Modern Media Relations for Nonprofits: Creating an Effective PR Strategy for Today's World

Imagine you're on the train and the person in the seat next to you starts rubbing his arm and looking like he might faint. Then he says, "I think I'm having a heart attack!"

How would you handle the situation? Would you panic? Would you sit there and hope someone else stepped forward to help? Would you know what to do even if you wanted to help?

Whether it's a car accident or a sudden illness, the unexpected often throws people for a loop — especially if they're not prepared.

The same holds true for nonprofits: in an age of always-on digital media, a nonprofit's ability to respond effectively in a crisis situation hinges on having someone on staff who's been trained in communications. But, of course, most nonprofits don't have an in-house communications team, or even a full-time communications professional on staff. Typically, what they have is someone who has been tasked with handling the occasional call from a reporter. Often that person is the executive director, and she almost always has lots of other irons in the fire and very little time to devote to media relations.

Enter Modern Media Relations for Nonprofits: Creating an Effective PR Strategy for Today's World, by Peter Panepento and Antoinette G. Kerr (with a Foreword by Kivi Leroux Miller). In it, Panepento, a former Chronicle of Philanthropy reporter and editor, and Kerr, who wrote for the Lexington Dispatch, go beyond the basic press release and grip-and-grin photograph and provide a comprehensive set of tools with which every nonprofit operating in today's media landscape should be familiar. As they caution readers in the first few pages of the book, "effective media relations is no longer about generating press releases and making pitches to a handful of trusted outlets. It requires nuance and a willingness to try new approaches."

Not surprisingly, Panepento and Kerr take a journalist's approach to their subject, leading off with a survey of modern media (both digital and print) and getting down to brass tacks with a chapter on "Understanding Journalism" that includes a "true/false" test featuring statements such as: "We advertise in your newspaper; we should expect positive stories"; "I should expect to review a story about my organization before it is published"; and "I can offer a reporter free admission to our annual dinner."

From there, the book moves on to the basic tools of modern media relations, both old (press releases, op-eds, canned statements) and new (online pitch services, RSS feeds, video). Throughout, Panepento and Kerr advocate for the judicious use of the many tools available — avoiding, for example, the "spray and pray" method of press release dissemination and making sure, whenever one responds to a journalist, to provide them with something useful.

The most important element in effective media relations, however, is planning. And that, according to Panepento and Kerr, "begins with understanding what your organization is actually looking to accomplish." To that end, they recommend that the nonprofit communications professional, whether new to the job or an old hand looking to breathe life into the organization's media efforts, interview key members of staff to identify clear goals for its media strategy.

But goal-setting is only one element of their "G.R.E.A.T." approach to media relations, the others being Responsive, Engaged, Appealing, and Targeted. The responsive nonprofit, for example, doesn't just build strong relationships with journalists — it is responsive to their needs, doing things like creating resources and structures that enable it to answer questions and respond to media requests quickly. Similarly, the nonprofit with media "appeal" thinks intentionally about sharing stories and ideas that are compelling, current, and relevant (as opposed to the kind of rehashed announcements that nonprofits typically roll out year after year). And while targeting specific audiences (rather than trying to reach everyone with a watered-down message) is important, the media team or person on staff needs to find out what makes the organization's target audiences tick. (As is increasingly common in audience-development approaches, Panepento and Kerr recommend creating "personas" or "avatars" representing different segments of your audience as a way to better understand what members of those sub-audiences want and expect.) "It's only after you know who you want to reach and what you want to say to them," they write, "that you can properly identify which media outlets are most important to your organization."

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Modern Media Relations for Nonprofits is its approach to social media. Recognizing how difficult it is for underresourced nonprofits to keep up with today's fast-moving social media environment, the authors provide some short cuts. And again, the message is simple: Be prepared. By which they mean, have structures and approaches in place that enable you to play defense when a news situation or crisis requires it, and to play offense when an opportunity presents itself. "You need to be able to deploy [messaging] to the right people at the right time," Panepento and Kerr write. "Slow footed nonprofits can lose donors, partners, and grants if they cannot communicate effectively during a time of crisis. But nonprofits can take advantage of breaking-news opportunities and respond promptly to crises if they plan ahead."

And it's not just the message; the messenger matters, too. Whether it's one person or a trusted group, make sure at least one of your emergency response people is available on short notice — and that she is well prepared not only to speak about the organization and its work, but also to address the issues it considers most important. By discussing in advance the issues the organization cares most about, the media team can create filters and alerts that flag opportunities as they arise and help it develop pitches that can be customized and deployed when needed.

Short and sweet at a hundred and fifty-seven pages, the book could benefit from additional examples of how smaller nonprofits can and should handle both typical and crisis communications situations. But as a primer for busy nonprofit professionals (and board members) accustomed to wearing many hats and being asked to do more with less, Panepento and Kerr have succeeded in creating something that most will be happy to add to their shelf of go-to nonprofit resources.

Matt Sinclair is editor of Philanthropy News Digest.