Experts are a nonprofit's best PR asset

Any nonprofit, large or small, will have a team of experts in its ranks who should be media-trained and ready to contribute to - and even make - news.

Any nonprofit, large or small, will have a team of experts in its ranks who should be media-trained and ready to contribute to - and even make - news.

When Pope John Paul II died in early April, Sabrina Kidwai, media relations director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in South Carolina, received a phone call from the religion reporter at one of the state's largest daily newspapers. Could she provide the names of some CAIR experts to speak about the Muslim community's reaction?

"I gave her a few names," Kidwai recalls, "and a couple days later, there was a great article about how all different faiths were reacting to the Pope's death."

Three months later, after four bombs ripped through London, Kidwai sent out a press release condemning the attacks. Her quotes appeared widely the next day, a subsequent letter to the editor was printed, and she received a new round of reporter requests for CAIR expert interviews.

For many small nonprofit organizations like the South Carolina chapter of CAIR, leveraging experts as valuable resources for the media is an essential tool to raising their profiles in the community, as even the smallest mention of a group can help increase awareness. But positioning those knowledgeable members is a more nuanced process than simply waiting for the phone to ring when there's breaking news, say Kidwai and other PR representatives for nonprofits.

With many journalists first looking online for background information and help with sourcing, the internet is the best place to begin the courting. At the Honor Society of Nursing, chief communications officer David Sousa created an extensive online and print media guide that contains a thorough list of members' expertise.

"A journalist can go into the media guide and search by a particular disease type or area of interest - everything from advanced practice nursing and Alzheimer's to cancer, diabetes, and ethics, all the way to off-the-beaten-path things, such as tattooing and body piercing," ex- plains Sousa. A refined search sorts results by geographic location, allowing any story to take on a local angle with a local expert. For those journalists who bypass the web for a direct call to his office, Sousa says the media guide quickly becomes an internal tool for easy reference.

Not all nonprofits, however, can simply wait for the story inquiries to come to them. David Reich, principal of boutique firm Reich Communications, handles PR for the Peter C. Alderman Foundation and The Christophers, among others, and helps his clients create one-page tip sheets to send out to reporters.

"Rather than sending a reporter a whole batch of information," like an online media guide, says Reich, "it's easier, at least for starters, for them to have something that's simple; one page long; and gives the basic background information on the organization, issues the organization deals with, and possible discussion topics or story angles." Also prominent on these tip sheets are the names and backgrounds of the organization's experts, why they would be good sources on a particular topic, and their contact information. Although immediate hits are always welcome, the main goal is to let reporters know that the nonprofit and its experts are out there.

"Sometimes it's just luck of timing, and I have gotten a call a few days later where someone said, 'Oh, I just got your tip sheet, and I'm working on a story. Can I talk with so-and-so?'" adds Reich. "And I've had it where two years later I got a call from out of the blue from a reporter or producer who kept our tip sheet in their source files."

For those tip sheets that at first yield little response, making follow-up phone calls is "amateur hour," Reich says. Instead, anticipate news interest and be reactive. "Send out short e-mails or faxes that say, 'If you're planning on doing a story on a certain topic, we might be able to assist with background or quotable comments.'"

When it comes time for the interviews, PR officials say that building relationships with experts is as important as doing so with journalists.

"What you are asking busy people to do is take time out of their days to support the interests of the organization," says Sousa. "If you don't have the relationship, it's very difficult - even if they've volunteered to participate - to get them to react at the speed that the media wants them to react."

Extensive media training also facilitates the interviewing process. The first lesson, especially for academics, is to talk in lay terms whenever possible. But Sousa has further advice: "Speak in colorful sound bites. And when you're being interviewed, think about who the reader or viewer is for the news media outlet and really try [to make that] a filter for how you frame your comments."

Even colorful sound bites are not juicy enough for some stories. Compelling first-person stories by experts of another sort can help augment the hard facts and opinions offered by those with fancy degrees, says Steve Rosen of Star/Rosen Public Relations in Philadelphia. Rosen represents the Renfrew Center Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on education and treatment for eating disorders.

"A lot of the success we've had in getting them coverage is from finding people with eating disorders who are willing to tell their stories," Rosen says. "Then it's not just, 'Eating disorders are a horrible issue,' or 'More people have anorexia than ever.' It's, 'Here's Susan's story; here's a mother and daughter who went through it.'"

When all else fails, never underestimate the power of the pen - expert-authored Op-Eds or letters to the editor, like Kidwai's in July about the London bombings, are increasingly popular methods for garnering attention for a group.

"You've got to make it timely, and it can't be totally a hard sell for the organization," explains Reich. "But if you've got something by an expert from your organization giving his or her opinion on a subject or offering advice for people on how to deal with something ... within reason you can work in a mention of the organization and what it does."

Technique tips

Do create a media guide offering member expertise and contact information

Do send out tip sheets outlining the organization's goals and those experts available for comment

Do help an expert write an editorial for a newspaper

Don't fret if you receive little response from your tip sheet - a reporter may call on any day

Don't fall out of contact with your experts. When a journalist needs a quick interview, your relationship with the source becomes critical

Don't allow an expert to speak to a reporter without first having some media training

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