Posts Tagged ‘media relations’

Avoiding the perils of firsthand victim stories

September 12, 2011

This fall, I’ll be part of a workshop for advocacy and service groups at ECPAT International’s general assembly in Paris. ECPAT is a global network of more than 81 groups in 75 countries that work on the issue of child sexual exploitation. I’ve been asked to offer suggestions about how to engage adults to tell their stories about sexual exploitation in their childhood or youth. Getting former victims to share their stories publicly can be hugely effective in terms of generating media attention, public awareness and action. It’s not risk-free though, for the organization or the former victims.

As a child welfare social worker turned PR professional, I have approached the prospect of using firsthand stories from two perspectives. My public relations work involves helping organizations get their stories told in a way that is compelling. I know the best way to do this is through firsthand stories.

As a social worker who has worked with children and families who have lived through sexual abuse, I realize that going public with this kind of victimization is a huge step and one that needs to be considered very carefully.

There are a number of potential pitfalls for both sides—the former victim and the advocacy or direct service organization. There are some measures organizations should take to increase the likelihood of a successful collaboration with former victims.

  1. Find stable participants – Those willing to come forward don’t always have the necessary emotional stability and grounded perspective on their past experience. That can cause problems for both the participant and the organization. Connect with a support group facilitator or therapeutic helper to find participants who have achieved the stability necessary to go public.
  2. Screen for ability – Not everyone is suited to tell his/her story in public, whether that be through a media interview, speaking at a conference or in a video. The participant needs to have the confidence to take center stage, to speak clearly and tell his/her story in a way that is compelling. Once you have a roster of potential participants, interview them yourself and determine if they have what it takes. Some coaching may be required.
  3. Do perspectives align? – Organizations working with abuse victims or advocating on their behalf usually have a specific position on the causes of the problem and how, as a society, we should deal with it. Be prepared that the participant you are considering may not share those views. Even if you’re not asking them to comment in public on their views, the topic could come up, especially during media interviews.  Ask the potential participant about your organization’s perspective, ask them for their thoughts. Determine if there is a match or in the case of differences, whether you can live with them.
  4. Be transparent – The potential participant must be fully aware of the expectations and purpose of his/her participation. This is important not only from an ethical point of view but also to avoid having the participants back out when they discover they are not comfortable with what’s being asked of them. A contract is a good idea because it forces you to spell out exactly what’s involved and protects both your organization and the participant.
  5. Be realistic – If you’re asking the former victim to tell his/her story to the media, know that ultimately you have no control over how that story is going to be told. The participant needs to be aware of this. You can try to guide the journalist involved in terms of preferred language to use (e.g. “child sexual exploitation” rather than “child prostitute”) but there are no guarantees.
  6. Be prepared if things go wrong – Think of the risks involved ahead of time. What will you do if the media coverage is not what you or the participant expected? What if upon telling or viewing the story, the participant experiences post-trauma? Think it through and have a plan.
  7. Don’t forget legal considerations – In addition to having a contract, consider having a legal representative review the firsthand stories before you use them. If the participant is identifying his/her abuser, even in an indirect way, make sure there won’t be any legal repercussions. Fact check convictions, sentencing or court procedures the participant refers to for accuracy.

Has your organization used the stories of former victims in its advocacy work? Please share what steps you’ve taken to ensure success by leaving a comment.

Related post: Media promotion for non-profits doing sensitive work

Will your media reputation help during a crisis?

February 22, 2011

When an organization faces a crisis one of the biggest stresses is managing the media attention that can come with it. Often, the inclination is to “duck and cover” in the hope that the media interest will go away. Of course, staying silent only makes things worse. Just as important as what and how you communicate during a crisis is your communication with media when your organization is not in crisis mode. The reputation of your company or nonprofit will shape how media cover the story and how the public interprets it.

There are a number of aspects to corporate crisis communications. I’ve outlined the basics of creating a plan to cope with crisis before it hits in a previous post.

When it comes specifically to coping with the media attention associated with a crisis, the reputation you’ve cultivated through media relations and other public relations initiatives can help or hurt you at this critical time. If you’ve been responsive to media requests, extended yourself to get information to reporters quickly and treated various outlets equitably, your organization is more likely to weather the storm.

Yes, media strive to be objective, but humans are involved.  If you’ve built a positive relationship with reporters and news outlets, it will likely influence them to cover how you are handling the crisis more favourably. You don’t want the first impression of your company to be that of an organization in crisis. So strive to tell the story and good deeds of your organization on a regular basis.

Also, although it’s counterintuitive when you’re facing a crisis, make an effort to reach out to media before they reach out to you. Initiating media contact sends the message that you are transparent, concerned about getting the facts out and to dealing with the crisis proactively. Again, reporters are more likely to perceive your message positively if you reach out first than if they have to drag a few words out of  you after hounding you to make a comment. Silence leads to suspicion.

Pursuing a media relations program as part of routine business makes sense for a variety of reasons. When it comes to coping with a crisis, it’s like an insurance policy. If you have credibility and positive working relationships with reporters you’re several steps ahead of companies that don’t.

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*photo by Sasa Wolff (Flickr)

Media relations basics still apply

November 24, 2009

How many times a day do you hear that the media landscape is changing?  Newspapers are collapsing, television news is turning itself inside out to maintain its viewership and the online world of “citizen journalism” has traditional news outlets struggling for relevancy. If this is all true, are there new rules to follow to get media attention for your nonprofit organization or small business? Should you even bother with traditional media?

Although there are some new considerations when it comes to PR and media relations, the basics still apply. Yes, the online world has opened up many PR opportunities that did not exist before, but the traditional media still play a powerful role.  Also, whether you’re pitching journalists or bloggers, many of the basics are the same for both.

The media release
A number of tech-savvy PR pros have been predicting the demise of the media release for a few years now. That time may come but this basic document is still widely used as a way to initiate media contact.  Sure, there are isolated success stories about pitching to journalists on Twitter but most news outlets still appreciate a to-the-point document that outlines your organization’s story pitch. What is beginning to change is the style or format of the release.

Today’s winning releases are concise and devoid of jargon and overblown claims revealed by the use of phrases such as “leading-edge”, “world-class”, and “value-driven”. You might as well write, “blah … blah … blah” in place of any of these overused phrases for the effect they have on news editors. If a reader does not come to the conclusion that  your new program, service or product is “unique” or a “cut above the rest” from the evidence you provide in your description, it’s probably because it’s not and you shouldn’t be promoting it as such.

You also need to get rid of the canned quotes from your executive director or CEO. The paragraph that quotes the CEO saying, “We’re thrilled to be joining XYZ company in this partnership to provide value-driven services to our mutual clients,” has to go. Nobody talks like that and it’s a meaningless quote. Have your executive make a genuine statement about how your news is actually going to impact customers/clients, change the business/industry or affect employees.

Don’t look for the media release to do it all either. Provide media with links to Web content that offers collaboration, video and/or images that demonstrate your story and a way for journalists to follow continuing developments. The “social media release” strives to provide a format for this Web-friendly content. See the Social Media Release blog for more information.

One pitch for all will fail
In many cases, media outlets have cut back to skeletal staffs. That means that journalists are being asked to pump out more work than they use to. They’re also being asked to blog on their media outlet’s website, post late-breaking news as it happens on the site’s homepage and to engage with readers or viewers on Twitter. They have very little time to appreciate how the story about your company or nonprofit directly appeals to their readers. It’s your job to help them to see it. That means you have to tailor your pitch to the particular outlet or journalist. Know what kinds of stories they want to cover.

For example, I recently pitched a story about a fellow from the UK driving a vintage Triumph Stag across North America in support of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had a truly compelling personal story about PTSD and was a brilliant storyteller. The story had obvious appeal on a two fronts — the PTSD angle and the vintage car enthusiast angle. I pitched it to auto section editors as well as city news editors as two different stories and got coverage on both sides. One media release trying to cover both of these angles would just not have worked.

Relationships matter
It’s a mistake to think that a reporter will cover your story just because you have a positive relationship with that person. You need to have a good story to begin with. However, a positive relationship does have weight. If a reporter knows that you consistently pitch newsworthy stories, he/she will be more inclined to pay attention to your release.

If that reporter knows that you will go the extra mile to get needed information to them before their deadline, for example, and that you will make sure your spokespeople are prepared and available when you say they will be, that reporter may be more willing to cover your story. Treat reporters with respect, recognize the mutually beneficial relationship, and always act with integrity.

Follow up to stand out from the crowd
The media release is your “entry to the dance” and nothing more. It is not enough on its own to garner media coverage unless the story is so big that it can’t be ignored. Sending out a media release without follow-up with individual reporters and editors is likely to result in no coverage at all.

It is very rare that I get a call on a media release before I do follow-up calls to the media outlets I’ve sent it to. Most often, when I reach a reporter or editor to discuss the release, they have either seen it at a glance or haven’t seen it at all. Media outlets receive hundreds of releases each day. Chances are, your release will go unnoticed unless you connect with someone directly to point out its newsworthy appeal. This doesn’t mean being pushy or asking the journalist if they intend to cover the story. It means making yourself available to answer any questions and pointing out why you thought the journalist would be interested.

The media landscape is changing. With the explosion of social media and other Web-based tools, traditional media is no longer the only  way to get your story out. Landing a story in your local paper or TV news show still has influence and impact, however, and works as a complement to your organization’s other PR efforts. There may be changes afoot but media relations basics still apply.

Biggest communication mistakes

October 15, 2008

It’s been two years since I left my communications position at a social services agency to start my own consulting practice. In that time, I’ve been fortunate to be invited into a number of nonprofits and businesses. This has given me a new perspective on how organizations function in terms of communications planning and practice.  Big or small, all organizations have their strengths and weaknesses. I’ve seen a lot of good communications practices but a number of mistakes as well. Here are six that stick out for me.

  1. Thinking of communication as a one way street – Organizations that concentrate only on what they’re saying without listening to what their publics are saying risk sending out the wrong message. Some don’t even have established mechanisms for two-way communication. This means they don’t benefit from valuable feedback about their organizational processes and how to improve goods and services.
  2. Not planning for communication as an organization grows – This seems to be common. Most organizations start out small. Everyone knows what’s going on in the organization because management and staff are in close proximity and formally and informally chat about the business. This changes when organizations grow—particularly when staff begin to work off-site or in satellite offices. Management then gets caught off guard when there is an internal communication problem because they haven’t planned for this area as the organization has grown.
  3. Communication is not an integral part of executive management function – Whenever a decision is made at the management table, the need for communication around that decision should be considered. Ask: Is this something that we need to communicate to staff, shareholders, donors? What’s the best way to do that?  It’s surprising how often this gets overlooked.
  4. Reluctance to look at new tactics/approaches – The influence of social media and Web 2.0 continues to grow and become more mainstream. Organizations ignoring this are going to be left behind. Big players in the corporate and nonprofit world are getting on board but many smaller organizations (who could really benefit from the low cost of these tactics) are lagging behind.
  5. Nonprofits reluctant to invest in communication and good design – There’s no question that many nonprofits have scant resources to address big causes. The priority is to invest in core services and mission. However, the number of nonprofits that undervalue good communication and design practices is remarkable. If you can’t invest a lot of cash in this area, do less but invest something. Getting a friend of so-and-so who designs websites in his spare time to create your nonprofit site is a big mistake. Invest a reasonable amount in professional services. Your donors and other stakeholders will see your organization as more credible and it will result in greater support.
  6. Expecting immediate results from a PR/media relations plan – Public relations and communications planning is a longer term investment. I’ve seen some organizations finally invest in public relations planning only to abandon the strategy when they don’t see immediate results. Not getting that front page news coverage on the first go around does not mean your plan is a failure. Be realistic about your goals and the time lines for them. Public relations planning is a sustained activity with results that are often more solid and lasting than a “big splash” advertising blitz but it requires patience.

What’s your experience as a small to medium sized organization? Do you find it hard to plan for and invest in solid communications practices? What are the challenges? Join the conversation by leaving your comments here.