Tag Archives: public relations

Results of the LIVE United launch

United Way's flash mob June 2009

United Way's flash mob June 2009

In yesterday’s post, I wondered how well United Way of California Capital Region’s LIVE United launch achieved its ambitious goals.  I think the team — Amber Murry (VP, Marketing and Communications), Gabrielle Stevenson, PR/Communications Manager, and Allison Fuller, Marketing and Events Manager — pulled off a Herculean effort to do what they did in less than six months.  Was it all worth it?

The results:  According to Gabrielle, the goal of engaging at least 300 new volunteers was achieved, and many were younger than United Way’s traditionally older demographic, as hoped.  She reports, “We had people from 16 to 66 at each of the [Toilet Paper drive] sites, and even involved with the street teams and flash mobs.  A majority of the new people who had never done anything with United Way before were in that sub-30 category. We had a lot of sub-20s too. It was very exciting and amped the energy level quite a bit.”

According to Steve Heath, executive director, most of the donations received came through workplaces rather than directly from individuals.  More people were engaged in the TP drive than in the flash mob or other activities.

United Way did secure emails from many of the volunteers, although the number isn’t available yet.  (The staff is still entering some of the registration data that came in paper form.)  As the UWCCR staff and committee weighed tactics a few months back, it asked the age-old (and everlastingly useful) question:  What’s volunteers’ WIFM?  Why would someone give their email address?  Besides t-shirts, volunteers were given free tickets to a River Cats baseball game.  Baseball and United Way, how American is that?

I was skeptical about two things:  how well a flash mob would work in Sacramento, and how likely UWCCR could pull off a pretty major website overhaul within its 6 week project plan timeframe.

Happily, I was wrong to be such a curmudgeon.  Gabrielle notes, “The flash mob went VERY well! Lots of fun, lots of people showed up to participate and lots of people watched.”  Seventy people turned out at Arden Fair, the local retail hotspot; this youtube video tells the story of how the team put the flash mob together, and then shows the final result.  Lots of fun, indeed, but I don’t think most of the gang is quite ready for “You Think You Can Dance.”

And the website worked and didn’t crash!

According to Steve, the most successful part of Launch Week was the TP drive (and what’s not to love about something that quirky).  It attracted coverage from the Sacramento Bee, regional Business Journals, the major television news stations and local daytime programs, and Newstalk Radio KFBK.

Gabrielle personally rigged up what PR folks like to call a 3-D media kit, and she delivered it about 30 places.  “Does that still work?” I asked.  Delivering a celephane covered roll of toilet paper along with a few other goodies and a fact sheet was just quirky enough to get past the front desk and into the news room.

Even though thousands of hours (staff and volunteer) went into making the events last week a success, the toughest part may be still ahead.  OK, guys, you got the intro to some new folks who want to play with you, now how are you going to continue to build the relationship?

Toward that end, it’s important that UWCCR keep at it with social media.  They were just getting started by the time the launch arrived.  Gabrielle took a shot at Twitter (@gabstevenson) but she acknowledges it fell lower on the priority list compared to traditional media and organizing volunteers for events (plus, wrapping all of those rolls of TP for the news media!).  Facebook Causes was down when I wrote this post, but I know UWCCR quickly attracted 400 supporters after establishing the page 4-6 weeks ago.  Presumably the numbers climbed quite a bit after that. 

Energizing these new relationships — whether through social media or other means — will be important.  Gabrielle notes:  “Yep, we’re planning and fine-tuning [things] now, based on the launch week. Our goal from the beginning has been to keep this group of volunteers engaged. There was a lot of energy last week and we don’t want to lose that momentum.”

I enjoyed the chance to work with my fellow volunteer advisors:  Terry Halleck, Chair, President and CEO, Golden 1 Credit Union; Lori Aldrete, ACS Quantum Strategies; Jim Caster, Vice President, Eyefinity; Sara McKinley, Sara McKinley Market Research; Dick Colvin; and Doug Kim.

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Hot post: 5 questions, 5 answers, from Sacramento Press

I’m a little bit embarrassed about this, but I actually had a nice email exchange with Ben Ilfeld of sacramentopress.com back in late April… and in an inbox cleaning frenzy, I apparently lost it.  Ben very politely reforwarded it to me.  There’s some good stuff in here so this is my last “philanthrophile” act before I pack for vacation.  Here are the answers Ben posed to my questions:

1. When did Sacramento Press start up?
  • Geoff Samek and I had the idea to start a local newspaper with an online component in 2003.
  • We decided on enabling citizen journalism as the dominant part of the model in 2003-2004.
  • We started our company in 2005. We hired full time developers in 2007.
  • We launched a small private beta in late 2008.
  • In November 2008 we began to market The Sacramento Press.
  • At the end of January we began to sell ads.
2. How is Sacramento Press funded?
We are funded by ad revenue and our own investment. Geoff and I have invested our own money. We have not taken any outside investment or loans and we do not plan to.  We have been selling advertisements for just over two months and business has been brisk.  We have about 20 campaigns running on the site right now.
We see ourselves diversifying our revenue model as time goes on and the needs of our customers change.  I would be happy to talk with you or anyone else about our plans and theories about the future business models for local media.
3. Does Sacramento Press have a focus?
Our focus is hyper local to regional news and information in Sacramento. In fact our mission statement is:

The Sacramento Press will be the most useful, comprehensive local news and information source for the Sacramento MSA.

We believe that neighborhood level news is important and that for various reasons it is not regularly reported. We started The Sacramento Press because we wanted to fill in those cracks in the media landscape. Of course, during development of our site the problem has gotten significantly worse and we will attempt to grow into a larger role providing city and regional news as other organizations cut back their coverage of critical issues.
4. How is Sacramento Press better than outside.in?
There are lots of ways, but I will stick with two: we are local and we are a content creator more than an aggregator.
If you want to do local, be local. Trust me this works. Our ads are all local, our content is all local and the people on the site are the same people you run into on the street. Our advertisers and readers appreciate this. We meet people face to face and ride bikes labeled with “sacpress.com” all around town. We attend key events and we speak with local stakeholders.
The job of getting everyday people to write is tough. Getting people to commit acts of journalism is tougher. We offer face to face support, copy editing and regular workshops on journalism, ethics, interviewing skills, social media and the tools on our site. We have a full time employee dedicated to journalism support and part of my role is “recruitment manager.” This is hard work and it can only be done living in the community.
This brings me to the second major difference. We felt there was not enough local reporting, so simply aggregating the other reporting wasn’t going to solve the problem. We wanted to enable people to report what they knew was going on in their neighborhoods. We have since expanded and we do have a mix of staff writing, interns, public information officers, and mostly volunteer citizen journalists (I hate that term, but you know what I mean by it). The goal is to tell stories and have conversations. Nationwide operations like outside.in have their place as wonderful aggregators, but they do not seek to report stories and this is reflected in the lack of discussions on their site as well (at least for Sacramento).
5. What is the best way to contribute?
The best way to contribute is to sign up (button above the masthead) then start writing (“write” button above the masthead.  We only allow local content about Sacramento on our site and we ask our writers to be transparent about who they are and who they represent.
(Apologies for formatting glitches; that happens when you paste text from another program into wordpress – the codes lurk and it doesn’t necessarily publish like it looks in preview!)

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What’s happn.in? Looking for hyper-local online news sources (still)

happn.in sac's tweet stream

happn.in sac's tweet stream

With traditional media on life support, I’ve been on the hunt for grassroots news sources:  so-called citizen journalists, locally-focused blogs, and local Twitter users (tweeple).  I’ve written previously about newsvine, patch and outside.in; nothing there to write home about yet but I’m “cautiously hopeful.”  (The same was recently said of the likelihood of finding Bin Laden, so maybe I should choose another phrase.)  In this post and the next one or two, I’ll report on sacramentopress.com, happn.in and tools for finding local tweeple like localtweeps.com.

I noticed happn.in sac started following me on Twitter (reminder:  @philanthrophile)… so I was curious:  who or what is happn.in sac?  Turns out it’s a web-based “news” service that sucks up tweets identified as being from the Sacramento area, and then it aggregates those tweets into locally trended topics.  Here’s how it’s explained on the website:

happn.in collects and aggregates popular phrases used on Twitter within 20 miles of major cities. The five most popular phrases each hour are posted to this site, and are tweeted three times a day to the happn.in Twitter account for each city.

As is obvious from the screen shot, the trend topics are a little cryptic.  “City firefighters offer” contains news flashes about a local labor dispute.  “Spanish class” appears to have captured a couple of random tweets from students; one laments being lost, and the other feels the need to share a racist comment.

From the perspective of local non-profits, what we really care about is whether happn.in could help us identify people who are interested in communicating about local causes, or making a difference.  The tweet stream I read came from about 20-30 individual sources, the largest number of which were associated with local news outlets (TV, primarily).  It’d be worth checking out but, again, jury’s out on how useful this service will be for our purpose.  At least today, I didn’t see anyone tweeting about local causes.

I’d like to know the “who” behind happn.in.  I’m also interested in how they identify local Twitterers.  Do they find local tweet streams whether or not the person has included a city name in their profile or registered a zipcode on a tool like localtweeps.com?  Inquiring minds want to know… just curious.

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What does Twitter mean for crisis preparedness?

To my PR pals who can’t imagine how they can possibly find time to scan blogs or Twitter (one receives and reads five newspapers a day at the office), here’s yet one more reason to believe that it’s no longer discretionary to know what’s going on outside traditional media channels:  more people are getting their news from Twitter.  NPR’s Morning Edition is airing a story today about how Twitterers often get the scoop first, thanks to their facile fingers and ubiquitous mobile devices.

Twitter can be good news for marketers and PR folks who figure out how to use this tool and stay within the norms of Twitter culture and etiquette.  But it can also be bad news for PR folks who quickly find themselves fighting a tide of innuendo and misinformation.

Recent example:  Amazon changed the algorithm that delivered search matches, which made a large number of books, including many that are gay and lesbian-themed, fall lower in rankings.  Twitterers apparently erupted in outrage.  As reported in the New York Times on Sunday, April 19, Clay Shirky, adjunct professor at NYU’s grauduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, said on his blog that he regretted jumping aboard the Twitter accusation train.  He later concluded that the Amazon glitch was due to technology, and not anti-gay bias or conspiracy.

So what does this mean to PR staff, or organizations that care about their reputation?   At least one person should be facile at Twitter and able to jump into the fray to correct the record if need be.  If people are getting misinformation from Twitter, makes sense that you will have to reach them through their preferred method of communications.  A statement released to your local paper won’t do it.

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On the hunt for hyper-local online news outlets (and content generators)

Last month in my March 15 and 17th posts, I put some thought into the collapse of traditional news media and what it means for organizations that still need to spread the word about their causes.  I said it would become more important to find purveyors of local news — some of whom would be connected individuals who blog and twitter, and some of which would be online news-gathering/reporting sites that purport to focus on communities and neighborhoods.  In my last blog post, I reported on outside.in and concluded that it just isn’t there yet as a source of local news.

As for the present state, I couldn’t agree more with the conclusions of Esther Thorson and Margaret Duffy of the Missouri School of Journalism, who recently reported their research finding that “despite ongoing reports of financial troubles and cutbacks, legacy media are more comprehensive and more technologically advanced than citizen media and bloggers.”  Duffy, faculty chair in strategic communications of the Journalism School, noted that “topic coverage on blogs and citizen new sites is generally narrow and the sourcing is light.”

I am, however, hopeful, that local alternatives will emerge to shore up shrinking traditional news resources.  Here is my progress report on two sites that are trying to become portals for local news (“hyper-local”) created by locals (“user generated content”):

Newsvine.com says it is “updated continuously by citizens like you…an instant reflection of what the world is talking about at any given moment.”  Newsvine consists of links to articles “seeded” by individuals in the community.  Here in Sacramento, those stories come primarily from the Sacramento Bee and Associated Press.  Only one of the “top seeds” comes from a blog, one devoted to music, Two Songbirds Press.  The columnists are a little more interesting – although not necessarily in a good way.  Here’s a verbatim excerpt from Ms. V’s column (she writes with that alias and no photo thumbnail), writing about “Working Under CPS Rules“:

I am a licsenced home daycare provider iam writing the article so the outside could look in.
I’ve been licencsed since 2006. During that time until now i’ve been lie to lied on ducoments have been falsefied to cover others behind.

(Another aside:  I actually stumbled across Newsvine by noticing the widget on Sutter Medical Center’s website (www.checksutterfirst.org).  I find it curious that Sutter picked this site – even more curious that they posted a widget for reddit.com, which is outright foul about half the time.)

Patch.com, in beta testing, is a platform that can be used to create “comprehensive and trusted local coverage for towns and communities.”  I heard Jon Brod, their CEO and founder, on NPR.  It’s promising – but it’s not here in Sacramento yet.  I do like what they’re doing in towns like Maplewood, but I really, really hope they include more info about opportunities to get involved in local non-profit causes! (“Volunteer” and “Essential Maplewood” might include these opportunities but I’m not sure these category labels would jump off the page for someone who is enthusiastic about making a difference locally; instead they may turn to portals like volunteermatch.org, or charity navigator.)

Until better local portals develop, my strategy is to actively scan for locals who use social media to comment on opportunities to get involved or support causes.  I’d love to find some who are gathering a following.  To find them, I’m using:

Twitter, which has a search function that allows you to identify Twitterers who say they Twitter about where you live.

WordPress‘ tag surfing function, which can deliver blog posts where Sacramento has been tagged.

Got great local sources re: Sacramento?  Philanthrophile wants to know!

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The new PR: how to find local bloggers

With mainstream media gasping for resources, I’ve said that non-profits will have to find other ways to get their messages out.  One technique is to find bloggers who write about your area or issue, learn about their interests, and customize pitches to match their interests.  The problem is that there’s no great way to find them yet.

One rather cumbersome way to do this is to use the “tag surfer” tool on wordpress.com.  You define the topics you’re interested in, which can include locale, and WordPress will serve up a day’s worth of blog posts (you have to sign up for WordPress to take advantage of this feature, but you don’t have to actually publish a blog).  Most of them will be off topic (“hunger” for example, will yield more bloggers who write on food cravings than those who are interested in poverty).  Google Alerts will also do the trick, but again, you’ll get a lot of gluck (garbage/muck). 

In the future, this one might be worth something, but I’m not impressed with the quality yet:  outside.in, a tool that surfs news websites and blogs by localized community.  On my most recent visit, I checked out what came up for Folsom, CA.  The 30 abstracts were mostly sourced from the Sacramento Bee over a 3-day period, plus a few blurbs from two other print publications and a few news stations.  When I checked what came up for Sacramento, the 30 posts were from the Bee and a music-lovers’ website called Gruvr.  In fact, more than half of the posts were sourced to Gruvr.  In other words, no listings of interesting local blogs published by individuals.  I guess they’re all quiet right now.

Keep your eyes peeled for tools that help you mine for locally-focused blogs.  Send me anything you find!

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Oh, gag. Will celebrity endorsements really become vital to non-profits

In a recent blog post, I mused about the radical changes in news media (and budgets) and suggested potential strategies for non-profits who want to raise awareness of their cause or organization.  My beloved former colleague, James Jennings, now evp of Communications Pacific in Hawaii, the number one PR firm in the islands, sent this comment along via email based in part on his perspective about the success of Brad Pitt’s recent promotion on behalf of The Make It Right Project in New Orleans:

I wonder what all this shifting will do to the power of celebrity endorsement or advocacy.  With all the broadcast news outlets fighting for a new nugget of a story every waking hour, will it mean celebrities will become more important. 

For local non-profits, this development would certainly fall into an Eeyore* scenario.  I hope it doesn’t come to pass, as it will be very hard for locally-focused organizations to compete on that basis.

*Eeyore was known to say (rather ironically, with his characterically down-beat voice), “If I didn’t have high hopes, I’d be depressed all the time.

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What non-profits can learn from Dave Mering and celebrity mothers

Turns out that radio audiences are also in decline, the victim of ipods, MP3 file sharing and social media.  Advertising expert Dave Mering of Mering Carson (Sacramento, CA) weighed in on the future of local news via email:  “What makes this future so scary is the loss of readership among young people. Many see no need at all to pick up a newspaper on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, preferring instead to get their news over the internet or by mobile device or through alternative news sources on television. …(V)iewership of local news has declined as well. Whether all four of the major affiliates will continue to maintain news products is in serious doubt, as it becomes more economical at some point to walk away from expensive news programming in a declining viewership environment and replace it with cheaper alternatives such as local talk or syndicated programming.  The real question is who will become the dominant player in local news over the internet and can that business model play out financially.”

These points strengthen my theory that people will have to find what they want through more sources, and they will have to find efficient ways to keep track of it all.  Here are more breadcrumbs for our trail:

  • Last week, Julie Appleby of USA Today announced she is leaving that pub and moving on to be a senior correspondent with Kaiser Health News, a new, foundation-funded news service to provide in-depth coverage of health policy issues.
  • Yahoo is finding some success with online programs aimed at “needs” they have identified.  They find “needs” by mining search queries and traffic data; then they develop niche Web shows like “Spotlight to Nightlight”, a show comprised of short segments about celebrity mothers.  (Ick.  Obviously I am not the target audience.)  These shows are less expensive to produce that TV-style programs, short (for the attention-span challenged) and can be watched at any time according to user convenience.
  • Though it’s reportedly not very useful yet, Twitter is getting around to adding search functionality.  Once there’s an algorithm that distinguishes the junk from the useful, it will make micro-blogs more accessible and useful, even for people who aren’t spending their day following others on Twitter.

So what?  For non-profits, it underscores the importance of figuring out how to reach people through online environments rather than through traditional newspaper, radio and television news.  If Yahoo can find audiences through search queries and traffic data, methinks a few local news corps may be able to figure out how to do the same thing for local programming.  Or, a few national outlets – like the NY Times – will figure out how to use this data to develop locally-appealing niche programs.

It brings to the fore the importance of survival in an online world.  Look at the strategies in the past two posts – online participation, etc.  As a starting point, if your website isn’t in good shape to serve up interesting content to those you attract (which means having both content and some degree of effective optimization for search), better get cracking.

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The “good”: 5 emerging opportunities for non-profits from changes in mass media

My last post appealed to the Eeyore in you.  This one appeals to your inner Tigger.  (I can’t write that without hearing Tigger’s voice:  “T-I-DOUBLE GUH-ER”)

Unfortunately, it’s hard not to imagine the continued collapse of traditional newspapers  (read the Bee’s lament, here – which, tellingly, was a reprint from another publication).  As Sandy (she with the fresh new media graduate degree) pointed out, “The real estate and automotive industries have basically been the only thing supporting the ‘meatspace’ newspapers but as money gets tighter in those industries they also have been moving pretty quickly to the online environment.”

So here’s what I would consider a “good” scenario for news distribution.  And why do I consider it optimistic?  Because change shakes up the hierarchy.  Organizations that don’t “get it” will lose ground with their intended audiences, and organizations – even small ones – will gain ground if they are fast-moving and seize upon emerging opportunities.

  • Some newspapers will be left standing but they will become regionals or nationals.  The New York Times is certain to be among them.  With a strong national content delivered both print and online, these stalwarts will be positioned to expand online into large metro markets, a la   www.chicago.nytimes.com.  (Don’t try to follow that if it appears as a link – I’m hypothesizing!)
  • Likewise, there will be at least one strong news-oriented radio station and relatively strong TV news program.  (The economics of radio are more favorable for radio than TV, but I expect at least one TV news program to survive.)
  • The Jon Stewartization of news will continue, merging somewhere along the way with personality-based radio shows.   Just imagine the opportunities associated with juxtaposing info about your favorite cause alongside the banter of morning radio anchors,  such as Mark and Mercedes’ recent discussion about what proportion of people will pee in the shower or use the “farmer’s hankie” (100.5 The Zone, here in Sacramento).
  • On television, look for a similar “View-ization” or “Oprah-ization” of local, personality-based shows that incorporate current issues and events.  In Sacramento, Good Day Sacramento probably is the furthest along in this direction.
  • News outlets are all aggressively trying to incorporate the other mediums for communications, and to prompt dialogue.  The Sacramento Bee now has a small battalion of bloggers that they’ve recruited to blog about everything from sports to technology to non-profits.  (Watch for United Way’s Gabrielle Stephenson’s posts.)  “The Swarm” blog is aimed at letting you “mix it up” with The Bee’s editorial board although it sure looks like more telling than listening to me.   The Bee’s Forum has an online component where the editor moderates discussion each week. CNN is turning the we’ll-tell-you-what-we-think-and-you-comment model on its head with ireport.  CNN is using a website and a Facebook page as a way of collecting ideas for stories directly from the audience and then turning it into a news report.  While the show is on the air, they show comments coming in from these live sources as they speak.  The proverbial tail wags the dog.
  • People who really need to understand something deeply will find good sources.  They’ll find bloggers or publications (online or offline) that they trust.  Or hire consultants to acquire and consolidate good information as a time-saver.  Most likely, they’ll pay — or at least pay more — for the access.
  • They’ll also find sources that cater to their specific interests.  They might subscribe to an online political publication, a car e-newsletter and a local restaurant review blog.  (And they’ll miss the convenient good-old days when they could get most of that in the local paper.)
  • They’ll also turn to people that they trust.  Opinion-leaders will be the people with lots of followers on Twitter, large numbers of readers to their blogs, and so on.  Sure, they’ll be the standard cadre of grass-tops (people who know people in office) but we’ll also be looking for people who just seem to know what the heck is going on with respect to social and demographic trends, technology, the economy, politics and so on.

And I’ll throw in some related trends that may smerge with these media developments:

  • Search(a la Google) will continue to be massively important because people will have to seek and find information.
  • As people get back to basics in a down economy, they will continue to try to support the things they already care about — education, for example.  They may try to give more to offset those who are giving less, or they may volunteer more to make up for what they cannot give.
  • After years of “thinking globally” messages, a “hyper local” trend will emerge.  More than local-vores or buying local, this will be an upsurge in concern about one’s own community as economic threats to local communities become more evident.  One doesn’t need Oprah to notice the shuttered storefronts.
  • The use of “readers” and personalized home pageswill grow.  If you can’t get the information you care about in one convenient cover, or through one news outlet, you’re going to have to find multiple worthwhile sources.  But managing them through your email inbox will quickly become untenable.  Imagine a home page with blocks you create where you can see the headlines from all of the sources you care about.  You’d read it in the morning, like a Kindle, but with customized content.  (And, PS, you’ll be able to use your Kindle or your iphone if you don’t want to sit at your computer screen.)

Here are some strategies that a non-profit might pursue in this new post-newspaper world.  But before I do that, refresh your memory with the list of strategies in the “bad/ugly” scenario post (you should see a line at the top of this post with yesterday’s title and an arrow point to the left).  THOSE STRATEGIES ALL APPLY HERE, TOO.  And here’s that tip again:  you can’t do all of these; choose those you think could differentiate your organization and would deliver the greatest impact for the least amount of time and money.

  1. Ugh.  (I recoil a bit at this one.)  Start thinking of news-light ways to get your message across.   If you want to reach a younger demographic, how can you create an activity that is quirky, fun or just plain silly enough to warrant people posting about it on their Facebook wall or talking about it on The Zone during the morning hours?  Almost every single news outlet right now is actively looking for “silver lining” or inspirational stories to offset the doom-and-gloom stories that are making their audience tune out.
  2. So the news media wants to start a conversation with us.  Be prepared with spokespersons – some staff, some volunteer – who are familiar with your message and facile in particular formats.  Have your “fun, hip” spokesperson ready for news-light TV and radio.  Have an expert ready for more serious news features.  Have a Spanish-speaking spokesperson prepped for Univision.  Have a left-leaner and a right-leaner (looks like some of those who have given up on newspapers felt they weren’t balanced and were too liberal.)  Have someone else who’s a whiz with blogging tracking and jumping in on news websites (and have them do it often).  Seems to me it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to find one or even two spokespersons that are attractive to, and good at, the full range of formats from radio to TV to print and online.
  3. Anticipate that more unauthenticated negative comments will be made about your cause or organization and ramp up your organizational listening.  More self-published reporters mean fewer editors – editors who used to insist on fact-checking.  Come to an internal point of view about when you will correct the record and when you will simply count on short attention spans and let stuff slide (for example, when you are dealing with a blogger who likes to rant – or Rush Limbaugh).
  4. Make your website more of a destination – which means enhancing content.  If you’re a food closet, for example, can your website become a credible source of information about hunger in general?  If you’re United Way, how can you showcase the many causes and organizations in a local community?   Can you recruit citizen journalists to help you develop a stronger voice for a particular group or cause?  Or maybe pay some of those unemployed journalists as freelancers?
  5. Start thinking about who the new local opinion leaders may be, and cultivate a relationship with them (ideally:  a face-to-face one).  Whose emails are often forwarded to you?  Who gets quoted in conversations?  How can you make them knowledgeable about your cause or organization?  (PS one of the best approaches is to ask for their input or feedback.)

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The good, bad and ugly of mass media turmoil: first, the ugly

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.
  7. 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!


Filed under public relations, Social media, Strategy