Nonprofit public relations and marketing

Is it possible to attract media coverage for a nonprofit fundraiser event? I ask the question because every nonprofit holds fundraisers, whether in-person or online, and everybody wants media coverage.

The harsh reality is that media turnout in a large market like Los Angeles for an evening fundraising event is difficult unless it has one or more critical elements. Foremost, nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles need to understand that the city is showbiz oriented. For the media to send a crew, or a reporter and photographer, they want to show pictures that will catch their readers’ attention — and in L.A. that usually means A-list actors.

As a PR firm that has managed dozens of events for nonprofits, we speak from experience. We also believe that every nonprofit does great work. So while promoting the work of a nonprofit is admirable and what we do, that alone is not what will make the media come out.

There simply are too many nonprofits holding too many events for them all to be covered. And this is especially true in the post-pandemic era.

So if your event can’t turn out Brad Pitt, there are other ways to get media attention by creating a strategy that ties your work to current events in the news. Also, don’t forget post-event coverage. While media may not spend the money to send out a crew (yes it costs a station money to cover events) sending them video and photos after the event, which costs them nothing to run is something to consider.

And there are other techniques. Working with a firm that has put on numerous events, that comes with a fresh perspective and creative ideas, can be invaluable.

When is a crisis a crisis?

Crisis public relations firms are often retained to do two things. Either keep their client out of the news, or help their client respond to negative allegations.

The key to an effective crisis PR strategy is timing. If an organization believes there is a threat to their reputation, they want to be ready. We’ve all heard the phrase, “get ahead of the story.” But in reality, many impending crises never happen.

So it becomes a bit of a dilemma. Do you go out there are defend yourself before anything happens, or do you wait? Talking too quickly can put you in the position of creating a story that hasn’t — and perhaps won’t occur. Obviously, nobody wants that.

Having a solid PR strategy that takes all scenarios into account is step one. Finding the right balance of being ready and moving forward when the need becomes apparent is the best strategy unless a legal case has been filed and you know for certain it will blow up.

That’s what PR firms do. Bring a clear perspective and vision to a situation and formulate the right PR strategy that protects their clients’ reputations while not inadvertently creating a crisis that never would have happened.

Nonprofit events: in-person or virtual?

Now that the world is coming out of the pandemic, so are nonprofit events. After two years when all events by charity organizations were moved online due to COVID, does it make sense to make them in person again?

While most organizations bemoaned having to cancel their events and doing them on Zoom, many are noticing the advantages they enjoyed as well. Let’s face it. Serving dinner at a fancy hotel is expensive. A good percentage of ticket prices and sponsorship money always went to the venue and the caterer. Then there were the many other costs — decorations, video, programs, flowers, music, staffing, parking. Too many well-meaning nonprofits did annual gala after annual gala only to find that after six months of planning, they were left with much less than they need or want.

This is not to say there isn’t a time and place for real life galas. There is something warm and special about an organization’s supporters, friends and staff getting together, meeting, talking and sharing an evening together. No Zoom event can replace that. But what virtual fundraisers taught us is nonprofits can do a great job putting on a fundraising gala while raising more money. If you knock out all the costs, and extend the reach by going virtual there is a place for an online gala as well.

What is important to remember is supporters don’t attend a gala for the chicken dinner. In fact, many hate it and avoid galas. There are just too many. Instead, focus on your organization’s mission and message. That’s what will being in the money.

And your supporters may surprise you by giving more because they can do it from the comfort of their living room and don’t have to put on a necktie or gown.

Raising your nonprofit’s voice

We hear quite a bit about making your voice heard. But that’s on a personal level. Your nonprofit also has a voice and it can be heard through your public relations (PR) and marketing strategy.

What does this mean? It means not only telling the world what it is your nonprofit does, but how your nonprofit is making life better for the people it serves.

This is especially true if one of your main objectives is fundraising. Donors support nonprofits for many different reasons. One is the mission resonates with them. The other is they see their dollars at work; not in nice office space or lots of staff, but in the community.

Decide what it is you want your nonprofit’s voice to say, and then create a PR plan that says it effectively and loudly.

Nonprofit PR checklist

If your nonprofit wants to win the public relations/marketing game as you compete with other nonprofits that essentially serve the same audiences, there are some must-haves.

Here they are:

  1. Spokesperson — The ideal spokesperson is the CEO of executive director. Assure he/she is trained in media relations and can think quickly.
  2. Visionary — Every nonprofit needs a visionary. They often are those who start the nonprofit. If your nonprofit wants to grow, it needs someone to articulate where it is going.
  3. Engagement — Nonprofits flourish when they engage those whom they serve as well as donors.
  4. Success — Studies have shown that people donate to organizations that are succesful. Craft your image as a nonprofit that is making a change for the better. Donors want their dollars going to make a difference, not getting an organization out of debt.
  5. Relevance — Be relevant. Operating a nonprofit as it did 10 years ago does not attract donors or media attention. Keep up with technology and the rapidly changing world.

Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial: A lesson in crisis/litigation management

For those following the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial, it is difficult to distinguish whether it is a trial or a circus. Not since the O.J. case has there been so much interest and chatter about a celebrity legal case.

And it’s not an accident.

We know that all “A” list celebrities have PR publicists working the media to spin their side of the story. Now that we live in an age of social media where everybody has a voice, it is even more visible.

When it was Johnny’s turn on the stand, the social media chatter was clearly on his side. Hashtags and nasty comments about Amber were everywhere. People called her crazy. Depp’s PR team had the upper hand.

So what was Heard’s response? She fired her PR firm.

According to online sources, she was furious at the bad headlines she was getting. So she switched publicists. However, she did it right before she took the stand and had a chance to tell her side of the story.

Whether the new PR people have done any better getting her side of the story out is debatable. The anti-Heard damage was deep and widespread.

The lesson to be learned is you don’t get much by killing the messenger. The trial was broadcast live, and people were able to make their own decisions and post their own thoughts without going through the filter of Amber’s PR team.

There is only so much a PR team can do to spin an image when courtroom testimony brights out craziness. But it was a move that Heard should have thought about before dumping the publicists who had been following the trial since its beginning. She never gave them a chance to help tell her side of the story.

And judging from the headlines and social media that continue to favor Depp, her kneejerk reaction to switch publicists before they had a chance, was simply foolish.

A PR crisis requires waiting and knowing the facts

The Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX in which 19 fourth-grade students were massacred, is a textbook example of how not to properly handle a PR crisis.

Two days after the tragedy, law enforcement were in front of cameras fielding questions and attempting to explain what happened. The only problem is their story kept changing.

This event can hardly be called a PR crisis. It is beyond imagination that 11-year-old kids would be brutally killed. But the intense media attention pressured law enforcement to feed their desires for information. They were pressured by the media for an explanation and answers as to what happened.

The parents deserve nothing less.

Instead of law enforcement — which has the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the world — were pressured if not bullied into meeting with media to explain the details and timeline of what they did. They first said the gunman was met outside the school by a School Resource Officer who was shot. Then, officials said that never happened. Then, they said they could not find the key to the classroom. That explanation went away. At this writing the story now is police locked the gunman in the classroom with the children and waited an hour for SWAT.

There is no doubt other explanations will emerge.

It takes a special kind of person to run toward gunfire to save lives. Not many people can do it, and nobody should unless they are trained and have extraordinary bravery.

But if law enforcement is making up the series of events day by day without knowing what really happened, they are doing a disservice not only to themselves, but the millions of other parents who rely on schools to keep their children safe.

It is easy to second guess law enforcement. We weren’t there. We were not navigating the chaos. But law enforcement only makes matters worse by trying to satisfy the media without knowing all the facts.

How your nonprofit can stand out

Nonprofit organizations typically hire public relations and marketing firms to help them stand out. It is obvious why a corporation with the objective of profit wants to become better known, but why does a nonprofit with a mission need to stand out?

The answer is simple. Nonprofits compete in the marketplace just like corporations do.

They compete for attention. And they compete for dollars.

So how does a nonprofit present itself as unique when there are literally thousands of other causes in the marketplace like Los Angeles and dozens that do the same thing?

Having represented upwards of 100 nonprofits, we can say with certainty that it is not simple. But it can be done with a solid PR / marketing plan and consistency.

When creating your PR messaging, it is not enough to simply say on your website what you do. Too many nonprofits do the same thing, and most do them well. What you need to do is engage your audience. You need to have a conversation with them about what you do. In addition to outlining your services, the nonprofits that stand out also speak to their audiences via social media and events about what is currently happening in the space you are operating.

The world changes rapidly. We all know this. If your organization is not communicating with your audiences about issues relevant today, then you risk being just another organization that does the same thing your competitors do.

It takes work. It takes time. But it will yield results.

Now is not the time to score political points

With the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX where 19 fourth-grade students and two teachers were murdered, one would think politicians would take a breath.

But for some, political power is all that is important. We are in the midst of a primary season leading to the Nov. 2022 mid-term elections. Mere hours after the shooting, we saw politicians pushing their political agendas on gun control and related matters. Today, the day after, we see would-be politicians running social media ads touting how they will stop school shootings if people would only vote for them.

Yes, a big part of public relations strategy is to be relevant. PR people always try to tie their clients or causes to current events. But to use such an incredibly horrible tragedy to further a campaign message to “vote for me I can fix this,” is nauseating.

Now is not the time to sell products or sell candidates. Now is the time for reflection, sympathy and empathy.

If there are any political strategies we would advise a client right now, it would be to stay quiet and support the grieving families in any way possible.

Not see it as an opportunity to get elected or re-elected.

Kids were murdered. Your political careers can wait.

Excite your readers with words, not exclamation points

There is a tendency for some beginning writers to add exclamation points to the end of their sentences! Some think that if they end a sentence with a (!) that it will excite the reader and indicate what the reader just read is really important.

I disagree, especially in the public relations business.

Exclamation points need to be left in third grade. If you have something exciting to say, say it with words not punctuation. A reader doesn’t need to be signaled that what they just read is really important or exciting. It is like telling someone they need to turn on their computer before they can use it. People know.

Plus, it makes the writer look inexperienced.

So say it with words, not punctuation marks — especially not exclamation marks.