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.

So.

  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…

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