One year later: media changes and what it means for non-profit PR

Jordan Blair, Board member, has helped develop RCFB's social media capability

Last year, I wrote a series of posts on the good, the bad and the ugly, referring to the virtual collapse of the news industry and what it means for non-profits that rely on “earned” media for exposure.  As I reflect on the success of yesterday’s Empty Bowls event benefiting River City Food Bank here in Sacramento, I thought I’d pass along some observations about what worked and why.

But first, some trend info.  Two months ago, Vocus*, a program that integrates news monitoring, media targeting/list management and other tools, released a free analysis called “State of the Media.”  A few highlights:

  • 230 newspaper weeklies shut down in 2009 along with 14 dailies
  • TV stations that didn’t close sought ways to cut costs.  They began sharing news footage and cut to skeleton crews.  To retain viewers and fill content holes, Vocus media analysts suggest that stations will gravitate toward a less news-based format
  • Radio stations’ advertising revenue has fallen short, causing stations to reduce local programming and rely more on syndicated shows.  On the other hand, streaming has grown by leaps and bounds.
  • Newspaper, magazines, TV and radio began integrating with social media.  Hard to find a reporter who’s not blogging, tweeting or on Facebook.
  • Online, locally focused news media will continue to crop up – some as non-profit journalism projects like the Bay Area News Project (just launching) or citizen journalism sites like sacramentopress.com.

Despite all of the gloomy news, Empty Bowls continues to gain momentum in terms of news coverage and participation.  Mind you, this isn’t a giant fundraiser backed by a non-profit that’s a household name here.  This is a scrappy fundraiser organized by a scrappy organization.  This year the event expanded and attracted an estimated 1,100 participants and raised $80,000.

Here’s the approach that Susan Bitar, PR chair, Jordan Blair, Board member in charge of PR, and 3Fold Communications (with a little help from yours truly) took, with good success:

  1. The organization made good use of its website, e-newsletter and its network of friends.  E-newsletters about the event achieved open rates ranging from 35-38%, with up to 40% clicking through to the website to do something (like buy tickets).  45% of attendees were first timers, and many said they heard about it from friends, the website and the e-newsletter. By the way, draft email messages were shared with the Board and committee and they were encouraged to send them to their friends.
  2. Most of the PR resources were focused on an event created for purposes of pre-publicity.  The Vocus report notes:  …”you need to be willing to bend over backward to accommodate (journalists) so they can easily meet their constantly impending deadline.”  No kidding.  We were able to get high school students to show up for media activity at 6 a.m..  One got up at 3 a.m. to do homework and get to the school in plenty of time.  (Wow, WAY different than my high school aged son!)  Around here, local news happens early.
  3. 3Fold arranged a collaboration with Yelp, which distributes an e-newsletter to more than 38,000 locals in the area.  Yelp deemed the event a sponsor (and gave it nice positioning in its newsletter) in exchange for placing Yelp logos on the website and writing about it in the e-newsletter.  3Fold also created an event in Yelp, which brought in at least two new people who heard about it that way (according to comment cards collected at the event).  Two attendees wrote glowing reviews about the event on Yelp.  And, of course, Yelp is regularly crawled by Google and Bing – so that content may end up going far afield as people search for related information.
  4. News articles were provided to organizations that are involved in some way with the event, from churches to schools.  Many people also noted that they heard about the event through their child’s school or through their church.
  5. Local celebs were invited to participate.  Not only did KCRA’s Edie Lambert delight the crowd, she brought a news camera and talked about her participation on several news cast.  But you might not have caught this:  she also did a “raw” video that was posted on the website, a wonderfully compelling testimonial.  http://www.kcra.com/video/22789636/index.html.
  6. Of course, the event was pushed through Facebook.  Photos of the event were posted immediately, along with two rough videos taken on an HD Flip Video.  (The fan page administrator just uploads into the “video” tab on the fan page site, and then clicks “share.”)
  7. The event did the basics, too, calendar listings (three months in advance), media advisories, fact sheets, specialized pitches, and so on.

As Vocus acknowledges, it’s harder to develop trusted relationships with reporters.  There are too few of them, and they’re trying to cover too many bases given the news organizations’ limited staffing.  On the other hand, it’s easier than ever to become a “content pusher.”  Find the local outlets like sacramentopress.com.  Release information so it gets picked up by search engines and regional online publications.  Feed video and photos throughout social media.

It takes a lot of leg work, but it can produce results!

*I’m not sure I trust any company that uses “leverage” and “ubiquity” in one sentence, but that’s just me (small jest there)… but here’s a little more about what Vocus says it does (for a price, of course):  “provides the ability to leverage the ubiquity of the internet to interact with the media, publish their news online where it can be found by millions, monitor news and social media conversations from virtually any source and track their results to compare them with key competitors.”

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