Media promotion for non-profits doing sensitive work

October 16, 2007

Every non-profit organization should have an ongoing media promotion program for the purpose of educating the public about its services or to support its fund development program. That’s not so easy when the service you offer is a valuable one but those using it are not eager to reveal they’ve used it (e.g. sexual assault counseling). It’s even more difficult if mandated confidentiality provisions do not allow you to reveal certain information (e.g. that a child is a ward of the child welfare system).

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Visit CBC Radio Manitoba for an example of in-depth coverage of social services agency Marymound

Human element is key
If you’re going to pitch a story to the media, your chances of it being picked up are much higher if there is a human element to it. Rather than promoting a particular product or service with an explanation of it, allow an actual client to talk about how the product or service positively affected his life. This approach is far more compelling and believable than an executive director telling a TV audience that her agency “really does do good work”.

Here are some ideas about how to get that great story out there without compromising the confidentiality or integrity of your clients.

Find the willing
Even within organizations offering services for very sensitive issues, there are usually one or two clients willing to tell their story.

Allow yourself lots of time to find these individuals and to thoroughly discuss with them what you’d like them to share. Avoid doing this in a rush as you will likely end up feeling you’re pressuring the client to do it. Some might be willing to tell their stories for a newsletter going out to your donors but not feel comfortable sharing it in the press. Others might feel comfortable sharing parts of their story rather than revealing everything about their experience. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Examine the possibility of former clients telling their stories. This can be a way around the confidentiality issue with children in care, for example. A young adult who was a child in care can tell her story and talk about how the program you are trying to promote positively affected her. Or, if the program didn’t exist when she was a client, the comments can be about what such a program would have meant if it had existed.

Explore camouflaging clients in media stories
Although requesting identity blocking techniques (i.e. silhouetted interviews, voice altering, pixilated faces etc.) can make a story less appealing, journalists are usually accommodating if the story is compelling.

In a week-long radio feature on Manitoba based non-profit Marymound, CBC Radio Manitoba managed to cover stories about the agency while including youth in the features without revealing identities. When the story is genuinely interesting, the media can be very creative when it comes to protecting privacy/confidentiality.

Prepare the client and the media
Nothing will kill the possibility of clients coming forward to tell their stories better than a negative experience with the media. Take the time to prepare the client. Do a mock interview to help them to form the answers to the questions they will likely be asked.

Ask clients how they would like their situations described by the media and then convey this to the journalist doing the interview. You can’t guarantee the media outlet will use the description but your chances are better than if you say nothing. I once convinced a mom and her school-aged child to do a media interview on a very positive work placement program for kids with behaviour problems. The article was great but the headline used the term “troubled youth” and the mom was irate that her son was labeled in this way. It turned a story the student could be proud of into a source of shame.

Provide the journalist with a “tip sheet” or short backgrounder that talks about appropriate language, provides easily understood explanations for psychological conditions, behaviours or treatments/services. This can prevent the journalist from describing things in a way that is inaccurate or at worst, damaging to the client or others.

It’s not just about your organization
Many times, the clients I’ve had do media interviews are motivated to share their stories because they believe that doing so can help others in the same situation. It can also be a liberating, self-affirming experience for someone to share their story and get positive feedback about it. This is a win-win situation for the client and the organization.

Share your experience with media relations in your organization by leaving a comment.

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One Response to “Media promotion for non-profits doing sensitive work”


  1. […] by the program or service available to speak to the media about it. This was the subject of another post I wrote if you want to learn why this is […]


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