Check out the chapter Lisa Chen and I wrote for the Nonprofit Management 101 book:
Public Relations for Nonprofits: Getting Ink for Your Cause
By David Fenton, CEO and Lisa Chen, Senior Vice President
This is subtitled “getting ink for your cause.” Ink—how quaint. Nowadays most communications happens without ink—more people get their information from local television news (Lord save us all) and the Internet than from newspapers.
But the basics of getting attention for your cause, the principles of public relations, remain largely the same across platforms, whether broadcast, online, print, or at the water cooler.
How do I know this? I’ve been doing communications (and advertising) for nonprofit organizations and causes for 40 years, and I’m only 59. I’ve watched nonprofits evolve to where, finally, communications are an important part of what they do. It wasn’t always thus. And even today, many important and heartfelt nonprofit leaders intrinsically believe that the facts alone will set them free. They believe a purely rational argument presented in the best lawyerly or scientific fashion to someone influential will change the world. Empirical research in the cognitive sciences proves this just isn’t so.
Core Skills and Competencies
There are principles behind good public relations. In this chapter, I review these principles and offer some practical pointers on how to be an effective communicator.
Eight PR Principles
1. Tell Unforgettable Stories
At the heart of every successful PR strategy is a compelling story. Stories work because we’re hardwired to remember them. Opponents of California’s “Three Strikes” law, for example, have used the story of a man sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing a slice of pizza to underscore why the draconian law should be repealed.
What makes a story “sticky”? There must be characters—ideally, a clear hero and a clear villain. As mentioned in Chapter Twenty-Six, there absolutely, positively should be conflict in the story—in America today, without conflict, there is no story. Put these elements together and you’ll have the makings of a story that is emotional, moving, and memorable.
Tell the conclusion of the story first, then the details, or you will lose people’s attention. The story must resonate with people’s lives. Policy questions cannot be approached as abstractions—they have to be relayed in terms of real impact on real human beings.
Short and compelling is best. What you say or write in your opening statement, paragraph or email subject line will determine whether people keep paying attention. It’s the opening of your pitch that will largely determine the outcome. So get really creative with those subject lines!
2. Meet People Where They Are—Then Bring Them Along
Before you can take people where you want them to go on your issue, you first have to find common ground with them. When you aren’t getting traction on your cause, chances are it’s because you haven’t yet found a way to engage people on a level they can relate to.
According to linguist George Lakoff, we make sense of the world and our place in it through internal metaphors and narratives. The key is to activate these so-called “frames” by evoking them in your communications. For example, if you frame a discussion of energy in terms of climate disaster, you will lose many conservatives who don’t believe in it. But if you make it about jobs and profits from green energy, and national security, it will appeal to conservatives and liberals alike. Lakoff called one of his books, Don’t Think of an Elephant. Okay, now try not to. As psychologist Drew Westen pointed out, it’s ultimately our emotions and not our rational or political brain that drives us to take action. Use the right frame and you’ll trigger those emotions.
3. Repeat Yourself
You must design scenarios that repeat the story many times in many different venues. Without repetition, stories don’t stick. Without repetition, there is little education. Do you remember the Dial soap ads? They used to be long— “Aren’t you glad you use Dial? Don’t you wish everybody did?” After quite a few years, they dropped the second sentence. Why? Because they had achieved so much repetition it became superfluous—people repeated the second line to themselves. Now that’s a marketing breakthrough.
Social change works the same way. People don’t absorb new ideas without repetition. Paradigms won’t change if you say something once or twice. Political pressure also works the same way. Are you happy your story appeared once on local TV? Was it embarrassing to a politician? Bravo to you. But that politician will likely ignore it. If it’s reported a few times, however, the politician will be forced to respond. More times, and they will appoint a commission. Enough times, they may resign. It really does work that way.
4. Build Relationships of Trust with Reporters
Most human commerce is greatly influenced by relationships. If you know someone, and they have learned to trust you even a little, you have more access, you stand out, and they pay more attention to what you say. If you don’t, you’re one of 1,000 emails. Relationships run the world. The same holds true for PR. As NBC’s Chris Matthews once put it, “It’s not who you know. It’s who you get to know.”
I have learned many times in my career that no matter how fair-minded the journalist, and most are, if you know them, and do a good job, your clients and causes get more attention than if you are not already acquainted in person.
But the world is changing. More and more journalists are losing their jobs. A good part of our communications landscape is shifting to user-created content on “Web 2.0” platforms. Nonprofits now have to make their own media content for distribution online and through social networks. Journalistic mediation is becoming become less important. Users will rate content and what rises to the top will get the most attention.
But there will still be real, live human beings choosing what to feature on Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook, your local news website, and the rest. So get to know the decision makers, and help them do their jobs even better. This applies equally to the increasingly influential role of bloggers.
Journalists and bloggers alike value trusted relationships with communicators. But the stress is on trust. Bombarding people with emails and press releases for dubious stories that often don’t even fit their beat or interests won’t win you any friends. Journalists often complain they are deluged with material that shows the publicists haven’t even read their stories or columns, or seen their broadcasts. So know your audience.
Of course, writing clearly, getting right to the point, and most of all, being factually accurate and reliable are essential to building trust. And, of course, one critical way to build a relationship with reporters is to follow what they cover and understand what makes them tick.
5. Simplify Your Issue
Many of the issues we work on can be complicated. It’s the communicator’s job to break down these complexities into something simple. “Simple” does not mean dumbing down—just the opposite. Simple is smart because it means more people will understand why your cause is so important and be inspired to act.
In the mid-1990s, Republicans in Congress put forward a bill they called “regulatory reform.” It should have been called “end regulations.” The bill would have made it incredibly difficult for executive agencies like the EPA and USDA to do their jobs. It would have tied up proposed new rules in the courts for years, among other things.
The environmental community was deeply concerned that the bill, if passed, could be used to gut all kinds of environmental and health regulations. But how could we get the public and the news media concerned and even roiled up about “regulatory reform?” The very phrase can cause narcolepsy.
My friend and client at the time, the late Phil Clapp, founder of the National Environmental Trust came up with the solution. One day, he brought a woman into my office whose child had become horribly ill and almost died after eating a fast-food hamburger poisoned with the virulent strain of E. coli that had caused the infamous “Jack in the Box” episode, where four children died and at least 700 people became ill after eating bad meat.
She was articulate and authentic. The organization she founded, Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP) had been leading the fight to get tighter USDA regulation of the meat supply. STOP was composed of parents whose kids had either died or become violently ill after eating bad meat. And they were up in arms about “regulatory reform,” because it would stop the USDA from instituting new regulations for many years. Which meant more kids would die.
So Phil discovered how to turn a snooze of a story into compelling drama—with characters, conflict, pathos, narrative, and with good guys and bad (concerned parents and irresponsible companies, respectively). The center of the campaign was not “regulatory reform.” It was the great American symbol that we could all relate to: the hamburger.
We succeeded in getting the STOP parents a tremendous amount of media attention. One well-known columnist wrote four consecutive columns about it in a row. The STOP parents were featured on “The Phil Donahue Show” and other national outlets.
I knew we had won when Bob Dole took the Senate floor and said, “I have been accused of being a purveyor of tainted beef!” Now that was a frame he could never recover from, kind of like when President Nixon said “I am not a crook.” Regulatory reform soon went down in flames because of the power of the right story, well told.
6. Harness Influential Messengers
Sometimes the messenger is as important as the message. This was the case for a campaign we developed for SeaWeb, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, to save the North Atlantic swordfish, a victim of overfishing, from the brink of extinction.
I thought a consumer boycott would do the job. But I didn’t think people would necessarily listen to what an environmental group had to say. So who would they listen to?
I recommended we recruit some of the nation’s leading chefs to refuse to serve swordfish, and call on the country to stop eating it until the government protected its spawning grounds so it could recover. Nora Pouillon, the fabulous chef of Nora’s restaurant in Washington, DC, agreed to recruit celebrity chef contacts of hers.
We announced the campaign in New York with 27 leading chefs. And then, much to our surprise, it went “viral” as they began to recruit their colleagues. More than 750 chefs across the country joined the boycott. Cruise ship lines, hotel chains, restaurant chains, all announced they would stop serving swordfish. It was a spontaneous grassroots uprising.
Soon, the price of swordfish dropped dramatically due to decreased demand. As a result, even the fishing industry started urging the government to protect the spawning grounds. Which they did. And now swordfish in the North Atlantic have recovered significantly.
7. Use Advertising to Make News
Many nonprofits think advertising is not an option because it’s too expensive. But it can be cheaper than you think. And with the right combination of bold strategy and media outreach, it’s possible to parlay a modest ad buy into millions in free, “earned media” (editorial coverage).
Advertising was the linchpin of a campaign we did for the American Medical Association. They had long campaigned against teenage drinking as a tremendous public health problem. For years, they had successfully lobbied to keep advertising for hard liquor off television and radio. Then NBC announced they were changing the policy and accepting ad dollars from Seagram’s, which many charged was to be aimed at young people in particular.
The deal was done. NBC was going ahead. The AMA turned to our firm. We counseled them to buy one full-page ad in The New York Times to embarrass NBC out of taking the money. The Times is the media bible—it’d be like picketing the homes of NBC’s president and owners to embarrass them in their own communities—plus we knew that a campaign like this was sure to attract attention from journalists, leading to additional coverage.
The ad featured a large photo of a television set, with a Surgeon General-like warning label across the TV screen. “WARNING,” it read. “NBC MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR CHILDREN’S HEALTH.” We also created a micro-site where people could send protest e letters to NBC’s president. Less than a month later, NBC caved under the negative press and public outrage.
Advertising can make news. It need not only be used to repeat messages and persuade audiences. It can be the story. Consider it part of your arsenal.
8. Don’t Let the Opposition Control the Conversation
Hunkering down and hoping that negative publicity will simply “go away” is never a good PR strategy. It makes even less sense in today’s information economy. We live in a 24/7 news cycle where information—and misinformation—can rapidly spread, as easily and as fast as the time it takes to write a 140-word tweet. You must be vigilant about positioning your issue and protecting your brand. Silence works against you.
Some years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council hired my firm to help get attention for a report they were planning on the impact of various pesticides on the diets of infants and children. The evidence was growing clear that these chemicals were affecting the nervous system of children (and, we later learned, their hormones). Some were probable human carcinogens.
According to NRDC’s peer-reviewed study, children were getting much too high a dose of the chemical Alar, which was then used to redden and ripen apples for harvesting. Alar was a strong carcinogen. Several states had banned it as a result, and the EPA had been sued for delaying action on the chemical. EPA scientists were very concerned, but industry pressure kept slowing them down. Going through regulatory channels would likely take months or years, so we asked ourselves, “How can we use the power of public pressure to make the company do the right thing?”
Kids, who consume a lot of apple juice and applesauce for their size, were really getting dosed, so the pesticide concentrations were way above what had been guessed previously would be a “safe” level. That level had been set for adult consumption (which is still a huge problem today in the regulation of other pesticides).
Apples. An apple a day. As American as . . . We could see the symbolism of focusing on apples—and on kids. We took it to a TV news magazine producer with whom we’d worked in the past and briefed other national reporters after we were able to get journalists to agree to cover the story on an “embargoed” basis (meaning they agreed not to run stories until the magazine segment aired). We also filmed a TV commercial with a volunteer celebrity washing fruits and vegetables, explaining the dangers of pesticides.
Well, there was a media firestorm beyond what anyone could have predicted. News stories kept appearing for days and days. People stopped buying apples. The bottom literally fell out of the apple market. So Uniroyal, Alar’s manufacturer, announced they were unilaterally removing it from the market. Only then did apple sales come back (of course the remaining apple harvest was dumped on developing countries). The news magazine show we gave the exclusive to was CBS “60 Minutes” and the celebrity in the TV spot was Meryl Streep. These helped, but they are not essential to make news. If you’ve got a local story, a local news station and a well-known local personality can work.
Ultimately, Alar was taken off the market not because of a court case, an act of Congress, or the EPA. The public effectively banned Alar by exercising their consumer power. (Months later, the Bush Administration EPA also decreed that there could be “zero” tolerance of Alar, effectively banning it from food, as urged by their expert panel of scientists.)
Meanwhile, the Washington State apple growers sued NRDC, “60 Minutes,” and my firm. They claimed we had purposely and maliciously disparaged their apples with no scientific evidence. It was a classic harassment, or “slap” suit, designed to muzzle the anti-pesticide movement and the media from ever doing this again.
NRDC’s outside lawyers advised the group to go silent while the case wound its way through the courts. Now that it was in the legal arena, the public relations advisors were put in the background. Many argued against silence, saying that the pesticide and agribusiness companies would certainly not be silent. This would lead, possibly for years, to a situation where one side would be putting out their story while NRDC would remain silent. And in a vacuum, opposing interests that go on the offensive often succeed in rewriting history. And that’s what happened.
I understand why NRDC’s leaders decided to listen to the lawyer’s advice. The legal case was serious, and giant interests were up against them. But it’s too bad. Because by the time the case was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court several years later, the other side had successfully convinced reporters, and part of the public, that Alar had been a “scare,” unjustified by science. And that’s what you may find on Google today. Never mind that EPA’s scientists banned it based on the evidence.
Postscript—shortly thereafter, some states, egged on by the chemical industry, passed so-called “veggie hate crime bills,” which were clearly unconstitutional infringements on free speech. They made it a crime to say bad things about food. Poor Oprah Winfrey got charged with these laws in Texas after running a show on problems with hamburger meat contamination. Sorry, Oprah, they passed these laws because of the Alar campaign. Luckily, she was found not guilty of falsely defaming hamburgers.
We can’t make the world better if we don’t communicate thoughtfully, effectively, and frequently. And in general, rightists (you know, conservatives) pay much more attention to communications than leftists (liberals). This is a big part of why their ideas tend to be dominant in the public policy arena. And no wonder. The so-called conservatives largely come from business, where they had to market or die. Liberal nonprofits come largely from law, science, academia, government, and the humble, do-good world.
So to the readers of this book, the future nonprofit public policy, change-the-world leaders of tomorrow, I hope you will make communications central to what you do. If you’re a policy-oriented nonprofit, if you’re not spending at least 25% of your budget on communications, in my view you are not facing contemporary reality.
It’s up to us to tell the truth—and to tell it in ways that will inspire sympathy or outrage—and ultimately, action. We are in an era, abhorred by reporters and many of the rest of us, where there is less and less acceptance of facts. There are just points of view. There is much conscious manipulation of the media and body politic by forces intentionally spreading misinformation. The truth is really the best weapon, but only if you get it out there. That’s where great PR comes in.