Nonprofit Public Relations 101

I was really excited to cover the topic of public relations on my podcast because most nonprofits don't have the budget to make up for a lack of PR with huge advertising campaigns. I'm fortunate enough to have very accomplished and intelligent friends who allow me to interview them for the Nonprofit Jenni Show, and they gave me such great information that I had to break it all up into two parts. I think you should listen to both parts of the episode because each of my three interview guests offered a very different perspective on the topic of PR.

Please note: I highly encourage you to listen to the My Nonprofit Isn't Sexy podcast episode before reading this blog post! My blog lists some great “action items” for you to take after you listen to the podcast, plus additional resources you can check out if you have further questions. However, my podcast guests give so much additional rich information which isn’t included in the article you’re about the read.

First, I interviewed Julia Bonner, who founded Pierce Public Relations. In addition to her for-profit accomplishments, she sits on many nonprofit boards and committees to assist with their PR. Some of the organizations she assists include Make A Wish, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Nashville Film Festival, and FiftyForward.

Julia believes that the purpose of PR is to urge people to take action by sharing your organization's story. Every nonprofit is unique in its mission, its creation story, and the way it serves its clients. Your PR strategy should find creative, appropriate ways to talk about those parts of your nonprofit so your audience feels compelled to support your organization.

Here are some examples of PR tactics Julia shared which you may want to use in your PR strategy:

  • Blog posts -- Julia said Make A Wish posts a series of Q&A blogs featuring various board members, staff, volunteers, and donors who have been affected by Make A Wish.
  • Social media -- This is a great way to engage your current fans, and to establish connections with media figures who may want to cover your story in the future.
  • Events -- Invite media figures to your events so they can see your work in action and hear impactful stories about your mission.
  • Community speaking engagements -- Find opportunities to speak at group gatherings.
  • Partnerships with other organizations -- Connect with organizations whose programs complement yours well, and work together to create a greater (and more newsworthy) impact.
  • Press releases -- But only send these out when you have something truly newsworthy to share.

Julia believes it's important to keep an active Communications/Marketing Committee who can champion your organization's story in the community, even if your marketing budget is modest or nonexistent. Recruit marketing professionals to serve on your committee, or ask a PR agency if they would be willing to do pro bono work for your nonprofit in exchange for sponsorship opportunities. Use these resources to determine the best way to share exciting updates about your organization, because they can offer advice about which stories are best for sharing through social media, to news outlets, or through more creative avenues.

My next guest was Ali Lemmond from iHeartMedia. Ali works with clients on a regular basis to come up with creative marketing strategies across the many platforms iHeart offers, and she loves having the opportunity to witness nonprofit organizations work with iHeart's various station events to spread their message.

Ali offered some advice on how to form a press release before sending it to the media:

  • Be grammatically correct! Journalists often look for stories they can easily place right in their publication without having to completely re-write information.
  • Use bullet points when possible. No one likes to read long, drawn-out paragraphs. 
  • Have a creative headline that makes readers want to find out more.
  • Include impactful photos that really show off your organization's mission in action.

When it comes to sharing your press release, Ali reiterated the importance of having strong relationships with media figures. She recommends interacting with reporters through social media on a regular (but not a nagging) basis so they can get to know you in other ways outside your requests for help in sharing your stories. Another way you can begin a relationship with news sources is by offering to provide background information on topics currently in the news through a subject matter expert at your organization--this way you're not only asking them for help when you need it, but you're also available as a resource to them. She also suggests subscribing to relevant news journals and watching relevant news stations so you can get to know reporters who cover similar subject matter and may be interested in helping you.

I also asked Ali for some examples of how nonprofits have been involved with the radio stations she works with. She told me about a recent event that local station 107.5 The River hosted benefiting To Write Love On Her Arms. Last year, a Nashville police officer made headlines when he tragically died as he tried saving a woman from her suicide attempt. The horrible accident shook our community deeply, and iHeart put together a benefit concert in just four days to help TWLOHA raise awareness about the societal effects of suicide, how to tell the warning signs of someone who may attempt suicide, and how to get help. The concert not only inspired tons of people at the event to come forward to share their stories--the social media buzz surrounding the event started trending hashtags and led to more people online offering stories of support to one another.

Ali also told me about a regular "Pick of the Litter" segment that all of Nashville's iHeart stations host on a weekly basis, where Nashville Humane Association brings a special dog or cat who needs to be adopted to the station for photos and videos with all the radio personalities. The personalities then post about the pets on their social media pages and talk about them on the air to help them get adopted quickly. Ali's advice for working with radio stations is simply to ask. She says every partnership begins with an idea, and they're always willing to help when there's a good fit.

My last guest this episode was Rachael Wilkins, the Development Director of Safe Haven Family Shelter. I wanted to hear about Rachael's PR strategy because I always feel like I see Safe Haven highlighted in the news all the time. They're regularly quoted in the local and state news when background information is needed on the issue of homelessness in Tennessee; they're connected to celebrities like Dierks Bentley, whose wife recently ran the Boston Marathon to raise over $23,000 for Safe Haven; and their annual events are routinely covered in the media.

Rachael told me Safe Haven's secret is to make sure they have experienced PR professionals and media figures in their board and Communications Committee. These volunteers help Safe Haven maintain their positive relationships with news outlets. She also receives pro bono support from one of Nashville's biggest PR agencies, McNeely Pigott & Fox, who follow up with the media whenever Safe Haven shares newsworthy press releases so their stories won't get lost in the shuffle. Safe Haven also provides the media with plenty of pictures and videos following their events, so these can easily be dropped into a story to make it more impactful.

Rachael emphasizes that Safe Haven puts every story and update to a test before deciding how to disseminate it to the public. The staff and Communications Committee volunteers decide if a story is newsworthy by asking several questions:

  • What's the hook that will make someone want to click the potential news story and read it?
  • Is someone interesting or noteworthy involved?
  • Is the story unique and engaging to the community at large, or only to current Safe Haven stakeholders?
  • What are your goals in sharing the story?

Even if your story isn't suitable for sending to TV news stations and journalists, it may be great to share in an internal newsletter, through social media, or on a blog.

For more nonprofit marketing advice, be sure to subscribe to the Nonprofit Jenni Show on your favorite podcast platform!