Newsjacking for Nonprofits

During breaking news events, journalists are looking for qualified sources who can provide context and information quickly. Flickr photo by Votsek.

During breaking news events, journalists are looking for qualified sources who can provide context and information quickly. Flickr photo by Votsek.

Major news stories are coming at us at a dizzying pace these days.

In recent weeks, we've seen a number of big stories that connect clearly to the nonprofit world -- NFL player protests, major hurricanes, racial protests, tax reform, potential changes to DACA and Obamacare, and many more.

These stories offer a great opportunity to talk about 'newsjacking' -- the public relations practice of using a hot item in the news to help generate media coverage for your organization.

If employed well, newsjacking can be a highly successful tactic for nonprofits that are looking to draw attention to their cause or point of view. In the case of DACA, for examples, many nonprofits and foundations used his call as an opportunity to comment on their work in news stories, draft letters to the editor, and write pieces that appeared on social media.

When news breaks, reporters are often looking for fresh, thoughtful voices to put the news in context. And opinion pages are often looking for writers to respond to or add opinions about timely topics.

If you pay attention to the headlines with a critical eye, you will likely spot newsjacking opportunities for your nonprofit almost weekly.

For most nonprofits, news about government budgets and policy can have implications for their causes and the people they serve. If you are a nonprofit that specializes in health care, for example, the current push to repeal Obamacare is a prime newsjacking opportunity.

Newsjacking can also happen around stories about prominent figures coming to town to give a speech to local business groups.

If you're creative, you can even newsjack holidays. Many groups that work on LGBTQ issues, for instance, have used Pride month as a newsjacking opportunity -- leveraging the calendar to gain attention for their issues.

If your organization is looking to move beyond sending announcements about its own work -- or if your goal is to position your nonprofit as a thought leader, advocate for its mission, or raise awareness about a key issue -- you should consider embracing the tactic.

But before you dive in, it's important to note that newsjacking works best when it's done deliberately. You can't just wait for news to happen and expect to be able to tag along unless you do some work up front.

Here are six things to remember if you're looking to become a successful 'newsjacker':

  1. Prepare your key messages up front
    Before you begin scouring Twitter or your local newspaper for newsjacking opportunities, you have to first know what you want to talk about when opportunities arise. Take time to have a clear sense of your larger communications goals and the key messages you're looking to express.Without taking this step up front, you're going to be scrambling when opportunities do arise -- and you'll actually struggle to identify the right newsjacking opportunities. However, if you know your key messages and have prepared your leadership to talk about those messages, you will be able to act quickly and know what you're talking about. This will give you an important leg up when it's time to act -- and you'll be confident that you're saying the right things if a reporter does show up with a microphone or notebook in hand.
  2. Develop relationships
    To newsjack effectively, it helps to know how to get to the right reporter or editor quickly. Sending pitches to general e-mail boxes or calling a main newsroom line isn't likely to get you results. Instead, identify some outlets that are of high value to your organization, pay attention to who is getting bylines around the topics you care about and start to build relationships with them. You can even tee up the fact that your organization has expertise in certain topics so that they know to come to you if they're searching for sources online.You don't need to rely just on phone calls or emails to begin to build these relationships. You can also start to follow journalists on Twitter and other social networks and start conversations informally.
  3. Create protocols
    News moves quickly -- and newsjacking requires an ability to make your pitch while a story is still hot. As a result, it's important to prepare your organization to make fast decisions. If you have to go through multiple layers of approval before you can send a news release or call a reporter, you're likely to lose opportunities.To overcome this hurdle, develop a rapid response protocol so that you can get your messages out when they matter and that you can have your key spokespeople ready to go.
  4. Stay abreast
    To jack the news, you have to know the news. This means following key news outlets regularly -- as well as paying attention to social media -- to see what news is breaking. You can employ a number of tools to help -- Google alerts around important keywords, lists of key Twitter accounts, etc.
  5. Act quickly
    Newsjacking is most effective when you make your pitch shortly after the news first breaks -- and before the 'second-day' reports come out offering context. In the case of Bezos' request for ideas, some nonprofits and thought leaders were able to earn coverage when the story was hot because they were able to get their messages out quickly. Those who waited were largely ignored.
  6. Speak sensitively
    Newsjacking can backfire if you don't employ it with tact and sensitivity. The Internet is littered with examples of companies and nonprofits that have tried to attach themselves to tragedies or disasters and have come across as tone deaf or opportunistic. Make sure you're acting tastefully and that your effort to draw attention is something that you and your organization will be proud of later.

By planning ahead -- and developing a system to identify and react to opportunities quickly -- your nonprofit can be able to spring into action the next time there's an opportunity to jack the news.

When Am I 'On the Record' With a Journalist?

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

When preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an interview, you invariably spend time coaching them on what to say and how to act when the camera is rolling or when the reporter is scribbling notes.

But do you also prep them for what to do when the “on air” light is off or when the reporter closes the notebook?

If you aren’t, you’re overlooking a crucial detail — one that can lead to some unfortunate headlines.

That’s because everything that happens during that encounter — from the moment you say hello to the moment you’re out of sight — is considered on the record. In other words, every statement you make can end up being reported.

To be sure, there are times when you can mutually agree to go off the record (and we’ll get into the mechanics of going off the record in a future post). But unless you deliberately take that step, you should keep in mind that you’re “on”.

As a result, if you’re preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an appearance or interview, it’s important that you take the time to let that person know what that means.

Unfortunately, a seemingly private comment about a cranky board member or an off-color joke is fair game — and it could end up working its way into a story.

Claiming after the fact that you didn’t know that the statement was made off camera or after the formal interview doesn’t cut it. By law — and by practice — journalists assume that you know the rules and they are often looking for well-schooled sources to say something candid or off the cuff.

This shouldn’t scare you away from doing interviews. It just means you need to act and speak deliberately.

Here is some advice on how you should prepare for some common situations:

Meetings with print media journalists

When I worked as a writer for newspapers and magazines, I often unearthed some great information after I closed my notebook at the end of a formal interview.

Often, as a source and I would exchange informal chitchat and discuss next steps, the source — feeling more relaxed — would offer some interesting perspectives or anecdotes that added to the story I was pursuing or gave me an idea for another piece.

My practice would typically be to say “I’d like to use that, do you mind if I follow up or ask you more about it now?”

Almost always, the source would agree to share more information.

But even if the source didn’t want to share more, there wasn’t much they could do about what they had already said — other than refuse to take additional questions about it or attempt to steer the conversation in another direction.

When meeting with a print reporter — a term that, for the sake of this piece, includes those who write articles for newspapers, magazines or the web — there is typically a period of time before and after the formal interview where you exchange greetings and goodbyes.

Make sure you reinforce this point with your organization’s representative ahead of the interview — and let that person know that the entire conversation is on the record.

If the representative has concerns, offer some potential topics of conversation that they can bring up during these more informal portions of the interview — and discuss some things they should avoid saying or doing.

Television, radio and digital media

Recent history is littered with examples of politicians and celebrities who have gotten themselves in hot water for saying something that was picked up by a ‘hot mic’.

President Donald Trump, one assumes, likely wishes he had kept his mouth shut when he was engaging in “locker room talk” with Billy Bush on that Access Hollywood tour bus. Same goes for Robert Durst, who was caught on microphone talking to himself about his role in a high-profile series of murders during the taping of a documentary series.

The lesson for nonprofit communicators is simple — if you’re going on television or on the radio, assume that everything you say is getting picked up on a microphone, even if you’re not technically “on air”.

Even if the camera does not appear to be rolling or the radio segment has gone to commercial, you should assume the audio is being recorded and that anything you say can be picked up and used later.

Again, it’s important to emphasize this point to representatives from your organization who are not experienced with on-air interviews to be sure that they are aware of the ground rules and are well prepared.

Social media

Finally, it’s worth noting that comments you make on social media — whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or another source — are also “on the record.” Increasingly, media outlets are quoting statements made by individuals on the social networks in their reporting.

As a result, it’s important for officials at your organization to recognize this fact and to be careful about what they post and what they comment on.

If you wouldn’t want what you said on Facebook to appear in your local newspaper or on the TV news, it’s probably best not to say it at all.


Note: I originally wrote this post for Nonprofit Marketing Guide, where I serve as a regular advisor on media relations for nonprofits.

PR Pickup Lines: How to Start a Relationship With Your Favorite Reporter

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Flare

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Flare

When was the last time you reached out to a reporter without a story to pitch?

If you’re like many nonprofit communicators, you might be straining to answer this question because it’s been a long time.

This is especially true if your role isn’t exclusively focused on media relations. If your work also involves some combination of social media, marketing, speechwriting, fundraising solicitations, event planning, blogging, and managing the production of your annual report, it’s hard to carve out the time to actually build relationships with reporters and editors.

As a result, your media relations work largely focuses on sending out news releases. Often at the last minute.

And, often, you send those releases out of obligation or habit — not because you think they are actually going to result in a media hit.

But if you care about getting better coverage for your organization, I’d like to try to break this cycle by giving you an assignment.

I’d like you to try to pick up a reporter.

Of course, I don’t mean this in the get-a-number-and-let’s-go-out context.

What I’m suggesting is much more, let’s say, professionally correct.

The first step is to identify a reporter who works for a news outlet that reaches a key audience for your nonprofit. Ideally, it’s a reporter who you’ve been thinking that you should build a relationship with. 

Now here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to pitch a story with your initial outreach.

Instead, you’re simply going to introduce yourself or your organization to that reporter — and make it clear that you’re there to help.

That’s it.

You’re not going to try to sell him a story idea or get her to come to your annual dinner.

You’re simply aiming to start a relationship that will eventually evolve into a story or an invite or an interview.

How do you do this?

It’s easier than you might think.

Ideally, you want to start the relationship by sending the reporter or editor three important signals:

  1. You follow and respect his or her work.
  2. You or your organization can be a resource in future reporting.
  3. You’re not looking to simply pitch stories — you want to be a partner.

The first step in this process involves a bit of legwork.

You actually have to spend a little bit of time getting to know the journalist’s work. Go online and look at recent stories he or she has covered. Pay attention to the themes they cover and the examples they cite.

Next, think about how you can help.

Perhaps it’s by providing them with background data or a report. Perhaps it’s by having them get to know your executive director. Perhaps it’s by offering to connect them with a partner organization that does similar work.

The next step takes a bit of courage.

Send that reporter an introductory email or note.

If you don’t know where to start, let me give you a few suggested “pickup lines” or openers:

  • “I’ve enjoyed following your coverage of nonprofits for the XYZ Gazette and wanted to offer my organization as a resource to you for future stories …”
  • “Your recent piece on state budget cuts is an important one for our community because it will likely reduce the amount of aid to nonprofit organizations. As you continue to report on this story, I’m happy to put you in touch with some local experts who can add perspective …”
  • “I followed with interest your recent series on Medicaid. Since you’re interested in this topic, I thought I’d pass along a 2016 study by the ABC Institute that includes some projections that might interest you in future reporting …”

It doesn’t have to be fancy or too in-depth. It simply needs to start a conversation.

Chances are, you’ll get a reply.

And with that reply will come an opportunity to take that budding relationship to the next level.

It might not pay off immediately, but in time that relationship has the potential to develop into one where you become a trusted resource for that reporter.