Making a small organization a household name

As a public relations firm working mostly with small nonprofits, we're frequently asked by our clients how they can possibly generate significant and nuanced media narratives when there is so much competition for space.

As a public relations firm working mostly with small nonprofits, we're frequently asked by our clients how they can possibly generate significant and nuanced media narratives when there is so much competition for space. Many nonprofits lack dedicated media staff and must carefully invest in communications efforts with a high return.

An excellent case study of a successful media strategy for small nonprofits is the work of one of our clients, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, a small nonprofit advocacy group. After four years of steadily increasing their public presence, last year the National Latina Institute reached an annual media audience of 4 million. For an organization with a niche audience and no dedicated communications staff, this level of publicity was a watershed moment for the group.

Fast-forward to midyear 2012. As we implement this year's communications plan, the audience numbers are skyrocketing, far outpacing anticipated benchmarks. This year's midyear report shows a media audience in excess of 100 million. Suddenly, influential journalists are not just opening this organization's press releases; they are proactively reaching out for comment. What happened?

Of course the organization itself has to be producing quality work for the media to take notice. But we have no doubt that strategic communications were also closely tied to this dramatic rise in media prominence. 

Here are some of the top communications strategies behind their success:

The organization leveraged new media to make a splash in traditional media. 

We helped them create a high-quality body of work on blog sites like The Huffington Post and New America Media that spoke directly to current affairs and offered new insight on emerging stories. In fact, the Associated Press used a quote from one blog in a high-profile national news story.

They moved fast. They strategically chose moments when they wanted to be a thought leader, and we helped prepare statements and issue backgrounders in advance. Recognizing limited resources, we focused on producing backgrounders on storylines that were likely to stay in the news, and we were able to quickly provide facts and context to media outlets. Journalists took notice of the timely statements and background information.

We changed our consulting approach for this client. In prior years, we used a more stratified approach, with one staffer working closely with the client and producing the bulk of the work product. This year we used a team approach: a strategist, a media manager, a writer and editor, and a media list manager. This helped us fill gaps quickly, ensure a high-quality product and implement rapid-response campaigns. We work hard to avoid duplication of work and thus the amount of effort per client service is increased but not profoundly.

They offered unique content. They looked deeper into national stories to find the specific angles that related to their constituency. As a firm assisting a small client, we had to be ready to jump in and help with research and context.

They embraced sharing the spotlight. About 80% of the media coverage they received was part of a collaborative effort with other nonprofit groups. We still provided the same communications support, but adding spokespersons from other groups to the media statements and blogs helped create excitement and unique nuance.

They practiced. We provided media training and on-camera interview prep for organizational leaders. Rather than approach media training as a one-time event, we implemented an ongoing coaching approach so that theory could more easily be put into practice.

We kept dynamic media lists by constantly monitoring and updating lists in real-time, particularly during breaking-news situations. Journalists received communications from the client only when they demonstrated an interest in the subject area. No spamming leads to a very high open rate among journalists.

They created a written social media plan and focused digital efforts on using Facebook and Twitter as organizing vehicles, for example hosting Twitter events and other online opportunities. They were able to engage thought leaders through re-tweets and Facebook posts, thus expanding their reputation and prominence.

They intentionally passed up some important opportunities that fell outside of the strategic communications plan. They remain small in size, and they did the tough — but necessary — strategic work of staying focused on their priority issues and programs.

They used message strategies to weave narratives, including an overarching message map that intersected with issue-based message maps. This helped create a drumbeat about the client's brand and perspective, as well as make an emotional connection with target audiences.

With these 10 strategies, our client was able to break through the media noise and carve out space for a more nuanced perspective on pressing social issues. This client won't always have the same level of skyrocketing media presence, but they are on a solid path toward building a highly respected and widely recognized brand.

Andrea Hagelgans is VP of strategic communications and media relations at Camino Public Relations.

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