Media Relations

Few people in the country have studied nonprofits brands as methodically as Nathalie Laidler-Kylander, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. I gained plenty of new insights when she presented some of her research insights on campus more than a year ago, and today I enjoyed hearing how she’s pulling it together nicely during a workshop for folks at this year’s Massachusetts Nonprofit Network (MNN) annual conference in Framingham.

Some of the takeaways from Nathalie’s session:

Brands are assets, and as such deserve cultivation, protection and investment. Paradoxically, brands may have value for an organization but are truly owned by customers and external stakeholders — something she admits is “very freaky.”

Everything has a brand, whether you think so or not. After all, a brand is an idea that lives in the minds of people outside your organization. People have a notion of you.

Brands play a critical role for nonprofits. Specifically, they set you apart;  offer a shortcut for decision-making; bring cohesion and (welcome) limits; elicit emotions, responses and action; and create trust and loyalty.

The highly performing nonprofit brands have three elements: integrity (an internal alignment between identity and image); democracy (that allows for stakeholders to shape and own the brand idea); and affinity (that welcome partnerships and collaboration).

Later in the day, Shaun Adamec provided a nice bookend with his workshop on storytelling. The former press secretary for Maryland’s governor, Shaun was well-versed in the art of using narrative to frame the issue at hand, and provided with simple but effective exercises to demonstrate. Some of my takeaways from his session:

The elements of a good story must include people (characters); a solution or resolution; and process (journey) to get from the first to the second.

In writing, we should give our audiences more metaphors, more imagery and more stories — and fewer facts and figures, fewer acronyms, and less wonk language.

Frame every conversation you start so you’re set up to succeed. He clearly is a fan of George Lakoff and the Frameworks Institute, as am I, and gave several examples of how frames work.

I was thrilled to see this year’s agenda feature both topics so prominently, and hope it reflects MNN’s belief in the importance of brand, storytelling and communication more broadly.

brand_idea_cover2Buy Nathalie’s book, The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy and Affinityhere. Visit Shaun’s company, Adamec Communications, online here.


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I love the opinion pages of newspapers. Even in this day of blog comments and Facebook posts, a point of view expressed in print has a power that only comes with that bit of independent validation. After all, an editor passed judgment on it.

Of course, readership isn’t what it used to be. You can’t assume that the people who might act on your opinion will read your letter. So the letter must be re-delivered via the distribution channels you or your cause control.

Push it out with a Tweet, a Facebook and Google+ post or a blog post. Don’t forget that old standby: email. Send a short, personal note with the letter text pasted in the message with a web link to find the original on the paper’s site to a targeted list.

For example, your letter responding the NRA’s press conference should be forwarded to your Congressional aides assigned to gun violence issues. If you are identified in the letter as representing an organization, then that organization’s donors should receive a short courtesy note, too.

Simple stuff, true, but too often we fail to maximize the opportunity.

Getting published at all is no gimme. When my recent letter to the New York Times was under consideration, I was sent an auto-reply outlining the paper’s letter policies, which are representative or the industry and worth sharing:

Letters should preferably be no longer than 150 words and may be shortened to fit allotted space. They must be exclusive to The Times (no prior submission  to, or publication in, any other medium, including the Web). They should generally refer to an article that has appeared within the last  seven days. We reserve the right to edit letters.

To be considered for publication, letters MUST include the writer’s name, address, current  location (where you are writing from) and daytime  and evening phone numbers at your current  location (for verification, not for publication).

We generally do not publish more than one letter  from the same writer within any 60-day period. (This applies to the daily letters page, but feel  free to submit letters to the weekly  sections.) If we select your letter for  publication, you consent to our right to  republish it, in any and all media, and to license third parties to publish it as well.

If you submit your contact information as a result of this automated reply, please re-send  the letter with it. (In the subject line, please indicate the headline of the article you’re  responding to, and delete “automated reply.’’)

Because of computer security concerns, we do NOT  accept attachments; they will NOT be opened.  Please resubmit your letter pasted into the body  of an e-mail message.

Shortly thereafter, I received an email from the letter editor letting me know they were likely to publish my letter — but she had further questions:

Hi. We are considering your letter for publication in the next few days, either in the printed paper and the Web site, or on the Web only. Below is an edited version of your letter. A few standard questions we ask our letter writers:
Do you approve of the changes?
Do you have a professional  affiliation, or any other connection (including financial), that bears on the topic of your letter or that our readers should know about? (If you are writing in a private capacity and not on behalf of an organization, that will be considered in the decision on whether to use an ID.)
Did you write the letter, and is the letter exclusive to the Times?
Has it been posted on any Web site?
Was your letter sent in response to the prompting of a Web site or anyone else?
And, by agreeing to have your letter published, you are consenting to our right to republish it, in any and all media, and to license third parties to publish it as well.
Many thanks for writing.

In all media relations, I’ve followed a simple rule: follow the rules. Reporters and editors have stressed lives, and abiding by their guidelines almost always helps your case, be it pitching a story or getting your opinion piece published.

I wrote back: I approve of the changes. I wrote the letter. I sent it only to the Times. The letter has never been posted on any web site. I sent the letter unprompted by any one else. I consent to the letter’s publication and licensing by the Times.

The guidelines and editor’s questions reveal one of the paper’s main concerns, that letters are not generated from interest groups or businesses. They also augment Hairpin’s standard letter-writing advice:

  • Respond. Editors prefer letters that are responding directly to a previously published editorial, op-ed column or news story. Cite the piece by headline and date.
  • Move fast. Write and send your letter the same day the piece to which you are responding was published.
  • Keep it short. The Times’ preference for 150 words or fewer is a good guideline.
  • Stay focused. Make one, maybe two, points in your letter — that’s plenty.
  • Be concrete. A reader should quickly grasp your opinion but also your recommended action.
  • Add affiliation. If your letter’s topic and position aligns with your organization, include its name with yours. It might boost your group’s profile.

Happy writing!

UPDATE: Read my latest published letter following the same rules, this time in the Boston Globe, here.

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Mark Di Vincenzo, author of “Buy Shoes on Wednesday and Tweet at 4:00,” tells us the best times to do, well, about anything.

Helpful to nonprofit folks, since they need every outreach effort to count.

When’s the best day to ask for a donation? Di Vincenzo says people are some 50 percent more likely to give when asked on a Sunday.

As his book title suggests, 4 to 5 p.m. is a great time to Tweet, as Twitter says that’s when traffic is high and, thus, the chances are good your Tweet will be re-tweeted. Next best: noon EST — East Coasters are on lunch break and West Coasters are settling into their work desks.

For Facebook, try posting around 7 a.m., 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Those are high-traffic times, when most people in your time zone will be checking in.

Di Vincenzo doesn’t hazard a guess when best to send a news release, but Jeremy Porter blogging at Journalistics says it’s almost impossible to say these days. The conventional wisdom in the days of print, dinner-time news and sleep had it that mid-mornings were good, usually earlier in the week.



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With a PR nudge from Hairpin, GreenBlue has been lighting up the media with two news blasts: the unveiling of a revamped, easy-to-understand recycling label for consumer products and the release of a groundbreaking book for its CEO.

How2Recycle, a recycling label system developed by GreenBlue’s Sustainability Packaging Coalition, promises to reduce consumer confusion in the United States with a clear and consistent recycling label and corresponding informational website. Heavy hitters in the consumer brand world like Yoplait and Esteé Lauder are embracing the label, and it’s taken off. Major outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, and key green industry media site such as Green Biz and Triple Pundit, have taken notice.

GreenBlue followed up two weeks later with the release of CEO Lance Hosey’s latest book, The Shape of Green, arguing that aesthetics are just as important to green design as science. GreenBlue, Hairpin and Island Press teamed up to spread the word. Early results: great hits in Publishers Weekly, Metropolis magazine, and (soon, we’re told) major dailies. (Buy your copy at Amazon, less corporate Powell’s., or nonprofit Island Press in hard cover.)

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GreenBlue (Hairpin client!) scores nice local TV profile on recycling label developed by Sustainable Packaging Coalition, one of its major programs:

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We love infographics, well done. GOOD magazine publishes a series of such consistently clear, attractive presentations.

Here’s a grab from a larger graphic, built on research from the Pew Research Center…

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Corporate Accountability International pulled off a nicely executed campaign to ratchet up pressure on McDonald’s to stop marketing its junk food to kids. Lessons abound for other activists.

For months, its staff had collected signatures from prominent medical professionals and institutions for a letter asking the restaurant chain to change its ways. Smart move: the company and the public were more likely to receive the message if it came from a highly credible messenger, in this case, doctors.

Corporate Accountability followed another good PR practice when it linked the public release of the letter with an existing, prominent event already on the journalists’ radar: the annual meeting of McDonald’s stockholders. Timing, as they say, is everything.

A third piece of the foundation was put in place when a group of activist nuns – gotta love ‘em – who own some McDonald’s stock agreed to introduce a resolution at the meeting for a vote that would require the company to assess the impact of its food on children’s health. This added both a little personal interest color (nuns?) and the reliable news hook of an up-and-down vote.

Hairpin was tasked with creating the necessary elements: an advertisement featuring the text of the letter and a sampling of the hundreds of signatures, to run in newspapers the day of the meeting; and a micro-website linked visually to the ad to allow others to endorse the letter, read press clips, view signatories, and donate to fund future ads. We also helped out with some of the copywriting and media pitching in the days leading up to the event.

The campaign was a smash. An Associated Press wire account ran in the Chicago Tribune and other major dailies across the country, and such high profile outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and NBC Nightly News featured their own stories. The number of signatories has tripled, and Corporate Accountability gained new online supporters.

Credible messengers, smart timing, conflict and a smattering of the unusual – a good mix for media success. Check it out:

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GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition (a Hairpin client) has cooked up new recycling labels to make things less confusing for consumers who want to do right by the planet. As chronicled today by the folks at GOOD magazine:

“The group’s current proposal features four labels: “widely recycled,” “limited recycling,” “not recycled,” and “store drop-off.” Unlike the current system, this gives consumers clear, general guidelines, in words.”

Let’s hope these get adopted by SPC members like Procter & Gamble, Nike and others, who can make a big impact in the market. Below, in draft form, are the proposed labels:

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A new client has put forward two smart policy types as spokespersons for a publicity push. The topic is uncontroversial, and the stakes are not high. Still, every encounter with the press offers some peril.

So I created a list of 10 tips for first-time spokespersons:

1. Convey one message. Before the interview begins, write down the single most important thing you want to end up in the story. Flag it for the reporters if possible: “The most important point I want you to know is …”

2. Prepare other, supportive messages. Have two or three other points that buttress your top message, and work them in to your interview as the opportunity arises.

3. Keep answers brief. Reporters of all types prefer pithy quotes over long-winded. Limiting answers to a few sentences also limits the chance you’ll say something you’ll regret. (However, simple Yes and No answers are unhelpful – provide a little context and detail to the topic.)

4. Stay confident. If you’re being interviewed, a reporter already has determined that you’re worth her or his time. Prove the reporter right by acting the part.

5. Assume it’s all on the record. Everything you say may end up in the finished story — so take care.

6. Stick to the truth. Don’t exaggerate or guess, even if you’re trying to be helpful. You’re doing the reporter no favors by going outside of what you know.

7. Be helpful. You want to convey your main message, yes, but you also want to develop a relationship with the reporter for the future. If you can track down a statistic or fact for the reporter, do it. If you can recommend other sources to be interviewed, provide their names and contact information.

8. Respect deadlines. Ask a reporter when they must file their story. If you need to call her or him back to provide new information, do so well before the deadline.

9. Be grateful. After the interview, send a brief (but not gushing) thank-you email with your contact information.

10. Note the contact. Keep a log of every reporter interview, noting his or her name, media outlet, date of contact, email and/or phone number, and a brief description of the interview’s content.

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