Charities need to search out new, appealing angles for media coverage


January 16, 1995|By LESTER A. PICKER

Last year I served on a panel of media representatives and PR folks from nonprofit organizations. We were charged with responding to questions about publicity for nonprofits from our opposing viewpoints. What surprised me was the degree of unanimity between the two groups.

Yes, of course, there was the obligatory complaint about the nonprofit sector not getting enough attention in the media. But, beyond that, nonprofit insiders and journalists seemed to agree on what needs to be done to attract more and better attention for nonprofits.

The discussion started with the publicity director for an arts charity setting the tone. "It's our job to explain to the world what we do," she remarked. "Why should we expect coverage to come raining down on us?"

As an example of how she encouraged more coverage for her small organization, she told the audience about her organization's commitment to call and write a note to reporters who provide coverage. While journalistic codes of ethics caution against such acknowledgments as motivation for future coverage, most reporters are humans, too. It can't hurt.

However, allow me to flip the equation just a bit. Suppose a journalist's harsh light of day exposes bad things in the dark corners of a nonprofit's operations -- something that journalists in a democracy are supposed to do.

And, carrying this scenario forward, let's also suppose that it results in much soul-searching, painful re-engineering of the organization, and the eventual emergence of a stronger, more responsive charity. After the dust settles, shouldn't the board's chair write a thank-you note to the investigative journalist? Shouldn't the chief executive invite the reporter in for full disclosure? I wonder how many nonprofits have done that?

Another media tip that came out of the panel discussion is that nonprofits should be continually on the lookout for "new angles" appealing to the media. Actually, the new angles -- which sell newspapers and air time -- need to be appealing to readers and listeners.

The new-angles issue is one that is near and dear to my heart. As a columnist, I'm bombarded by agencies seeking publicity for events which, except under rare circumstances, I don't cover. What I look for are important issues, ways of doing things, and different perspectives that are illustrative to my readership. If an agency can provide that, I am always eager to learn more.

In fact, some of the more savvy nonprofits regularly meet with the journalists that cover their beat, asking what they are looking for, suggesting new ideas, and creating an air of competency that has carry-over appeal for reporters.

This latter point is extraordinarily valuable. "Establish yourself as a resource, an expert, for the media," advised one panelist. Those are words of wisdom. I maintain a file of people I can call for advice, quotes, off-the-record instruction, and insider information. These are the lifeblood of a journalist.

There are a always a few false claims, false prophets, and false data in the real world. Unfortunately, the nonprofit world is no exception, much as we wish that weren't true. Journalists continually seek knowledgeable professionals who can shed light on the subject, educate them, and help interpret data. I, for one, enter the fog of incomprehension when it comes to financial data from nonprofits. I regularly use accountant contacts to help me decipher numbers.

You don't need to be a world-renowned expert in every facet of nonprofit operations to become a valuable resource to the media. Instead, excellence in just one small aspect of management will do. I'm always on the lookout for good managers of volunteers and boards, for example.

The final, and perhaps most important comment made by one panelist, was that good media is based on honesty. Never lie to a reporter. It will invariably backfire. Be forthcoming and helpful. I've seen lectures and seminars devoted to this topic alone.

I remember my first editor, when I was a cub for a small-town Maine newspaper, helping me through what was sure to be a particularly divisive article to the community. He taught me that newspapers have two lights. The first is a beacon, a public forum that attracts the diverse viewpoints that keep a democracy vibrant. The second is a searchlight, that sheds light into dark places. What differentiates savvy nonprofits from others is that, when the media arrive, the lights are already turned on.

Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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