Mailbag: Cultivating journalists to find donors

Q: My board is complaining that no one in our community has  heard of our organization, and that if we want to raise more money we have to raise our visibility.  They aren’t wrong, but I don’t know how to fix the problem.  My communications staff have written a gazillion press releases, sent out pictures of all our events, etc. – but nothing has worked.  A peer told me to think of it like fundraising, that I have to build relationships with journalists if I want them to write about our work, but I don’t know what that actually means.  Is he right? How do you do that?

Q: He’s right.  Look – press releases are not going to be enough to get you a ton of press.  They’re necessary (and shouldn’t be hard to produce) for other reasons, but they’re not enough to crank out (even if you agonize over them) and call it a communications strategy.

Building relationships with journalists is a good idea, and it’s not unlike fundraising, which is, at its core, all about relationships if you’re doing it well…but clearly that isn’t a stand alone insight for you.  Let me see if I can help.

I used to teach SAT prep classes, a gazillion years ago when scores only went up to 1600 and I didn’t feel cheated by getting paid less than 1/6th of what my students were paying per hour…one of the things that stuck with me was a bit of the opening class that tried to put the kids at ease and make them feel they could tackle the test: the SAT is not written by geniuses, it’s written by plain old people trying to do a job.  To understand how to answer SAT questions, you learn how to write them, which involves putting yourself in the mind of a perfectly average person who wants to clock in, write some questions, get paid, and go home.

Journalists probably have a different set of dreams and ambitions than your average SAT question writer, so it’s not a perfect analogy, but if you want to figure out how to get better press, you need to put yourself in the mind of a journalist-as-journeyman…whatever their dreams of Pulitzers and Peabodys, for right now, the writers you need are just trying to be successful at writing things that will make their editors happy.  They can’t afford to just turn around glorified event listings, they can’t reprint your press release verbatim, and if there’s no actual NEWS in the news story you pitch to them, you should thank them for being polite when you waste their time.  But, on the other hand, they probably aren’t looking for their own personal Deep Throat – if you’re talking to people on the local events or nonprofits/mission driven beat, they don’t need Snowden magnitude leaks to write a story.


  1. Be respectful.  When you look for folks to pitch a story to about your fundraising gala, make sure you’ve thought about why it’s news.  If you want a feature on one of your volunteers, or one of your core programs (or a new one), or your organization in general, make sure you’ve thought beyond press release: know why this is news, know who would want to read about it, and have a realistic sense of whether the story you’re pitching is going to fit in with the normal collection of stories at whatever outlet you’re talking to.  It’s tacky (and unproductive) to try to get a writer to write something on your behalf that would stick out like a sore thumb in their publication – whether it’s the little town circular or a national magazine with great circulation, you’re not going to be the exception.  Don’t put the burden on the poor journalist to break it to you that your 14th annual golf tournament isn’t worthy of a feature in the New York Times…
  2. Pay attention to what people write.  You have an organization with a mission.  Who’s writing, locally or nationally, about that mission or related topics?  If you have a program or event you’d love to see covered, same question.  To go to the fundraising analogy, you’d never meet someone, learn that they’ve made philanthropic donations in the past and then, without knowing anything more about them, say “oh, you make donations?  You should give us $5 million for our capital campaign.”  Now, you might well say “I hear you’re a philanthropist?  I’d love to tell you about our organization…when can we grab lunch so we can get to know each other?”  Similarly, you’re OK to meet folks and say “oh, you’re a writer?  I’d love to hear more…”  But just as you’d never presume to know what ask to make to a perfect stranger, you really shouldn’t be presuming to know what ask to make of a journalist before you know what they write.
  3. But eventually, you’re going to make that ask…so just like you build a portfolio of prospective donors, each of whom has capacity and specific thoughts on how they want to be supportive of your organization, you’re going to build a portfolio of journalists so that you can make the right ask to the right person when the time comes.  You’ll look for local people, you’ll look for people who cover your mission directly or tangentially, etc.  Start making connections.
  4. How?  Twitter is awesome for connecting to journalists, also many folks will have public/newspaper hosted email accounts so you can get in touch directly.  Start by complimenting folks whose articles you like.  Obviously, this involves an element of truth…don’t be obsequious, don’t blow smoke…but it’s not deceitful or wrong to actively look for folks doing great work, or to let them know you appreciate their writing.  Ask questions, if you have them.  Engage with them.  DO NOT MAKE ANY PITCHES unless you’re pretty sure it’s a good idea…like fundraising, there’s no single checklist or marker for that.  You have a risk tolerance, you have your own idea of how well you need/want to know someone, you have your own sense of urgency about a particular project or pitch, you have an understanding of where you stand in a competitive landscape…you’re balancing all these and more, so I can’t tell you exactly when it’s write to make a pitch, just like I couldn’t tell you exactly when it’s OK to make a major solicitation.  It’s your relationship, you make the call.  What I’m saying is that you need to treat it as seriously as a big solicitation – don’t jump the gun because you figure it’s not a personal relationship with the journalist.  It is.
  5. In the same vein, if you’ve got good relationships with a portfolio of writers, you can ask their advice on getting more stories written.  Use them to help you shape and direct pitches.  Get them to brainstorm with you.  Like donors, actual, meaningful involvement means greater connection to you and your organization.  Greater connection means greater willingness to help out one way or another.
  6. Think outside the box.  We no longer live in a world where TV news and print newspapers/magazines are how you get the word out about something, whether it’s an event or a mission.  Bloggers can be amazing when it comes to substantive pieces directed at a very specific audience.  Every town, it seems, has a slew of push-out event bloggers (people/companies that send weekly or other regular calendar write-ups about what’s going on in the community, via email, social media, text…).  Hyperlocal news sites are exploding.  Social media in general shouldn’t be overlooked – the right re-tweet or Facebook share to thousands of followers might be worth way more than an article in the local paper.
  7. Visibility isn’t necessarily just about getting articles written about you.  Think about ways for you and  your program folks to become visible experts in your field.  HARO (help a reporter out) is a hit-or-miss service, but keeping an eye out for ways to get quoted/featured as an expert is a good basic practice.
  8. Get your board involved.  We so often focus on “ambassadorship” as a function of board members that directly relates to fundraising…general publicity is an obvious part of ambassadorship.  Make sure you give your board recommendations for doing that effectively – should they send potential PR contacts to you?  How much should they butter them up first?  What are the key points they should be hitting if they get the chance?  What do you expect them to do on their own social media accounts?  Hmmm….very much like fundraising – you’ll get what you want more often if you break it down into manageable steps and explicit requests, and having a conversation about communications strategy at the board level at least once a year is a good idea.  They are, after all, responsible for maintaining institutional ideals, and image is at least halfway to identity, n’est pas?

Hope that helps…

One good step deserves another

Like at least a third of the folks on my Facebook feed and Twitter stream (it would be higher, but I know a lot of people who just couldn’t care less about organized much less professional sports), I was transfixed by the Don Sterling meltdown and general debacle.  What a horrible person, how upsetting and confusing the opportunity to stare directly at a specimen of fully grown, mature racism, spread out on a table to examine in full light.

I’m pleased that the NBA decided to take action against him.  But I’m also skeptical that it was more than a nod to general survivalist instincts, to manage public relations by cutting off their suddenly visible wart only after it was put in the media spotlight.  What I really wanted was for the organization to pat itself down afterwards, to realize there might be more sickness lurking, and to take affirmative measures towards becoming an institution where diversity flourishes at all levels.  To figure out how the institution can become a model for other businesses.

That’s what I thought of when I read this article, on the dismissal of Anne Baldassari, President of the Picasso Museum in Paris, France.

Firing nonprofit leaders who allow (or more likely generate) “profound suffering in the workplace” and “a toxic atmosphere”?  Great!  I bet that any random grouping of nonprofit professionals, out for a drink, swapping war stories, will have no shortage of tales to tell about suffering and toxic work places thanks to bad bosses.

Management is hard, and good management is hard to come by.  In the nonprofit world, we often overlook bad management (both the aggressively poisonous kind and the well-intentioned but inept kind…it’s not clear that one is always worse than the other when looking at outcomes) for folks who are great figureheads, great fundraisers, etc.

Wouldn’t it be nice to start a movement, ousting those nonprofit leaders who cause or allow “suffering” in the workplace?

But that’s not what this is…

In my mind, Don Sterling and Anne Baldassari are jumbled together.  I can’t hate that these nasty people were called out, Don and Anne, and faced some well deserved consequences.  But I’m also muddling Anne Baldassari and Jill Abramson, recently of the New York Times, wondering what would have happened with these two had they not been women.  Because there’s no grand movement afoot towards insisting on great management, no general justice sought against inept or toxic leaders on behalf of the suffering workers of the world…just some women, dismissed from their powerful positions, and questions about why (which remain, even if the firings were deserved…)

It’s interesting – folks who are attuned to see a particular prejudice in the workings of the world (in my case, misogyny) are very likely to see it where other factors were decisive.  (I was going to write “where there is none,” but that’s not quite accurate…I’m talking about the cases where it’s irrelevant and undetectable, not obviously absent.)

What I’d love to see is for all of us in the US to take a page from the French, and fire nonprofit leaders who are causing profound suffering in the workplace.  And if we do so actively, rather than passively awaiting complaints to accumulate from the staff, not only will the nonprofit sector be a more attractive place to work for talented professionals, but I’ll sleep well at night knowing that we’re not just witch-hunting and hanging a lot of women no better or worse than their male counterparts.

Mailbag: A Woman in China

Q:  How do I answer questions in an interview that are about my personal life?  As a young woman, I am always asked two questions: am I married? Do I plan to have children?  And some of my friends are often asked about where their parents live, how old they are, etc.

A:  I feel I have to provide some context for this question.  I have several coaching clients who are Chinese, have come to the US to study and intend to return to their own country immediately or within a few years of receiving their degree.  This question comes from one of them…and the sad thing is that it could have come from any one of them (now or future).

These kinds of questions are illegal in the US, but that hardly makes them extinct so I’m going to answer this question for two reasons: first, because the approach I suggest for my coaching clients is good general advice for anyone who expects and fears a particular question in interviewing, and second, because whether it’s a calculated (or blundering) risk during hiring or a political minefield once you’ve been hired, many Americans will still have to face some similar question at some point (or several) in their professional lives.  It’s worth thinking about and preparing for.  Read more

Article Review: The Confidence Gap

If you haven’t read Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s piece in the Atlantic titled “The Confidence Gap,” you should.  There’s a lot of really important thoughts on gender differences in the workplace packed into a single, dense longform piece.

Confidence matters, almost as much as – or perhaps more than – competence.

I’ve been saying this for years, sometimes quoting some of the same citations, but mostly relying on my own life experiences of watching incredibly confident young men, my peers, overcome all manner of outrageous odds to succeed…despite being less talented than many of our female peers.  This article resonates deeply with me, and, I expect, will create a similar tug of feelings in many women: relief that their experience is normative, that they are not alone, while at the same time being deeply frustrating as confirmation that the world rewards the irrelevant.

I do take issue with a couple of things in the article though.  Most importantly, I specialize in getting people to “fake” confidence…it’s more complex than that, of course, but it’s much easier than Ms. Kay and Ms. Shipman seem to acknowledge. Read more

Quick Tips: Leadership Styles in Different Cultures

Have you ever read academic analyses on different cultural norms and hierarchies and decision-making processes in different cultures (in this case, I’m linking to an article that means “nations” when they say “cultures” – it’s a good example.)?

I love trying to wrap my head around the charts – they’re meant to be obvious, I assume, but I find them anything but.  The upshot of that is a good reminder to me of how challenging it can be to truly understand different ways of working within the world.  We in the US tend to do a terrible job of appreciating other forms of leadership, particularly any that don’t place individualism as a top priority.

Check out the diagrams from Richard Lewis’ “When Cultures Collide” – it’s not just a fun exercise to expand your understanding of management alternatives, it’ll expand your understanding of management alternatives!

Mr. Lewis describes American managers as “assertive, aggressive, goal and action oriented, confident, vigorous, optimistic and ready for change.  They are capable of teamwork and corporate spirit, but they value individual freedom and their first interest is in furthering their own career.”

In the event that this doesn’t describe you or your workplace, some of these alternatives may help you appreciate how very many other systems are out there, and you can look to this cross-cultural literature to help you bridge the gap between you and your American workplace.

Why you need to care about white male privilege

You (and I don’t care who you are) should read this beautiful and challenging essay by Syreeta McFadden: Teaching the Camera to See My Skin.

If you have caucasian flavored skin, it has likely never crossed your mind that there are engineering challenges inherent in capturing light bouncing off everything in our complex world and transferring it to paper so that our eyes can recognize the image, unless you’re a fairly advanced photographer.  And even if you are one of these photographers, you probably have not thought about the problems created by manufacturers of film as they made choices – theoretically innocuous tradeoffs – in pursuit of marketshare and profits.

It’s real.  And it matters.  Read more

Quick Tips: Good content deserves good delivery

I had the pleasure of stumbling across a nice take on creativity from Mr. Preston Trombley, a musician and artist and Toastmaster.  His 7 minutes on Beethoven, Einstein and You is a great Monday morning pick me up.

So why am I linking and not embedding?  Well, the video quality is unfortunate.  Shaky cam, shot vertically, and while Mr. Trombley uses the room effectively, the videographer hasn’t really planned for that, so there’s a lot of quick pans to keep him in frame.  It’s bad enough that I feel it needs a warning (it may make you nauseated; feel free to just listen to it instead of watching), and also a disclaimer – that I know it’s terrible production quality, but I think the content is worth a listen anyway.

Two things to take from this: first, you have it in you to be a more creative person…but also – be sure that you’re not obscuring whatever messages you have for the world by not taking the time to master the basics of new technologies as they whiz by us.   Read more

Developing an inner management team

I have a strange personal relationship with McKinsey…in many respects, I think they’re amazing.  I trace a good deal of my better consulting traits (partially the way I structure analysis, partially the way I present myself) to working with a ton of McKinsey “alumni” early in my career.  If I were ever to work for a gigantic consulting company, I’d do my best to get in with them.

Of course, on the other hand, I decided not to work for any of the big consulting companies, and there are good reasons for that.  Perhaps a story for another day…this preamble is all to say that I pay attention to the “Insights & Publications” section of the McKinsey site, and you should check out this article from the March McKinsey Quarterly by Nate Boaz and Erica Ariel Fox. Read more

Trust meditations

There’s this video, making the rounds on social media.  I love it for two reasons: first, I love watching slow motion acrobatics with beautiful people. Second, I kind of dig the new age calm of the narration, entreating me to learn to trust.

Take 3 minutes of your day and enjoy the eye candy and relax.  Then, when it’s over, go ahead and shake it off, smile to yourself, and say “Hooey!  This is hooey!” Read more