One of the great underutilized strategic planning tools is contingency planning. In this blog post and the next one, I’ll walk through scenarios about what the endangered future of mass media means for non-profits, ranging from worst case to best case. Consider this one “the bad and ugly”. The goal of the exercise is to choose a course of action that will be most “robust” (strategic planners love that word) no matter what happens. So whether you think there’s a pony in there somewhere* or not, you should read this post.
In the most negative scenario, the doom loop continues, with further erosion of network news audience (local and national) and newspaper circulation, and the flight of advertisers. Staff cuts, consolidations, and closures ensue.
- Mass media collapses to the point that it is untenable as an avenue for raising awareness of an issue or organization – particular those that are not visually interesting or endearing.
- Audience fractures into a thousand splinter online publications, cable channels and radio stations – destroying the cost/benefit of traditional public relations approaches that focus on newspaper and television angles.
- Cheap programming rules – with TV news formats edging closer to the production value of Wayne’s World. They won’t have a news photographer to send to your event.
What would be the imperatives for a non-profit that needs to get its message out? The biggest challenge will be efficiency of reach, and underlying that, the skills of its staff (addressed at bottom). In the past, non-profit staff with traditional PR skills have been able to devote a reasonable amount of time and energy to pursue media targets with big audience and influence. In the “bad/ugly” scenario, there just aren’t enough big targets, and there will be fierce competition for the few outlets with decent share. Special woe to the cause that really needed the depth of a newspaper feature due to confidentiality issues (e.g. children’s mental health) or lack of appealing visuals (e.g. end-of-life issues, HIV/AIDS).
Here are some strategies that a non-profit might pursue to try to tackle the problem of efficient reach (tip: remember strategy is about making choices, not doing all of these things):
- Develop an aggressive online participation strategy. This is a big fat “duh”. What it really means is: a) enhancing websites as core infrastructure – which includes attention to content and searchability, not just a pretty homepage ; b) developing a presence on social media platforms where target audiences are already, be it Facebook, Twitter, Ning or whatever else comes along; c) using organizational listening and participation as a means of finding people who may be able to take your message to their followers and friends.
- Track the near-certain rise of niche audience publicationsin the online and offline world. As free media content deteriorates in value (e.g. USA Today), business people and influentials will be forced to subscribe to get the news they care about (at least conveniently). Niche outlets will pop up as dot.org’s (VoiceOfSanDiego.org), dot.com’s and even blogs (some by individuals and some that emulate online dot coms, as in www.californiabeat.wordpress.com). Some of it will be free (grant-funded or supported by advertising business model), and some of it will cost. We pay for Zagat’s and Consumer Reports now; why not business and political news?
- Develop story pitches that reflect the interests of these niche publications. This will be no small task; it will take time and thought. In my previous post, I shared some info from a blogger who talked about the importance of understanding her focus and interests rather than sending a generic news release. You can imagine that capturing the interest of the ex-newspaper journalists at VoiceOfSanDiego.org would be quite different than attracting the interest of an online personality. (For more about VoiceOfSanDiego, read this article from the NY Times last November.)
- Do most of the work of writers and photographers to support a story idea – from writing it in various lengths/styles to providing great photos that can be used in a news website’s slide show feature.
- Invest in database marketing and growing direct communications channels, especially e-newsletters, e-mail and blogs. And don’t count out podcasting and youtube videos. (I’d say direct mail but there’s growing evidence that it is declining in efficiency.)
- Develop a cadre of brand/cause ambassadors, people with passion about your cause who will plaster it on their backs (e.g. thanks to the cool t-shirt you gave them). You arm them with talking points and help them understand the impact of what they can do as message carriers. Think about what’s in it for them and try to give them that (for example, they may be interested in socializing with other like-minded people, in learning more about the cause a la continuing education, or in competing for prizes and recognition). It won’t work for every cause but it will for some.
- Screw non-paid media and start learning about online advertising including pay-per-click.
The biggest challenge you may face in this scenario isn’t money. It’s staff knowledge and skill. And perhaps interest. Sandy, who has a current master’s degree from UW in new media, told me, “I have noticed that at least in my neck of the woords, non-profit workers haven’t caught up with the skill sets they need to be effective in this environment.”
*The old story goes: A mother and father were concerned about their two boys. One was a dedicated pessimist, and the other, an optimist. They decided to take a new approach to Christmas gifts in the hopes of moderating their sons’ extreme personality traits. They would give the pessimist a treasure trove of the most desired toys, and the optimist, something not even he could find the good in. On Christmas morning, the pessimist came downstairs to stacks and stacks of gifts. One by one, he dismissed them, “The toy fire truck will break, the bike will get a flat tire and I’ll never be any good at that video game.” All the while, the optimist was looking around for his gifts but saw none. “Yours is out in the garage,” his Dad said. He ran into the garage and was confronted with the spectre of a six foot pile of horse manure. Immediately, the boy dived into the manure and began digging furiously. “What in the word are you doing,” the father asked. “With all of this shit, there must be a pony in here somewhere,” he exclaimed!