Domini Stuart considers how not-for-profits can help their boards use the media to promote their organisation’s good work to current and potential donors.
A teenage girl was struggling to finish Year 11 while sleeping under a bridge and Melanie Raymond MAICD saw at once that this desperately sad situation could put a face to the issue of youth homelessness. She rang a journalist she could trust to talk to someone so vulnerable and the story was published in The Age newspaper. By the following day it had been read almost 160,000 times, shared more than 12,000 times on Facebook and picked up by national television. The girl, known as Alicia, received hundreds of offers of help and the not-for-profit (NFP) organisation Youth Projects received over $25,000 in donations to help homeless young people.
“Building strong relationships with major media outlets has always been a priority for us and, as a result, we can punch above our weight in terms of media coverage,” says Raymond, chairman of Youth Projects and the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) NFP Advisory Committee, and a member of the AICD National NFP Steering Committee.
Media exposure is of fundamental importance to most NFPs. “We rely on attracting and maintaining financial and personal support from members of the community,” says Graeme Samuel AC, national president of Alzheimer’s Australia, former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and a former associate member of the Australian Communications and Media Authority. “Media exposure is the most cost-effective way of getting the message out to as broad an audience as possible.”
Alzheimer’s Australia has made extensive use of the media to educate the public about dementia and remove the associated stigma. “We need the public to know that it is possible for people with a diagnosis of dementia to live for many years as productive members of the community,” Samuel continues. “Our latest board papers included about 40 pages of edited television, radio, print coverage that we had achieved over two or three days. We could never hope to achieve that kind of reach with traditional methods such as mailing out brochures.”
Dr Doug Lingard MAICD relies heavily on the media to raise awareness of mitochondrial disease. Mitochondrial disease is an inherited chronic illness that causes debilitating physical, developmental, and cognitive disabilities. A radiologist and nuclear physician, he co-founded the largest diagnostic imaging practice in Australia, yet when his daughter was diagnosed with the illness six years ago, neither he nor his medical colleagues had even heard of it.
“Mitochondrial disease is more common than childhood cancers yet researchers were the only people who knew anything about it,” he says. “My wife Margie and I decided to found the Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation to educate both the public and the medical profession and, right from the start, we identified media relations as being extremely important.”
A consistent message
For the sake of consistency, most media-savvy NFPs have just one or two spokespeople – usually the chair and the chief executive officer (CEO). “Our main media spokesperson is our CEO Sean Murray,” says Lingard. “As chairman I tend to confine my role to talking about board matters and filling in for Sean when he’s not available.”
There are scientific and medical experts on the board who are available to answer questions about their own areas of expertise. “I think that all NFP boards need directors who are able to articulate the cause and have a desire to help, but they must also be very clear about their role in terms of communication,” says Lingard.
With very few exceptions, board members are expected to bring a network of connections to the table. But the director who knows a potential donor may not be the best person to communicate the organisation’s values, objectives and needs.
“I believe that directors should open doors for designated communicators rather than trying to recruit major donors themselves,” says Samuel.
However, all directors should be prepared to phone supporters to thank them personally. “It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways for them to help,” says Wendy Scaife, acting director of the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at Queensland University of Technology.
“We have done research with Australia’s philanthropy community which strongly suggests that significant supporters want to deal directly with the board and the CEO. The research also confirms that people’s giving is closely linked to their values, that they expect the organisation to understand where their values lie and that, again, they want to discuss this with the most senior people in the organisation,” she says.
“Donated money is given on trust and the board’s credibility and diligence is critical to the flow of support. One of the major drivers of giving is the confidence that donations will achieve what the donor intended, and that achievement lies in the hands and minds of directors,” she adds.
With so many good causes clamouring for coverage it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. “Journalists want stories that will grab the attention of the public,” says Samuel. “Our most recent campaign focused on the fact that people as young as their mid-twenties can be diagnosed with dementia because this was news in itself. Many people in and outside the media were shocked to hear that dementia isn’t just a disease of old age.”
In many cases, the news is a story within the story. “A gala dinner is unlikely to get coverage on its own but, if you have a point of interest such as a supporter who is attending for the 25th consecutive year, that just might,” says Scaife.
Many boards also seek professional help. “The bottom line is that neither the public nor the media will support you if they don’t believe your cause is important or worthy,” says Carol Moore, who as principal of Moore Public Relations, works mainly with clients in the healthcare, social issues and NFP sectors.
“They need to understand exactly what you do and know exactly how donations are spent. In my experience, some boards think this can be communicated by distributing a media release every now and then, but best practice strategic media relations is very different from that. It isn’t easy to get to the nitty gritty of why you’re communicating, who you’re talking to and what you’re trying to achieve, but a good public relations professional will have the necessary expertise and insight,” she says.
Some smaller organisations hire a professional on a project-by-project basis or to develop a media strategy they can then implement on their own. Others look for pro bono help.
“Whatever their level of involvement, every public relations professional should be committed to working in genuine partnership with your organisation,” says Moore. “Sometimes it takes quite a lot of persuasion to get even a newsworthy story over the line and, if they’re not passionate about your cause, that might not happen.”
Some boards invest in media training but this often focuses on managing adversarial journalists.
“Every well-run NFP needs a crisis management plan but the chance of winding up on a current affairs program for the wrong reasons is infinitesimally small,” says Raymond. “It’s much more important that directors understand what lies behind attracting positive media coverage.”
Samuel agrees that directors with nothing to hide have nothing to worry about. “The principle I’ve always adopted is the morning newspaper test – don’t do or say anything you would be embarrassed to see on the front page,” he says. “Of course, not everything is under the board’s control and, if something does go wrong, you should act quickly to take control of the message by telling the media there’s a problem and that you’re taking steps to rectify it. I am amazed by the number of instances where a relatively minor issue has caused the board or management to implode because they tried to hide it or they pretended it wasn’t happening until the media chased it down.”
Social media may have introduced new risks but it has also opened up extraordinary possibilities. Last year’s Ice Bucket Challenge inspired 2.4 million people to post videos on Facebook and 28 million people to upload, comment on or like related posts. As a result, the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association received over US$100 million in donations compared with US$2.8 million over the same period in the previous year.
“Managed strategically, social media is the most targeted and effective way of advertising and a fast, efficient and cost-effective way to test new ideas,” says Kate vanderVoort GAICD, founder and CEO of Social Mediology.
“It can give a human face to the brand and it facilitates a more authentic engagement with supporters. But some organisations that are keen to embrace the benefits of social media and digital communications are not prepared to make the necessary shift in their culture.”
Building an online community requires the board to relinquish a degree of control for the benefit of greater reach. Some are not comfortable with this new level of risk.
“Social media can certainly be a risky business for organisations that can’t or won’t invest in the resources they need to do it well,” continues vanderVoort. “But probably the biggest risk is launching into social media because you feel you have to. If you are not clear about your objectives and the behaviour you wish to influence, social media could prove to be very costly in terms of resources and reputation.”
Media relations tips
1. Be sure you understand what your target public know, believe and understand about your cause and your organisation – if possible, undertake some research.
2. Ensure that they know something about your cause and why it is important before you ask for support.
3. Publicise good news about your cause and what your organisation achieves. It is vital that you raise awareness of the solution, progress or outcome as well as the problem.
4. Make the issue personal. This is particularly important if yours is not a particularly emotive cause or is removed from most people’s everyday experiences.
5. Publicise how donations and funding are spent and where the money comes from.
6. Publicise both your cause and your organisation on an ongoing basis, not just when you have a fundraising event or are managing a crisis.
7. Target the media effectively by:
• Ensuring your message is newsworthy.
• Tailoring your media material for different outlets as much as possible.
• Ensuring your media communication is timely and appropriate.
• Offering media spokespeople who are “good talent”.
8. Be passionate about your cause and let your passion shine through in your communication.
Making the most of social media
1. Take your brand out of the middle of the conversation to encourage human-to-human engagement.
2. Let go of some control and be generous in what you share online about your organisation, your people, your goals and your achievements.
3. Ensure that adequate resources are allocated to train your people to be both active and responsible online.
4. Ensure that adequate systems and processes are in place to manage the engagement generated by social media.
5. Be prepared for when things go pear-shaped. Have a crisis plan and a plan for managing negative feedback.
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