PR case study: why did results improve this year if the media is toast?

I really ought to be working on an e-newsletter this morning (the deadline is baying like a hound in my head) but my mind is occupied this sunny Saturday morning about changes in media … and what they mean for non-profits.  Over the last week I’ve read about:

Sure glad my almost 17-year-old son thinks he wants to be a journalist. 

With all of this bad news, I’m scratching my head a bit as to why a PR campaign this past 10 days was as successful as it was.  I’ll blog next time about potential scenarios for non-profits and potential opportunities and threats for non-profits who need to get the word out about their cause or organization.

I’m involved as a volunteer for River City Community Services, a food closet that operates every weekday and serves anyone in need in Sacramento County.  Right now, their biggest fundraiser of the year is Empty Bowls, a charity luncheon that is expected to raise over $50,000.   In past years, newspaper coverage was considered vital to the event’s success.  Then news staff was cut, competition for news attention grew, and it became imperative for the local Sacramento Bee to focus on stories that grabbed attention better than a local fundraiser.  It became virtually impossible to get them to send out a photographer for the event (not to mention the fact that coverage that day would do little to sell advance tickets).

Fast forward to this year’s event.  Tickets may be sold out by now, three days out from the event, and they’ve run ahead of last year’s ticket sales since PR began.  Several thousand dollars in sponsorships fell out of the air without solicitation as buzz about the event increased (no, not a gigantic number but remember this is a fairly small fundraiser in the grand scheme of things).

With the pro bono help of the local office of Porter Novelli, and committee leadership of Susan Bitar of Aria Communications, pre-event media opportunities secured attention from KOVR 13/ch 31’s “Good Day Sacramento”, KFBK AM 1530 talk radio, “where-the-news-is-first” KCRA channel 3, and the local Univision affiliate (ch 19).

Loretto High School student Hallie McKnight also developed a great piece in the Teen Style section of the Sacramento Bee (and the Bee photographer did come out for that).  About the same time, a small volunteer profile was published by Gloria Glyer in the Sacramento Bee (there’s a glitch on the webpage or I’d link to it), and Sacramento Magazine’s Ed Goldman included a blurb about the event in his Sacramentions column.  Those last three fall generally into the category of “long lead time” opportunities (translation:  pitching started weeks or months out).

As with all PR efforts, it’s difficult to tell which did the most to drive results.  But access to web analytics provides a new means of measuring activity.

Ticket sales spiked during the entire week of pre-event publicity.  They were nearly tied on the day of the KFBK story and the day of KCRA’s live report (followed by a taped news story that aired during the noon news).

But here’s what was interesting.  Looking at website analytics, KCRA’s website became one of the top referrers to the non-profit’s website.  That means people saw the story, went on the KCRA website, and clicked through to River City Community Service’s site.  If I were a betting woman, I would bet that KCRA is winning the website war among local electronic news media.

Here’s another bit that came out of the experience.  At one point, KCRA was short a news photographer and instead offered to include pictures using their slide show feature on the website.  Fortunately, we had some great pictures and could upload them via Flickr.  The slide show thing never happened, but the next day, KCRA sent out the talented Sharokina Sams for a live shot.  During her segment, they broadcast two of our photos to bring to life the story of the many people who are being helped by the food closet.

Learnings:

  • News isn’t dead yet.   In this town, it’s alive and kicking – but it’s kicking early.  It’s worth noting that most of the radio and TV news resources are scheduled for the early morning shift.  Translation:  these folks are coming in at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. in the morning and they’re off by noon, so the days of soft-news story collection in the afternoon are over.  My guess is that the same pattern is true in other mid-sized cities like Sacramento.
  • News stations who survive will also have a vibrant online presence, and they’ll be thinking about the ways they can make that real estate more engaging
  • Advertisers will figure out which news stations are attracting audiences, and they’ll find ways to take advantage of a presence there
  • We couldn’t measure it precisely, but I’d bet that programs like Good Day Sacramento and Univision’s morning program have loyal followers who are more likely to act based on a tip from likeable on-air personalities like Julissa Ortiz at Good Day and Jessica Fox and Carlos Gastelum on Univision’s Tu Desayuno Alegre

Implications:

  • Stay current on news outlet’s web presence.  Some of them are doing innovative things like allowing audience members (or John Q Public) to post job-hunting videos (e.g. ch 31).
    • Think about opportunities like the slide show that now appears to be a standard on local news websites.  Great photographs of an event might be a way to get your story across.  Note that they have mostly been using this space for photos they’re getting syndicated from national sources, but this may change if they start to feel it has value as a draw.
  • PR pros (and volunteers like me) should be sure to have Spanish-speaking spokespeople on deck (we didn’t but quickly scampered and found intelligent and bubbly Loretto student Carmen Cueto).
  • Think about how you can create vibrant early-morning events (translation:  good visuals).  Bring coffee.
  • No matter what time you pick for your media event, have your participants on deck to come in even earlier if the opportunity arises at the last moment.  Like 5:45 a.m. early.
  • Be prepared to set your alarm early.  And have your cell phone on early.  I got called before 6 a.m.
  • Use your e-newsletter to tell your supporters to tune in or check out news stories.  Seeing your organization in the news encourages their enthusiasm and enhances the credibility of your organization.
  • Tell your sponsors and grant-funders, too.  (We didn’t, but it would have been a good idea.)

More in the next few days about broader implications for non-profits.  What if newspaper dies or strangles in its current form?  What if audience continues to dwindle for TV, which will mean more advertising cuts, and changes to newsroom staffing?

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