One of my least favorite PRisms is, "Any publicity is good publicity." I cringe when I hear it. I used to think that I was wrong about it; after all, it was in my college textbooks, I read it in articles and blogs, I heard board members repeat it. Oscar Wilde said it: "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." I even heard it re-iterated by the P.T. Barnum character in "The Greatest Showman" (most attribute the original "There's no such thing as bad publicity" quote to the real Barnum):
Jenny Lind: "Mr. Barnum. I believe I have heard about you from my friends in America."
P.T. Barnum: "Well, if you've heard of me all the way over here, I must be doing something right."
Jenny Lind: "Or something very, very wrong."
P.T. Barnum: "In the world of publicity, there is hardly a difference."
Jenny Lind: "I believe that is the start of a scandal, Mr. Barnum."
I've come to feel more and more strongly that - at least for the nonprofit field - "any publicity is good publicity" is a failing principle. Granted, free publicity is hard to come by, but just because someone throws out a moldy old blanket doesn't mean you should embrace it. That stink is hard to shake.
I think nonprofits are particularly at risk of the effects of bad publicity. When your organization rests on its reputation which feeds trust to your donors who feed your bottom line, you must protect your reputation. The risk is even greater when you consider your efforts to attract new donors. Your current donors who are already invested in your mission may be able to overcome a little bad press, but new donors you are trying to cultivate may not recover. The first impression will be the most lasting.
We see this same principle at play in the business community. Chipotle is still trying to rebound from its e coli outbreak from 2015. According to Business Insider, "Customers who rarely or never eat at Chipotle are the most likely to hold food safety concerns against the chain." They report that 60% of people who weren't regular customers before the outbreak indicate the issue had a "significantly negative impact or a complete loss of trust in the brand." If Chipotle who offers foil-wrapped, belly-filling goodness can't bounce back, how much harder would it be for an organization offering far less tangible (even if more meaningful) results?
So, how do you maximize opportunities for positive publicity and minimize the impact of negative publicity?
1. Cultivate Relationships
Know the press and let the press know you before publicity happens. Sometimes, this is more lucky break than strategy. When I was the Director of Marketing at The Don Bosco Centers, I received a call out of the blue from a Kansas City Star social services reporter looking for a quote for a story. I am so glad I picked up that call. Over my years there, she would touch base with me about other stories she was writing, and often when I sent out a press release she was the first to pick it up. Your responsiveness to the press when they need you will be an asset when you need them.
2. Pursue the Press
Look for opportunities to position yourself as an expert in the field. If you see a story in the paper that speaks to an issue your organization addresses, send a follow-up to that reporter introducing yourself. That way, the next time they have a similar story or if they need to do a follow-up story, they will have a new resource. Know of a local station working on a series of stories around an issue you are familiar with? Offer yourself as a resource.
Our local PBS affiliate use to participate in the Public Insight Network, an opportunity for experts in any field to be placed into the American Public Media's virtual Rolodex as a future source of information. When our local affiliate did a series on housing issues in Kansas City, it was from this database they found experts and sources to feed their series.
3. Develop a Crisis Management Plan
I've written about this before (see below), so I won't dwell on it again here, but it definitely applies! Plan for the worst so that if it happens, you are not caught off guard. Your crisis management plan will help you work bad things out for good.
4. Work on the Spin
Be clear about your most important tenets and be ready to redirect any point back to there. With some practice, planning, and thought, mastering the spin can be done even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Years ago I worked at a large church that found itself in a scandal surrounding a staff member. The press was relentless, as they tend to be when a fall from grace happens in a church setting. Anticipating camera crews before services the following Sunday, I prepped and practiced key talking points: transparency is a virtue and so we are willing to discuss this on the record, accountability works as it did in bringing this issue to light, we are a people of forgiveness but consequences and a review of policy is critical when areas of weakness are revealed, and so forth. Did all of that mitigate all damage that arose out of that situation? Of course it didn't, but it helped us control what we could control in the rolling out of the story, and in the long run, minimized the reputational damage to the organization.
5. Follow Up with Your Followers
For better and for worse, social media is the first place of connection with the public. It is a great and massively useful tool in any marketing arsenal, but it also has its pitfalls. People comment, leave reviews, and share information about your organization with others. Hopefully it is all good stuff.
However, if you serve people, it's likely you've also ticked people off, and when that happens, it's likely they are telling others. When that feedback lands on your newsfeed, under your Google listing, or on other feedback platforms, don't go silent. Engage with your followers. Try to address any concerns. At the very least, search to see what kind of feedback is being left about you so that you aren't caught off guard if and when it comes up. You won't likely win back the opinion of that one person, but by issuing a gentle response you may put that one person's opinion into context and ease the impact of their feedback on your impression with others.
Intentional and unintentional publicity will happen. You have the power to harness that attention for good or leave it to its own (often destructive) vices. Choose to harness it for good by being thoughtful about how you interact with the public, how you engage with the press, and how you position your organization when it responds to controversy.
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Some days - nay, most days - nonprofit professionals have to focus all their means just to keep up on the matters at hand. Too often it feels luxurious to spend time planning for the future and thinking about scenarios that may or may not happen. Unfortunately, this places far too many organizations in the perilous realm of being completely unprepared should a crisis occur - whether through fault or mere circumstance. The consequences of such unpreparedness can be disastrous to an organization's reputation, branding and fund development efforts.
One of the most important tools in an organization's PR arsenal is a crisis management plan. Admittedly, creating such a plan takes a bit of time and work, and this is why it is why so few organizations have one. It is also why it is so important to have one in place before a crisis happens. In the midst of a PR firestorm, time and freedom to plan are no longer at your leisure.
I wish I was speaking from theoretical knowledge, and not from practical experience. During my 20 or so years in the nonprofit and faith-based communications fields, I have had to manage media coverage resulting from sex scandals, bomb threats, violence on organization property, and even the carjacking of a staffer on program business. It is my least favorite part of PR and marketing. It is stressful. It is unpredictable. It can instantly turn a normal day into weeks worth of headaches. However, from this experience I have learned the value of planning and preparing for crisis scenarios so that negative publicity is minimized, information control is maximized, and opportunity for gaining positive coverage is capitalized.
The How To
The best crisis management plan is the most practical one. I am not an advocate of 3-inch-thick plans. Rather, I believe that the best and most useful plans simply identify key contacts, clarify resounding message points, allow for the flexibility of the situation, compile static organization information, and emphasize proactive involvement in managing the crisis.
Global PR Blogweek offers seven elements your crisis management plan should include:
1. Identify the members of your crisis management team.
2. Identify a spokesperson and make sure that each member of the crisis management team has key contact info.
3. Prepare fact sheets on your organization that can quickly be duplicated.
4. Prepare biographies on key staff.
5. Have copies of your press release format, logos and key signatures on file.
6. Think through crisis scenarios and develop pre-written statements that could serve as a foundation for a first response.
7. Compile contact information for your media contacts.
In the thick of a crisis situation, ensure that the members of your crisis management team - especially the spokesperson - have all pertinent information related to situation. If necessary, clear key talking points with your lawyers, but don't let the lawyers dictate the message. "No comment" protects their interests, but is the worst statement you can make for the sake of your organization's reputation and credibility. A statement ensuring that you're looking into the matter, taking it seriously and seeking a positive resolution is far better and equally vague.
In addition, I would recommend that when choosing your media spokesperson, you ensure that person has been properly trained in speaking with the media. Although executive directors are typically the first choice for the organization's spokesperson, not everyone is suited for on-camera interviews. If your executive is uncomfortable in this role, you should select another point of contact. Board chairs are often refined communicators and can be a great resource in this area. Your spokesperson must articulate well, be quick on their feet and able to discern what to say (or what not to say) with little notice, and have an air of authority and confidence. You can prepare a strong statement or concise key talking point, but if that statement is delivered by someone whose eyes dodge out of nervousness or who gets flustered easily, the 5-6-10 newscast viewer will read into that behavior guilt or conspiracy.
Planning = Power
Of course, my hope is that your organization is so well oiled that a crisis never occurs. May all your work sites be so safe that an accident never occurs. May all your staff be so filled with integrity that a lapse of judgment never jeopardizes credibility. May all your clients be so grateful for the services they have received or so understanding about the services they are unable to receive that they are more willing to sing your praises than criticize your decisions. May you so convincingly make your donor appeals that you never find yourself cutting programs or lacking funds or facing closure. And, may every person who walks through your door come bearing notes of thanks or checks of support rather than weapons, anger or lawsuits.
However, should you find yourself in a situation where the media is unexpectedly knocking on your door, a prepared plan of action gives you a better chance to turn a possibly negative situation into an opportunity to share your message and gain support.
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Adapted from Jennifer Anthony's original article, "A Few Words on Crisis Management," published online in 2005.
Nonprofit organizations are particularly good at (or bad at) stating more than really needs to be said. Perhaps it is a side effect of trying to survive in a grantmaking environment where overcommunicating is more than the norm - it's the expectation. Grant applications ask tough (if not unreasonable) questions, and nonprofit professionals find themselves wordsmithing their way into a proposal that talks of sustainability and outcome measures on services and programs that are intrinsically unmeasurable and fundamentally unsustainable. But, beware that your tendency to overstate and expand upon doesn't carry over into your external marketing activities.
I recently saw an ad for a nonprofit organization that read like a book report. It was 5.5 x 8.5 with no images or design elements, and was laden with text. Even the text was boring. It talked about the organization's early beginnings, about its capital campaign 30 years ago, and boasted a valuable staff. The first thought I had after seeing the ad wasn't about how strong of a history the organization had or admiration of its fiscal responsibility. The first thought I had was simply, "Who cares?" That thought was quickly followed by, "They actually paid to print that?"
When engaging in marketing activities that are aimed at informing and motivating donors to contribute, potential clients to call, or volunteers to get involved, nonprofit organizations need to exercise a certain amount of simple communication.
Think. What is worth highlighting? What fact or tidbit is interesting to Joe Community Member, and how can you craft it in such a way within your marketing piece that it is interesting, eye-catching and valuable? Here are five strategies for making your communications clear and your marketing pieces worth reading:
1. Address the "Who Cares?" Factor
When working with your text, ask yourself whether the facts and information you are incorporating into your ad copy or press release is interesting and relevant to someone outside of your organization. You have a small window of opportunity to catch the eye of the peruser. Don't waste that opportunity explaining the origins of your organization or the details of your strategic plan. Captialize on that moment with what matters most: who are you, what do you want them to know, and how can they get involved?
2. Stop the Grant-Speak
Nonprofits tend to have their own set of vocabulary, words like "outcome," "donor," "invest," "impact" and "sustainability." Avoid grant-speak in your advertising. Instead of asking someone to "Become a donor today and impact the lives of underprivileged children," you could say "Give today and impact the lives of tomorrow." Speak their language and you will have a better chance of being heard.
3. Keep it Brief
More than ever before, the consumer's attention is divided. We are multi-tasking media consumers. Your television ad fights the remote every time it comes on, your web ad runs against the quick search toolbar every time it rotates, your print ad gets buried on page 11 next to three others. It's more important now than ever before to keep your message concise and to craft brief - yet strong - highlights and points.
4. A Matter of the Heart
The most effective way to touch a person with the value of involvement with your organization is through emotional response. People give based on emotional stimulation. Emotional involvement is what drives passion and commitment. Emotional messages capture the attention, and when someone's attention is captured they are sure to tell someone else. Use quotes from a client who has been helped by your organization. Tell their story and let them do the selling.
5. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
In the end, the most cleverly crafted tagline or message will be overshadowed by a moving or shocking photo. You want to capture their attention? Do it visually. Your images will get them to stop, then your text can follow-up with the information you need to communicate. Be aware of the importance design plays in any marketing piece you put out.
Your marketing pieces need you to focus on fresh ways of communicating your organization's impact, importance and opportunity for involvement. The first step is to simplify the way you communicate to your audience.
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You've heard the saying, but how much truth is in the old cliche "think outside the box"? Sometimes getting back to the basics is the best move you can make when it comes to marketing nonprofit organizations and promoting their mission. Revisiting older ideas and tried and true marketing practices can provide a sense of clarity that is vital to fresh creativity. Sometimes you first need to think inside the box.
Back to the Basics
You've heard the 4 P's of marketing: product, place, price and promotion. How do those apply to the nonprofit community when their product is intangible, their place is often undefined, their price is indeterminable, and promotion is approached cautiously out of fear of an image that donor dollars are not well spent? Here are some suggestions.
1. PRODUCT - The product of nonprofit organizations are not the services that they offer the community. The product of non-profit organizations is impact. What impact are you making in the lives of your clients? What change is occuring in the community as a result of your efforts? How is your organization's mission meeting needs, transforming lives and contributing to the greater good? Your product is impact and change - focus your marketing messages on that, particularly when trying to reach potential donors.
2. PLACE - In merchandising marketing, place refers to placement of products for optimum sales. In nonprofit marketing where the product is impact and change, we define place as the area in which you concentrate your marketing messages. Let's say, for example, you are a small organization in Kansas City, Kansas. Your services and programs are primarily geared toward Wyandotte County residents. When considering how and where to place your messages, focus your resources on local media, not city-wide or regional outlets. Reach the people whose community you directly serve.
3. PRICE - What price can you put on helping a homeless person achieve self-sustainability, or what price can be assigned to the impact of a tutoring program in an inner-city school? Your target market is likely to be potential donors. The product you offer them is an improved community. Where are you offering that? In their neighborhood. Your third task is to convince them that your organization is worth investing in - at whatever level they are able to give.
4. PROMOTION - You may have a great organization and outstanding programs, but how do you share that with potential donors? You share that through promotion. Nonprofit organizations have limited budgets, and those limited budgets rarely account for marketing, public relations and promotions. Our goal is to help you see the importance of marketing and public relations, and recognize that a little investment can go a long way. In fact, promotion doesn't always have to be costly - it may take the form of a press release or an announcement to your local community bulletin board. The important thing is that you consider ways to actively promote your organization.
Get Comfortable Inside the Box Before Stepping Out
The challenge that too many organizations face is that they try and think "outside of the box" before making sure they know what is inside of the box. Or in other words, make sure that your creative, fresh, unique marketing idea is a solid one before investing time, creativity and money into it.
There are three things that can help you avoid the pitfalls of ineffective marketing:
1. Plan, plan, plan. Develop a strategic marketing plan. This will help you know whom you are trying to reach, what message you will convey when you reach them, and how much money you will need to set aside to embark on that effort.
2. Craft, craft, craft. Craft your message and wrap it in a way that is appealing and that stands out. Craft your marketing effort with creativity while keeping in the forefront of your mind who you are trying to reach and what you want them to do once you reach them.
3. Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Establish some way for you to evaluate how well your marketing efforts worked. This will help you know whether a marketing effort was successful, and whether your investment in that effort was worth the return.
Creativity and innovative thinking is vital to the long-term sustainability of any marketing or public relations campaign; but, before embarking on that next great idea, make sure that your footing is placed firmly on tried and true marketing techniques.
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