Maximize your chances of media coverageOriginally published: January 2017. | Last reviewed: April 2018.
Few charities can afford to ignore the media. Public trust in U.K. charities reached a record low in 2016 — and media played a big role in people's attitudes, according to research for the Charity Commission. Meanwhile, positive coverage can prompt positive outcomes. In one survey, 39 percent of those asked said favorable portrayals of charities in online news, broadcast media and press was the reason they went on to donate.
Effective media relations work well for charities whose income can't stretch to the high costs of paid advertising or campaigns. Homeless charity Centrepoint, for example, ranked about 450th among U.K. charities for income in 2014, but was placed 76th in terms of brand, according to the PRWeek/Third Sector charity brand index. That was in large part thanks to the media coverage it secured.
And working with the media isn't only about public awareness. It can also lend powerful weight to high-profile campaigns, helping influence policy decisions.
What are journalists and editors looking for?
Charity communicators can find it tough to get featured in the media. In one survey of 125 charities, media managers said this was mainly due to a lack of interest from the press in their stories (38 percent). Meanwhile, a common complaint from journalists is that charities don't understand what makes a good news story. Usually, that means something new or original that has happened (think "man bites dog," not "dog bites man") or a new take on an old issue. Think like a journalist and dig around for the unexpected — or pick out striking statistics that say something meaningful.
Another complaint from journalists: charities aren't able to provide relevant case studies that also allow them to interview charity beneficiaries themselves. "Instead they have to rely on pre-written paragraphs that do little to convey the emotion, colour and depth that journalists are looking for," writes Becky Slack for CharityComms. Journalists want human stories — not industry jargon — to bring the issues to life.
Counter that by gathering quotes from service users whenever you can, and by helping to set up interviews when requested. Check that any press releases are written in a language that makes sense to those outside your immediate sector. Most reporters are generalists and can't be expected to know all the industry acronyms.
What are some ways to address the challenges?
Cutting through the noise to reach the right media is challenging. Personal contact can accelerate it, though. Check if your board or staff members have any contacts with local journalists or editors to provide a shortcut to that first conversation. Then, talk to them to find out what they actually need, in what format and when.
Experts from CIPR, which represents the public relations industry in Europe, advise not relying just on media databases to understand which journalists you should be contacting. Rather, read their work to see what kind of topics they cover. Being more targeted can ultimately be more effective. Successful media relations isn't necessarily measured in column inches, but in what that leads to next.
It's also useful to think about how your message ties into bigger picture news events, and pitch accordingly. For bigger campaigns, you might partner with other organizations to issue a joint press release — adding weight to your statement and allowing you to tap into your partners' media contacts, too.
News agendas change quickly. Often scheduled stories are postponed or not used at all. One way around this is to provide case studies and ideas that have a long shelf life to allow for different deadlines and editorial angles. To maximize your chances of being picked up, highlight how your story affects a particular sector or community, or how it fits into broader trends.
One news editor, cited by Slack Communications, advises charities to take the plunge: "Start a debate, don't be afraid to put yourself out there or be controversial." That means sometimes weighing in on bigger issues, she explained: "Think about how your charity could relate to a news story. Your chief executive should be easily available to comment on events; the broader the range of issues the better; think about more than just your news."
Charities also need to be ready to talk when media approach them. Ensuring you have experts — and, if possible, beneficiaries — who are comfortable answering questions is one way to prepare. Signing up for the CharityComms' AskCharity service is another way to make sure you can be reached. This free service allows journalists to search for case studies, and charities to build their media contacts and coverage.
Where are the opportunities?
There is an enormous amount of content to compete against — the Washington Post alone publishes 500 stories per day — but that can work in your favor, since it also means a huge number of slots that editors need to fill.
Aside from the major publications, it's also worth looking into other media. Consider influential bloggers, for example, and local radio and press — who may be particularly open to stories that come from or directly affect their audiences. Make use of social media, too. Journalists looking for comment or sources will use the Twitter hashtag #Journorequest, for example. Use this along with a relevant keyword to search for requests you might be able to support.
And while many charities believe that editors only want negative or sensationalist stories, there's a growing movement that's interested also in how people are solving problems. This is known as constructive journalism (and within that, solutions journalism). In the U.K., Positive News is one of the leaders in this field. Others are starting to follow, including The Guardian. Charities may use NCVO's Constructive Voices initiative to connect with journalists interested in these types of stories.