PRSA-NCC’s PR Day for Charitable Nonprofits Stimulates Conversations

By on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I enjoyed speaking last week for PRSA-NCC’s PR Day for Charitable Nonprofits here in Washington, D.C. One hundred people representing 80 different nonprofit organizations attended the half-day event, which was organized by our National Capital Chapter for the Public Relations Society of America.

Keynote speaker Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen, was billed as a nonprofit rock star, and his remarks did not disappoint.

In a presentation titled “PR: The Difference Between a 10 Cent Cause and a Million Dollar Mission,” his comments were thought-provoking. Key themes that stuck with me:

Public relations is the job of everyone in an organization. DC Central Kitchen does not have a media relations staff or public relations staff member. Everyone in the organization is part of sharing their mission and communicating. A morning staff meeting helps everyone stay on the same page.

Institute a Volunteer Bill of Rights, so volunteers have clear expectations and know they are valued. Tear down the barriers within the organization so they can talk to anyone within the organization and feel appreciated and know their contributions matter.  Anyone in the organization should be able to talk with them, answer their questions, and explain how the organization changes lives.

The nonproft sector is a huge part of our economy, noted Egger, yet the sector has an enormous image problem. We are viewed as nice, but not essential. When President Obama held a jobs summit, not one nonprofit agency was at the table.

Being bold and offering solutions to others can help you get great publicity. Egger opened DC Central Kitchen on George Bush Sr.’s inauguration day. He called up the inaugural organizers and pointed out that he had a refrigerated truck and a plan to feed the homeless, and they had an image problem. Needless to say – the inaugural dinner leftovers were his for the taking. Media around the world covered the kitchen as it fed inaugural leftovers to people who were destitute.

Robert Egger at PR Day for Charitable Nonprofits

You can follow his blog and twitter feed for more insights. The speech made me want to follow him around for a week to hear more. There was quite a long line to talk with him.

With the keynote address done, workshops were the order of the day. Sandra Wills Hannon, a fellow indie pr practitioner (like me), talked about the 4-step planning process and marketing research. Planning, research, execution and evaluation. We nonprofit types can have a tendency to jump into execution feet first and forget about the other three so getting some balance is super-important. She offered some tips to help bring down the cost of researching a message before you launch it, recommending online polling and focus groups as much more cost-effective.

Ben Zingman did a great talk on message consistency, pointing out that communicators should seize every opportunity to get their staff singing the same message – from using your letterhead and business cards, to offering training and support. Rather than making staying on message a downer, Zingman encouraged pr staffers to make it fun and supportive by keeping a positive outlook.

I especially enjoyed Stephanie Bowen’s presentation on media relations, where she confronted a reality we often find in nonprofit public relations – the media write an amazing story about the issue the organization works on, but doesn’t include the name of the organization. What matters is that the issue is getting coverage and more people are aware of it. But dealing with the naysayers in your own organization can be tough. Doing good is not just good enough – stories must have hooks and news pegs to hang on. Bowen is a former journalist and director of media relations at the Elizabeth Glaser Foundation on Pediatric AIDS.

A really interesting case study of a nonprofit reaching out to the community for help during a crisis was mentioned by Andrea Keller Helsel in her presentation on how not to panic when a communications crisis erupts. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina faced a dramatic more than 50% budget cut of $2 million and implemented “tell it all, tell it fast, tell the truth” in rapid succession. Here’s a few links I found about this example she cited:
Donations Pour in to Save Charlotte Libraries (March 19, 2010)
Outcome of Lifeline to City Libraries Still Unknown (June 8, 2010)
Library Closings Hurt, But May Be Best Option (March 5, 2011)
Battle of Library Closings Begins (March 6, 2011)

They put their budget online and let people suggest areas to cut and live-tweeted from board meetings. The library emerged to face significant budget cuts, but with an additional $400,000 in donations to help lessen the blow and even more people accessing its services and programs. Unfortunately, they still had to absorb a catastrophic budget cut, but the entire community was involved in the heart-rending decisions that had to happen in lean economic times and there was a temporary reprieve. Unfortunately, their battle continues.

Ami Neiberger-Miller speaking about trauma survivor stories.

And then there was my presentation, “We’re Not Victims, We’re Survivors: Lessons in Using Survivor Stories.” Here’s an excerpt from the Association Bisnow coverage of my talk:

The stories of trauma survivors have the power to change laws, prosecute offenders, and provide more funding or support for a cause. At the same time there’s incredible risk. Ami Neiberger-Miller says that talking too soon can re-traumatize a survivor or affect their family, job, or security and well-being in ways they might not anticipate. She says it’s important to know their motivation for telling the story and whether they are ready.

For the interview itself, suggest a comfortable setting and try to talk to the reporter about the angle of the story: Are they looking for carte blanch access to their whole life? Or an hour? Ami says organizations are often worried about exploitation and hurting victims further.

“Sometimes they’re a lot stronger than we think,” Ami says. “So often what I hear from the people I work with is they’re empowered. They’ve been able to use this process to reclaim their voice and to feel like they’re able to make a difference.”

Not too bad. I was pleased with how my speech went. Since I’m a trauma survivor myself, I prefer to use written remarks for a talk like that, but I ended up going off script and adding some new anecdotes. There were some other speakers and great conversations. The event snagged nice coverage in the public relations and association community:

You could follow the event on Twitter at #PRDayDC. Photos courtesy of Rick Gondella at and Bisnow. PRSA-NCC hopes to make this an annual event to help area nonprofits.

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