Building Relationships with Reporters: Nonprofit Staff Should Not Be Afraid

By on Thursday, January 5, 2012
When nonprofit staff are scared of the press, they often think of
images like this one, showing a besieged official being swarmed
by media, not a one-on-one interview in a non-hostile setting

The White House is not the only place that sometimes has trouble keeping the peace with journalists – sometimes nonprofits do too. The first one that springs to mind is Second Mile in Pennsylvania which was overwhelmed by abuse charges amid the Penn State/Sandusky scandal. In a situation where a nonprofit is believed to have permitted abuse of children – they deserve nothing less than full scrutiny.

But even among upstanding nonprofits doing only good in the community – it surprises me to find nonprofit staff that are skeptical, anxious, or even hostile to the press. They expect to be able to read a reporter’s story in advance and edit it themselves, worry they’ll be “mis-represented” in a news story, or fret nervously over an interview and how they might appear. When I first started doing media training with university staff more than ten years ago, one of the first questions they would inevitably ask was how to submit a correction, or how to avoid being mis-quoted or “gotten” in a story. Some people are absolutely terrified of being mis-quoted in the press.

I always told them if they were not doing anything bad, they didn’t need to worry about being ensnared in a gotcha story by a reporter. And that corrections sould be requested with diplomacy, for good reason, and rarely. I have worked in situations where a nonprofit was trying to do something good and was not being treated fairly by the press – or the press were simply demanding more than the organization could support at the time – but those situations are not the norm. Typically these people had never met a reporter, and their only image of the media was developed through years of local television news watching, where they saw public officials under siege by packs of reporters – often in times of community crisis – not the one-on-one interviews that are much more common.

Doing some media training to build confidence in one’s interview and public speaking skills can often address the fear side of this equation. Often the root of the problem is a lack of understanding about journalists and their deadlines and pressures. Often these people have never met a reporter before, nor considered their perspective. Learning about the media and how it works, as well as meeting a real reporter, can go a long way to building understanding.

Likewise, nonprofits have an obligation to educate journalists about their characteristics and needs. We are a huge sector in our own right that provides vital services, jobs, funding, and innovation to communities. By learning more about each other, we can go a long way to building better understanding and improving coverage of nonprofit organizations and the services they provide in the news media.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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