reach you, always call or email that person back
immediately. The person contacting you could be on deadline, and
if they don't reach you immediately, they might move on to another
There was a certain public figure in the USA that I loathed.
I'm not going to say his name, but I will say that he was not an
elected official, but he was very politically active (he died
several years ago). I could not figure out why he was always
on TV and in every news article I read about certain topics. I thought
he had some high-profile PR company representing him. But then I heard
a reporter say that the "secret" was that this person always
and promptly called any media person back, and would talk to any
media representative, no matter how small the media outlet. The
reporter said that, since he was so easy to reach and would always
comment, no matter what time of day, that the press called on him
again and again for comments -- it was easier than trying to track
down someone else.
- Make a commitment to be honest with the press. Treat the press the
way you want to be treated. The moment the press decides you aren't
telling them the truth, they will deliver a public relations nightmare
to you and your initiative. That doesn't mean going out and telling the
press every bad thing happening at your initiative, but it does mean
answering press questions to the BEST of your abilities - and that can
include this phrase: "I do not have a comment on that."
- Next: is your mission statement the perfect, brief description of
your organization? If not, revise it before you approach the press. If
you don't write a good, brief description of your organization
and have such displayed prominently on your Web site and letterhead, in
press releases and brochures, etc., the press will make up one
themselves -- and it may or may not be accurate. As a followup to the
previous step: everyone at your organization should be able to recite
that mission statement from memory. If it's too long for paid staff,
volunteers and board members to easily remember, it's too long for the
press to remember as well.
- Media relations needs to be fully supported by everyone at
your organization, and you need policies and procedures around your
organization's press relations. Answering these questions is a start in
forming your policies:
- Who is responsible for media relations at your organization
(writing press releases, answering calls from the press, inviting
press to events, etc.)? Does the person who answers the phone know
to refer ALL calls from the press to that staff member?
- Do all paid staff members and volunteers (including board
members) know exactly what to do if they are contacted by a press
representative? (do they talk with that person and then let the
organization's media contact person know they have done so, or, do
they refer the reporter to the media contact person FIRST before any
conversations/interviews take place?) Decide on a policy, one way or
another, and make sure it is communicated to everyone.
- Other than the press relations contact person, who at your
organization needs to know that a photographer or camera crew is
showing up at your organization or event? The press relations person
should brief everyone at the organization as quickly as
possible if a photographer or camera crew is on its way.
- Should the press contact person be present at all interviews?
That's up to you. My personal rule when in charge of media relations
is that I am to be present at all media interviews unless I am absolutely
certain that the interviewee will be able to answer all
questions, that he or she feels comfortable with my not being there,
and I know the interviewer well. That policy comes from trying to
balance giving a person enough "space" with providing proper
- As a result of your media outreach activities, what exactly do
you want to happen? More people at an event? A particular group of
people at an event (such as potential donors, government officials,
local religious leaders)? An increase in the number of online
references to your organization? An increase in recognition of your
organization among the general public? Know your goals, think about
how your media outreach activities could reach those goals, and
think about ways to measure your success.
- Identify all area media outlets, long before you ever have the need
to contact them. You want the names, postal addresses, phone numbers,
fax numbers, and email address of all local daily and weekly newspapers,
all TV stations, all radio stations, all organizations and editors that
maintain event calendars (such as a tourism board that serves your area,
or the nearest consulates or embassies of other countries), all press
bureau offices for national or major regional media in your area, and
all TV programs, radio programs and specific beat reporters that would
be interested in your initiative's work in particular. Don't forget
ethnic-specifc or culturally-specific press outlets serving your area.
If you are in a rural area, also identify the major media outlets for
the nearest metropolitan area. You can use Google
or Bing to compile this information,
as well as contacting other organizations for advice.
You don't necessarily have to have reporter's names - sending
something to "Attention Calendar Editor" at a newspaper will get to
the right person as quickly as putting that person's name on it. And
given the high turnover in media, it's certainly easier to maintain
your database of media contacts this way.
Also, look for reporters at national media outlets who cover your
specific geographic area or cover a topic that is closely aligned with
your initiative's mission. Regularly monitor free online news sources,
such as YahooNews, to find such
Don't wait until you have a press release to send to gather this
- Do you know how to write a press release? If not, type in these
Sample Press release
into Google; you will get a long
list of web sites that feature sample press releases. For your press
release contact information, put your cell phone as well as your office
phone, if you are not in your office most of the time.
- Do NOT contact ALL media outlets EVERY TIME you send a press release
(if such is more than every other month). If you do, you will overwhelm
the organization, and reporters and editors will stop reading your
materials. Also, some publications are highly-focused: a weekly
neighborhood or community paper may interested only in activities that
DIRECTLY and OBVIOUSLY involve their particular community or population
served. Therefore, you may have to tailor press releases to these
publications to illustrate this connection clearly.
Who gets what information, and when? The following is a general
overview, but you will need to tailor this for your own organization's
events and resources, as well as per your goals for media outreach.
For instance, I directed public relations activities for a
professional association in Austin, Texas for two years; this
organization had a limited space for its monthly meetings. My first
efforts more than filled the room -- much to everyone's discomfort.
The association did not want to move to a bigger space and could not
provide microphones for speakers. So I scaled back by outreach
efforts, generating enough attendance just to fill the room and meet
the annual membership goals.
Working with other staff members, develop an outreach calendar: What
are the dates of events your organization will sponsor in the next six
months? What about events that will involve your Executive Director or
other key staff (a high-profile speaking engagement to a key group or
conference, for instance)? What about the launch of a new program or
service? The launch of your annual fund raising campaign?
Once you've developed this calendar of events, you can set your
dates to contact the media. Your press release "send" schedule should
follow this basic model:
- Calendar editors (including those that manage online calendars)
get press releases that announce events, workshops, etc. These
should be sent two - three weeks in advance for daily and weekly
publications; they should be sent at least eight weeks in advance
for monthly publications.
- Assignment editors at TV stations get press releases two weeks in
advance that announce events you think would provide good visuals
for the news. Remember that TV stations are looking for lively
visuals (faces and movement). You should also fax a reminder to the
assignment editor 12-24 hours before such an event -- a one page fax
with just the who, what, why, where, when, how, a contact name and
why this event is particularly "filmable" (this is one of those
cases where a fax is still better than email).
- Beat reporters (people who are assigned to a particular subject
or issue area, such as education, entertainment, senior issues,
sports, etc.) should get press releases ONLY for events, workshops
or services that relate to their particular focus. Send these two -
four weeks in advance.
- In urban areas, most radio stations have a music format, and have
very limited time for public service announcements. Send your press
releases to only those radio stations that feature regular news
times, audio event calendars or public affair shows, following the
sending guidelines above. For other radio stations, consider event
partnerships; are you hosting an event that would be a good place
for a radio station to set up a live broadcast? Or are you trying to
target a particular community or population that also makes up most
of an audience of a particular radio station (for instance, if an
organization is hosting a conflict resolution workshop for youth,
perhaps the radio station that teenagers listen to most in the area
would be willing to sponsor this event and promote it on their
- In addition to announcing events, you can send press releases to:
- announce new activities, the latest results of or changes in your
programs and services
- highlight particularly effective, unique, innovative or
interesting volunteer activities
- announce how a particular piece of pending or recently-passed
legislation will affect your organization and those it serves
- announce the results of your latest fund-raising efforts, a new
grant you have just received, or a partnership you have formed with
another organization/other organizations
- announce your latest annual financial
- announce awards your organization is giving or receiving
- announce staff changes
- announce an impending visit to your organization by an
- acknowledge a particular day of focus that relates to your
organization and its work
(for instance, if you are an environmental organization, send a
press release relating to Earth Day, about two weeks before the day
itself; or, if you are an organization with a program or programs
focused on women, send a press release relating to International
- Non-press organizations and other non-press representatives should
also get your organization press releases (as appropriate); this is how
you will build a public reputation and become associated with public
policy issues that might affect your organization's target population.
As a result, these organizations may start directing calls from the
press to you when they get them, as appropriate:
- city (mayor, council people), county, state (legislators) and
federal officials (congresspeople and senators) that represent your
- chambers of commerce (most areas are served by more than one --
there's the main one, but there also might be a Black chamber, a
women's chamber, etc.), tourist association, arts council, etc.
- send press releases announcing major events or activities to
local consulates or embassies representing other organizations (they
might refer foreign press to you)
- if you are in the USA: the United Way (even if you are NOT a
United Way agency)
- nonprofit development or support centers that serve your area
- nonprofit and public sector agencies in your area with a similar
- professional associations and civic groups
- university departments that have studies that focus on the same
areas served by your mission; for instance, if you serve children
and youth, send information to the teacher-training school within a
- Should you send press releases primarily via email, fax, phone calls
or post? It depends on your resources, the news you are providing, and
who you are contacting. Email is less of a cost than the post or fax,
but some reporters are so overwhelmed by junk mail, solicitations and
email press releases that your information could get lost in the sea of
cyberspace. I got my start in press relations in the pre-Internet days
(in fact, in the pre-fax days), sending press releases primarily by
postal mail, but I do use email now, most of the time, and with
excellent results. I supplement this with phone calls and/or faxes to
reporters when I'm targeting someone in particular for coverage.
Different situations call for different communications methods, and I'm
constantly altering my delivery methods based on the ever-changing times
and the results of my most-recent efforts. I can't give you an absolute
formula; you are going to have to figure this one out for yourself.
- Make sure the press see your executive director and other key staff
and board members as accessible. For instance, the head of your
organization should have lunch or dinner occasionally, one-on-one, with
key local reporters, not necessarily to pitch stories or to do an
interview, but just to network and cultivate a relationship. However,
staff members should NOT consider these meetings off the record; they
need to watch what they say and conduct themselves as representatives of
the organization at all times.
- Consider arranging with a local or national newspaper for your
executive director or another key representative to write an editorial
or commentary for the paper in conjunction with a current "hot" issue or
a day with special significance. You can ghost-write the column with him
or her. The editorial will probably have to be submitted three weeks
before the day the column is to run.
- Consider making an exclusive pitch to a reporter. For instance, if
there is a fantastic, exceptional success story regarding someone your
organization has helped, you could call a trusted press person with whom
you have a good relationship, and offer to set up an interview and photo
opportunity regarding this person only for that particular
- If your organization feels an event is inappropriate for a camera
crew (for instance, a dress rehearsal for a play the night before
opening, or a group counseling session with children), what alternative
can you give the crew? Always have alternatives ready when a film crew
- Also, ALWAYS notify people they are going to be (or might be)
photographed or filmed BEFORE it happens! You don't want someone
throwing a fit for the evening news. If children will be present, get
parental permission first!
- Not all press relations is about good news: you may also have to
engage in press and other outreach to counter
misunderstandings, rumors and myths, or to counter
online criticism. That will be much easier to do if you have
followed the above guidelines and established a good, ongoing
relationship with the press.
Those are the basics -- they will get you started on the road to
building a reputation with the press and getting media coverage. There's
much more you can do, ofcourse, but these basic activities will build a
great foundation for expanded efforts. Note how many of these activities
have to do with human contacts, commitment to outreach, and always having
information available for the press, rather than what tools you use.
Evaluate & Celebrate Your Efforts
Evaluate your media outreach efforts every few months: Are stories being
generated? Are press people attending your events? Are more people
attending your events or calling your organization?
The person who answers your phone, or anyone who signs anyone up for an
activity at your organization (volunteers, donors, people who attend
events, etc.), should ask these people, at the time they are signing up,
how they heard about your organization, the activity or the event. This
will help you to learn how effective your outreach activities are, and
help you plan strategically for the future.
Also, make sure other staff members know the results of your efforts:
- Distribute copies of all articles that appear about your
organization, positive or negative, in newspapers or online, to all
staff and board members. As resources allow and as appropriate, also
send copies of stories to volunteers, donors and customers/clients.
- Find space in a public area at your organization or a place that
staff frequent (the break room or a hallway, for instance) for a "brag
board," where you will post articles about your organization that are
published in newspapers or online. (NOTE: I once got a raise because the
Executive Director stood in front of the brag board and was stunned that
so much press had been generated; he'd seen the articles as they had
come out, but seeing three months of positive newspaper articles posted
on a wall made a BIG impression).
- Also watch the "Letters to the Editor" column for things that might
relate to your organization, and distribute them appropriately. If your
Executive Director or other staff member writes a letter on behalf of
your organization (with pre-approval from the organization, ofcourse),
make sure all staff and board members get copies (and, as appropriate,
make copies for volunteers, donors and clients, particularly if it is
rebutting a negative article).
- A notice should go out to all staff and board members if a TV, radio
or online broadcast is going to feature on your organization (more than
just a mention of the dates and times of an event).
- A notice should go out to all staff, board members, volunteers,
donors and customers/clients if there is a partnership with a particular
media outlet for an event your organization is sponsoring.
The Role of Volunteers in Media Relations
Can volunteers help with media relations? Should volunteers be
involved with media relations? The answer to both is yes -- but with some
Many organizations are too small to hire a full-time paid media
relations person and, therefore, must rely on volunteers to help with
media relations. Great assignments for volunteers in this role, including
pro-bono consultants, include:
It's preferable for a full-time or part-time paid staff person, who is in
the office regularly and frequently, to be the media contact person,
however, as most volunteers are not in an organization's offices regularly
and frequently, and therefore may not be around if a press person calls. If
you have no choice but to have a volunteer to be your media contact person,
make sure that person can make the necessary time commitment, every day and
for a substantial length of time, to fulfill all activities associated with
basic media outreach that has been defined here.
- researching media (looking for and documenting local, regional,
national and international media contacts)
- monitoring media (using tools like Yahoo
News Search) to find stories about your organization, or reporters
doing stories relating to your organization's interest that could be
good to approach)
- drafting press releases
- suggesting ideas for press releases
- drafting press strategies
But Not Everyone Is Reached By the
Reaching the press is vital for your organization, but it must be done
with the realization that not everyone is reached by the press. Not
everyone reads, or has access, to newspapers or online news, and not
everyone has access, or listens, to radio, TV or online
broadcasts. Representatives from your organization will have to
reach out, often face-to-face, to conferences, communities of faith,
farmer's associations, women's cooperatives, professional associations,
schools, universities, student groups, informal groups and various other
associations, formal or not, to get your organization's messages out and
understood to everyone you need to reach. You will also have to think
about posters and handouts, and in some cases, even live
performance methods (theater, dance, puppets, etc.), in order to
reach everyone with your information.
Press relations is oh-so-important, but remember that it's only one part
of your overall community outreach.
Be Ready for a Misinformation Campaigns
There are individuals that don't like your nonprofit. There may be an
organized group that doesn't like your nonprofit. Internet tools make it
easier than ever for just one person or a group of person to promote
misinformation about your organization. This
resource on addressing these misinformation campaigns can help -
don't wait to read it until after such an attack begins!
- The Care and
Feeding of the Press by Esther Schindler and the members of the
Internet Press Guild is a good guide to people who pitch stories to the
online press. It's from the press's point of view, and offers good
advice about writing your press releases and making your pitch.
- Outreach Via the Internet for
Not-for-Profit or Public Sector Organizations
It's more than just putting up a Web site; it involves finding and
posting to appropriate Internet discussion groups, sending emails to
current and potential customers, perhaps even starting your own online
community.... it's pro-active, interactive and ongoing.
- What are good blog topics for mission-based
The word "blog" is short for "web log", and means keeping a journal or
diary online. Blogging is NOT a new concept -- people have been doing it
long before it had a snazzy media label. The appeal of blogging for an
online audience is that it's more personal and less formal than other
information on a web site. Readers who want to connect with an
organization on a more personal level, or who are more intensely
interested in an organization than the perhaps general public as a
whole, love blogs. Blogs can come from your Executive Director, other
staff members, volunteers, and even those you serve. Content options are
many, and this list reviews some of your
See more resources re: Outreach &
Engagement, With and Without Technology
consulting services & my
workshops & presentations
credentials & expertise
My book: The
Last Virtual Volunteering
Community Outreach, With & Without Tech
Free Resources: On
Community Engagement, Volunteering & Volunteerism
Free Resources: Technology
Tips for Non-Techies
Free Resources: Web
Development, Maintenance, Marketing for non-Web designers
Free Resources: For
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