Think You Can't Afford PR? You Can't Afford Not to Do PR
It wasn’t that long ago that public relations was something most nonprofit organizations thought they couldn’t afford. They tried to get by with PR volunteers instead of a paid public relations professional staff. Some nonprofits confused public relations with advertising—and tried to get it pro bono from local ad agencies. That’s like trying to get an airline ticket to Hawaii free from a car rental company. Even if you do get something free, you know it can’t be what you really needed, and won’t get you where you need to go.
There’s been a significant change in the way nonprofit organizations are using public relations. Today, just as no corporation would introduce a new product, make a management change or corporate move, or support the day-to-day marketing of a product without public relations, many nonprofits are turning to public relations as an integral part of their marketing mix.
A successful PR program must:
- Build awareness of your organization and position it as a valuable contributor to society.
- Create an environment to enhance fundraising opportunities.
- Educate and persuade your target audiences about an issue or cause.
Public relations, then, plays an important role in both your fundraising efforts and your organization’s programmatic work. For example, if you’re the March of Dimes, you use public relations both to build support for fundraising campaigns and to educate teens about pregnancy, birth defects and prenatal care. PR supports both fundraising and program—or you’re not getting your money’s worth out of it.
Five Musts for a Successful Public Relations Program:
1. Every organization must have a written annual public relations plan that fits in with the organization’s mission and fundraising plans. The purpose of a PR plan is to state the goal or direction of the organization and detail the specifics of how it will be achieved. At the same time, the plan must be flexible enough to allow for new creative ideas or unanticipated opportunities within the established organizational objectives.
PR plan elements include:
- Situation analysis
- Target audience
- Target media
Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.” That’s the point here. A specific plan like this ensures that your organization (top management, development, program and public relations) is in sync. It yields maximum efficiency, and it’s a key to success.
2. Adopt a proactive mindset, not a reactive one. Look for ways to get out in front of a story. Don’t just react to news or events. Create your own news and events. You set the agenda. You frame the issue.
3. One of the most important trends in our profession today is issue- oriented public relations. This involves identifying an issue, persuading target audiences that it’s an important issue or problem, and positioning your organization as part of the solution to the problem and, thus, worthy of support.
Think about it. The New York Times doesn’t usually run stories about what a wonderful organization the American Red Cross is. And if it did, who’d read it? But it does run stories about disasters and about problems in the blood supply and trends in blood giving. And each time it quotes the American Red Cross, the media positions that organization as an expert helping to solve an important problem.
4. Consider including a government relations component in your PR program, even if it seems at first blush that you don’t need it. It can be lobbying on either issues or for government funds. Government relations can give you a platform from which you can build awareness of your organization and assert leadership. A well-publicized meeting with the president, or having a governor or a U.S. senator take part in one of your symposia or special events, can lend credibility to your whole effort.
Our agency, Russ Reid, works with skid row rescue missions around the U.S. and Canada. When we began, the mayor of Los Angeles had never heard of the Los Angeles Mission, but we had him attend an outdoor Christmas dinner for 5,000 homeless people. We met with him about building plans and homeless issues. We built a relationship. The Los Angeles Mission doesn’t accept any government funding whatsoever, so why did they need a relationship with the mayor? When it was time to build a new mission, the mayor agreed to co-chair our $11 million capital campaign for a new Los Angeles Mission. He personally called together 25 of the city’s top CEOs and asked them to serve on a committee with him. We raised all the money and built the new mission. We still don’t take government money. But we treasure their friendship. The point is: get connected.
5. Please don’t let your CEOs go out and do press conferences, interviews and TV appearances without being media trained. Your organizations and you spend time, effort, money and some sleepless nights earning a forum to communicate your message. Don’t waste it all by shooting from the hip. It’s unprofessional.
Doctors or celebrities may be experts in their field, but they need to take the time to learn how to present your messages to lay media and the public. Be sure your spokesperson undergoes a formal course on how to do an interview, how to appear on television and how to communicate your message effectively and persuasively.
Good PR doesn’t happen by accident. It takes planning, creativity, strategic thinking and smart, sound execution. It can help you establish a strong reputation for your organization and an urgency for your cause that will significantly enhance your organization, your fundraising and your actual program work.
Tom Harrison is the former chair of Russ Reid and Omnicom's Nonprofit Group of Agencies. He served as chair of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.