Activism for Newbies
Reaching Out
More online help:  (note--the suggestions made by the groups apply to any non-profits, you don't need to have their focus to apply them!)

Marketing for non-profits

Free Tutorials on Ad writing

Media skills and tactics

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Intro      Birthing      Reaching Out       Website      Letters      Activist links     

The DesertLight Journal 
Copyright 2001 TW Schuett
All rights reserved
The first thing most people think of when it comes to publicity is spending money on advertising. My advice to you is: don't!  Chances are your group doesn't have the kind of money you'd need to conduct an effective media campaign on paid advertising. A little classified ad in a local paper, or even a single spot on radio or TV is counterproductive, since you can't guarantee you'll reach the right people. The logistics, money, and volunteer hours passing out flyers is a waste of time and manpower best spent elsewhere.  You can get far more page space or airtime with some carefully-considered PSAs and press releases. 

Many radio/TV stations and newspapers have policies that prevent non-profits from taking advantage of freebies if they've bought advertising in the past. It's a good idea to do as much as you can without money first, and then once you've got your org on a self-supporting basis, maybe considering some paid ads that don't conflict with the free stuff that you've used and found worthwhile.

Examples of PSAs here:
Writing PSAs

Examples of press releases here:
General form for Press releases

When you get confused about which is which, remember you can write a PSA using only a press release for info, but not a press release from a PSA.

A press release is an announcement of a specific event, such as: "Mad Men United holds a bake sale and chili cookoff on the 23rd..."

A Public Service Announcement is more general, and not time-sensitive, such as: "The Arizona Fathers' Rights Organization has helped families through divorce since 1973. Their monthly meetings provide information and support, and their website gives resources AZ families can use to help themselves." PSAs are more for release to radio and TV--they use them to fill in spaces that would otherwise be dead air. 

The thing both PSAs and press releases have in common is that they are both reports of something happening, somebody doing something. One org is doing a bake sale; another org holds monthly meetings. Maybe you've heard of the 5 W's. Who, What, When, Where, and Why. All of these should be included.  With non-profit, activist groups, the WHY is the most important thing.  This goes back to what was discussed in the section on Birthing an Org---what are you doing and why are you doing it? With PSAs, you give the public the opportunity to decide for themselves--why should I care? It's your job to make them care. There's a fine line you have to walk here between sincerity, and urgency while not coming off as hysterical or ranting

If you have someone with experience in radio or TV, and you also have access to the equipment and personnel to make professional-quality tape, then by all means utilize what you have and create a couple of good PSAs for radio or TV. Otherwise, don't attempt it. 

Forgive me for repeating here, but do your best to discover the policies of the various media you intend to contact, as you do with Letters to the Editor, and follow them. These policies will be more related to how the message is delivered rather than word count. If they don't accept faxes or e-mail, then don't send that way. Generally speaking, press releases will go to the news desk, or in cases of regular meeting announcements, the Community Events dept. 

Make sure you've allowed plenty of lead time! Lead time is the amount of time a medium needs to know ahead of time when you're holding any event. Two weeks is pretty much standard. That is, two weeks from the time they receive the notice. With big publications or stations it might be a good idea to use a double-threat approach: fax, and e-mail. Make sure you've got your facts and figures at hand on paper on the outside chance of a telephone interview. If anyone phones you and you miss the call, be sure to return their call as soon as possible.

Concentrating all of this on one TV station or newspaper is not going to get the response you're hoping for; neither is sending only to network headquarters. Start small, in your local area, but make sure you've covered every single paper and station there is. Resist the urge to pick and choose. An interview with a neighborhood or small town paper could land you on their front page; half an hour on a community college radio station could give you great exposure, as well as experience for bigger things. Another rule I always keep in mind is: "You never know who's watching." An aide for that senator you've been trying to get a response from for months might hear, and maybe 'get' your message. Or maybe a zillionaire industrialist who understands and would like to help with his checkbook; you can't know.

Meeting notices can help keep the continuity of your message in the public eye. If your group meets on a regular basis, don't count on the Community Events people to renew your message. Send it out once a month or whenever applies, remembering about the lead-time.

Make yourself a list of local media contacts, including the fax, and e-mail of each with a name if possible. Make sure your press release goes to the right department. Do not send to everyone at the paper/station, and do not send group e-mails. Keep the list for future reference, and keep it updated if people's names change, or other info changes. 

You notice I haven't said much about online contacts; the discussion groups or the forums. That's because online exposure is maybe only a tenth of what you can do with exposure in the real world. Posting your message on the groups is mostly only 'preaching to choir.' This is valuable when you've got online buds in other parts of the country or world to share successes and failures, but not very effective for getting the word out to the public at large. You can't really count on what happens to a message once you've sent it out to your entire addy book with instructions to 'forward to everyone you know.' Chunks of the top and bottom get lopped off, some guy 25 computers away from yours might decide to add some commentary and the subtle meaning of your original post is lost.  

The only way to guarantee the clarity and integrity of your message is by the content of your website, which is dealt with in...guess what! The section on website promo.
Basic strategies for a publicity campaign

We're going to presume this is a temporary campaign devoted to a single event or effort.

First, you need a clear idea of what it is. Is this a fund-raiser? Is it a lecture or conference? Is it a demonstration? Make sure everybody involved is on the same page and is fully informed.

Designate someone to be available to the press. This will be someone who can speak coherently and confidently, while not preaching or conveying a negative attitude. This person will be free of unpleasant body odor or bad breath, and will dress neatly. Fidgeting, playing with glasses, hair, or constant motion such as gum or pen chewing can blow the most promising interview, even with print reporters. Don't make them uncomfortable. Probably most important in choosing this person is their availability. I once worked for an org that had firm policies about who was allowed to speak to the press. Unfortunately, this worked against them since their designated spokesman was often out of town and only attended events sporadically. 

The day of the event, have hard-copy handouts available with background information. The publicity chairman or designated spokesman needs to be present from set-up to clean-up. It is his job to keep an eye out for the media, and as much as possible be the first person they talk to. Keep the press contacts under control! Too many people speaking to the media leads to conflicting information, and gives the impression of disorganization and lack of focus.

You're not done yet! ;>)

Afterward, send a nice postcard  thanking those media that have mentioned your story in some way. Anything more looks like bribery, but a card is always welcome. 

Keep some notes as the campaign goes on, to remind yourself of what happened for the next time, so you can avoid making the same mistakes twice. 

Write up a press release and send individually to all on your list, remembering about lead time. Make sure you have everybody's name spelled right, and all the important facts. If something occurs on Tuesday, October 30, check your calendar and verify. 

Do not rely on spellcheck! If you can't spell, have your release proofread by someone who can. 

Be prepared with all pertinent info within reach. Watch/ read/ listen to all media that were sent your PR. If incorrect info appears at any point, immediately phone the medium and correct.

The day before the event, send an e-mail or phone a polite reminder to all media that have not picked up on the story.