A Year in Review: Victories, Challenges & A Growing Public Relations Practice

Wow, it’s hard to believe that 2011 drew to a close for Steppingstone LLC – and we’ve been in business for more than 8 years – thriving amid a rocky and unstable economy. We’ve gotten to work on some amazing projects this year helping nonprofit organization and associations. Our celebratory blog toast would not be complete without a sampling.

Veteran Aimee Sherrod, who was 7 months
pregnant at the time, came to DC to share her
story and how the lawsuit will affect her family.
She is pictured with attorney Bart Stichman,
co-executive director of NVLSP at the National
Press Club in Washington, DC.

We won – lawyers reach settlement victory for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Since 2008, we’ve worked to help the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) with media relations and outreach. They filed a class action lawsuit in December 2008 to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who were illegally denied their benefits. It’s been a long haul for the attorneys and the veterans they are trying to help. And finally, we have achieved victory. A proposed settlement was announced in July. Only three days before Christmas, the judge at the US Court of Federal Claims gave final approval to the settlement, putting in motion a settlement that will give thousands of veterans and their families the benefits and healthcare they earned and deserve for their service to our country.

Media, media, media. I did a lot of work in media relations this year on behalf of my nonprofit and association clients – working with the Associated Press, CNN, ABC World News, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel, the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the History Channel, US News & World Report, National Journal, and many, many others.

Thanks to our amazing clients. We get to work with some wonderful people who are doing amazing things, and we were privileged to support in 2011:

– the Plus 50 Initiative at the American Association of Community Colleges and their work to help thousands of people coping with job loss and revolutionize campus support for adults age 50 and up returning to the classroom.

– the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and its work to help families of our fallen military service members.
– the National Veterans Legal Services Program and its fight to help veterans get the benefits they’ve earned and deserve.

– the Society for Public Health Education and their work to raise awareness about health professionals and their important contributions to helping Americans live healthier lives.

Resource Action Programs – aiding their work to better educate K-12 students and teachers about energy conservation by assisting with curriculum development.

– the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and their annual Congressional Breakfast on Capitol Hill honoring law enforcement for work locating missing children and stopping child exploitation.

–  the Christian Camp & Conference Association with articles for their magazine on opening doors to diversity in Christian camping programs (January/February 2011), helping ministries thrive amid a rocky economy (November/December 2011) and improving how they utilize social media (publishing in January/February 2012).

– the Association for Women in Science – with help on a publication opportunity at the last minute that allowed them to feature an amazing young leader in science and educate parents about opportunities in science, technology and math for young women.

Social media goes to a new level of importance – for us and our clients. We scored one of our first significant media placements for a client through Twitter this year – by responding to a tweet with a simple 120 character note. Our client, TAPS, was invited to interview for an online video story and blog posting by the Chronicle of Philanthropy about the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and its impact on charities and services for military families.

My first Twitter account – @AmazingPRMaven – launched in 2009 offering tips and advice to help nonprofit PR pros (and stuff I find interesting) and saw tremendous growth in 2011 – advancing to four-figures worth of followers – with 1,233 people getting updates and 74 people thinking my updates are interesting enough to add me to their official lists. It’s ranked 528th in the Washington, DC market by Twitaholic – not bad for a city known to be frequented by mavens!

Speaking out – on a new level. It was a big year for me with formal public speaking engagements. I’ve always conducted training programs to help others learn (with facilitated hands on activities so I don’t have to talk the entire time) – but this year I went up a few notches in difficulty. I was invited to share what I’ve learned supporting trauma survivors at PRSA-NCC’s PR Day for Nonprofits in a presentation called, “We’re Not Victims, We’re Survivors.” I survived the speech and I think the roomful of PR pros walked away with some helpful advice on how to balance the needs of the media and trauma survivors.
Testifying for a Congressional subcommittee in June.
On behalf of TAPS, I testified for a congressional subcommittee in June on the improvements happening to correct problems at Arlington National Cemetery – an issue I’ve been on the front lines with for years. I also attended several White House and Hill events this year and got to talk with key policy staff about issues impacting surviving military families.

I also did several media interviews this year myself. It’s not typical for a PR person to do so many interviews – but there are times when deadlines and my experiences as a survivor and professional align with the project. I talked with WTOP a few weeks ago about my feelings on the Iraq war troop pullout for a story that was picked up by CBS radio nationwide. I also was interviewed by McClatchy about the war ending and my feelings – I described in the interview my emotional moment on a plane to Colorado when I teared up seeing troops coming home. I have to believe my reaction was serindipitous in a way  – allowing me to purge some of those emotions and giving me the ability to focus and crank out a statement when the President announced the next day that the troops would leave Iraq for good. That statement led to this story in the  Washington Post. I also talked with Fox Channel 5 the day news broke that 30 U.S. service members had died when a chopper was shot down in Afghanistan – what’s not in this story on YouTube is that I did this interview on the fourth anniversary of my brother’s death in Iraq – which was the same day as that crash. I recently met some of the family members from that crash and we embraced in sorrow and care.

It’s been an amazing year – and we are looking forward to more work in 2012 helping nonprofits and associations improve how they communicate and engage with the news media. While we’ve done a lot – we still have so much work yet to do. Thing I am emphasizing this year:
  • Work life balance – with a toddler at home (and three grown kids out of the house) we always have a lot going on in our home – and keeping that balance even is always challenging – especially when working in media relations supporting organizations working on hot issues that people care about. I’m grateful my husband decided to become a stay-at-home dad this year, relieving me of some household responsibilities and injecting a dose of much-needed calm into our chaotic lives.
  • Growing our ability to help nonprofits and associations – I plan to introduce a line of e-books this year to help nonprofits and associations that will be for sale – drawing on some of the best advice in the business, while keeping the copy short enough to not overwhelm over-taxed nonprofit pr pros.
  • Improving teaming synergy – while I’ve collaborated with other public relations professionals over the years – I’m doing more teaming and collaborative work with other indies on some of my projects. What I’ve found is that this adds value for my clients – giving them a broader range of expertise and experience – so they get the best recommendations and advice. It also gives me vital backup when needed due to a media eruption, and I’m blessed to have amazing people to work with.

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.


After the Rescue: Press Coverage, PR and the Chilean Mine Miracle

The world rejoiced in the miraculous rescue of 33 miners in Chile this week that sparked round-the-clock news coverage of the “miracle in San Jose.” While the media facilitated worldwide viewership and brought a global family together to root and pray for the miners and their safe return to the surface, there are also reports that they engaged in excessive behavior to get the story. And some have said that celebritizing the mine disaster like a reality TV show, has caused other problems in Chile to evaporate from the headlines.

Euronews reported that there were as many 1,700 reporters at Camp Hope the night of the rescue. In “As media circus wanes, Chile miners’ families turn spotlight on reporters’ antics,” Steven Bodzin of the Christian Science Monitor describes how the families felt about the media’s behavior.

“It’s not that we hate the press,” Juan Hermosillo, uncle of miner Carlos Barrios, said earlier in the day. “If the press hadn’t been here who knows, maybe none of this would have happened,” he said, gesturing at the $15 million rescue effort’s drills, cranes, and helicopters.

But the media excesses were obvious. Cameramen so stubbornly kept their shot that they wouldn’t move aside to let family members gather and celebrate the final rescue. When the first miner was rescued and reunited with his family, reporters caused the tents to collapse in their rush for photos of tears.

Families who had never sought fame were suddenly scrutinized like reality TV stars. One miner, whose wife and girlfriend both went to the mine to support him, has been the subject of stories at home and abroad speculating on his future.

The miners reportedly received limited media training by closed-circuit television while still trapped underground. But what about their families who were waiting amid a sea of hundreds of raucous reporters?

All too often, families going through trauma are subjected to bad behavior by reporters hell-bent on getting the story and under pressure to generate sound bytes and copy.

At the same time, some of the blame for reporter excess should be passed on to the Chilean government and its media wranglers, which made a point of accommodating media access at the site.

Some of the fingers being pointed at the media for bad behavior, could also be pointed at public relations staff. One can’t really blame the media for acting as they are trained to do. The reality is – it is public relations staff (backed up by security if needed when dealing with so many reporters and such a large site) who can provide structure and prevent families from being disappointed or hurt.

Of course, it’s possible that a plan by public relations staff for greater structure and order fell apart due to circumstances at the site. I would hope that PR people committed to the public interest, would both assist families in sharing their stories, and provide structure to prevent media coverage from hurting the families and hindering the story as it unfolded.


American Red Cross Handles a Twitter Faux Paus with Humor & Grace

If you use a twitter manager like Hootsuite for your personal and work-related twitter accounts, then you know how easy it can be to accidentally blast a personal tweet onto a personal account. So when it happens – how do you recover? The American Red Cross shows that a little humor and grace can go a long way to mucking up the mayhem.

Last week the American Red Cross accidentally tweeted:

They soon realized their problem, and corrected with:

It then led to actual donations when Dogfish Beer called on its fans to donate, chronicled by the American Red Cross on its blog, where the organization plainly recounted the error. Beth Kanter notes on her blog that this is a great example of a nonprofit handling a twitter error with grace, and I concur.

This could have become an example of a nonprofit wringing its hands in horror or stonewalling its way thru embarrassment, but embracing the error with a little humor made it a lemons to lemonade scenario.


Animals and Environment Causes: Most Talked About on Facebook & Twitter

From August to October of 2011, CraigConnects analyzed the top 5 nonprofits in the following categories (based on total expenses provided by Charity Navigator) and how frequently they post and are talked about on Facebook and Twitter:

  • Animal
  • Children
  • Cultural
  • Disaster Relief
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Veterans & Military
  • Women

By far, the most talked about causes on Facebook and Twitter that they looked at, were animal and environmental organizations. Animal groups had an average of 14 Facebook posts and 134 tweets per week. Environmental groups had on average, 12 Facebook posts and 88 tweets per week. The least talkative causes on Facebook and Twitter were veteran and military organizations. They also found that the most engaged communities on Facebook are children’s organizations, which have an average of 39 fans per person “talking about this.”

In spite of their lack of chattiness, the military and veteran organizations were attracting attention on Facebook and Twitter, ranking #5 (ahead of cultural, women and environment organizations) when a ratio of average weekly Facebook posts was compared with “talking about this” data.

The researchers also called several of the organizations to discuss their current staffing for social media. Organizations that focus on animals, the environment, and women were the most staffed for social media.  They found 14 full-time social media staff and 40 part-time. Of the 21 organizations they called, only 1 did not have a full or part-time social media person on staff.

Get more information about the study and see the infographic.

Because they only looked at the largest organizations, the results may seem disingenuous to smaller nonprofit organizations, who may be doing quite well at engagement in social media, but would not have been considered for this report because of their budget size. In some cases, smaller organizations may have higher rates of social media engagement, simply because they are working with smaller communities that care about a cause.


Association Media & Publishing EXCEL Awards, Entry Deadline Jan. 27

If you work for an association, then you’ll want to know about the EXCEL Awards. These awards honor the best publishing products created by associations. Deadline for the 2012 32nd Annual EXCEL Awards is January 27, 2012.

The program judges typically more than 1,100 association publications, including magazines, newsletters, scholarly journals, electronic publications and websites in the areas of editorial quality, design, general excellence, most improved and many more. 
Hear from association professionals about the EXCEL Awards:

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.

American Red Cross

Avoid a Correction Mistake: 7 Lessons from the American Red Cross Feud with ProPublica & NPR

Requesting a correction to a news story is a delicate business – and it’s easy for even a well-branded and iconic nonprofit organization to make a mistake. The American Red Cross recently sent a 12-page list of corrections to ProPublica and NPR over an investigative  series highlighting serious concerns about its operations and stewardship of funds from the public.

The stories say that the CEO of the American Red Cross mis-led the public about what percentage of the charity’s donations went to assist people in need (not 91% as claimed), that emergency response vehicles were diverted for public relations purposes during Hurricane Sandy (appalling to me and many I’m sure), and that response trucks were told to drive around in disaster areas just to appear to be delivering aid (appalling again). The stories outlined a variety of failures during responses to Hurricane Isaac and Hurricane Sandy, including food waste.

Clearly the series shook the foundations of one of America’s most well-known brands, because who sends a 12-page list of corrections? The ProPublica and NPR journalists published an online rebuttal saying their reporting was “scrupulously fair” and also did a podcast in response. The hubbub drew even more attention to the series from the likes of KPBS and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The situation begs more than few questions, but I’ll only ask two. What could the American Red Cross have hoped to gain from sending ProPublica and NPR a 12-page list of corrections months after the original reporting had happened? And what can we learn from this situation to help us avoid mistakes when requesting a correction?

Lesson #1: Always remember that you never pick an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel. You are treading on dangerous ground when you ask for a correction. Remember it. Journalists pride themselves on being accurate and you are questioning the validity of their reporting just by asking for a correction  (even if you are right) – so you are automatically starting in a difficult spot.  Tred lightly.

Lesson #2: Don’t be heavy-handed. Be as brief as possible. Fourteen pages of corrections is overkill. Edit yourself down as much as possible.

Lesson #3: Don’t wait to ask for corrections until long after the story has aired or published. Ask right away. And don’t belabor the point. Some of these concerns had been previously highlighted by the American Red Cross in a press release in late October highlighting “myths” in the reporting. Sending a lengthy correction list in 2015 months after the original stories aired comes across as organizational sour grapes.

Lesson #4: Only request corrections for factual errors that make the story fundamentally wrong and do significant harm. The American Red Cross 12-pager lists a number of issues with the series and disputes the facts and reporting. And remember that asking for a correction may breath new life into a story you wish would go away (even if you ultimately get what you want). Tomorrow the news will be something else.

 Lesson #5: Realize everything you say is on the record and may be published. On the bright side, the American Red Cross did get their entire list of requested corrections published on the ProPublica website (I could not find the full list on the American Red Cross website). Some could argue this was an advantage, because now their objections are part of the overall story line and part of the original series website.

Lesson #6: Even if you feel like you are under attack, don’t strike back. Ask nicely even if it pains you. When other news outlets are saying you are feuding with two media outlets, you are not in a good situation. A news release issued by the American Red Cross in December 2014 goes to the level of attack saying, “ProPublica continues with its deeply flawed reporting and, as they have done repeatedly, based their latest reports on unsubstantiated second and third hand hearsay and rumor.” Any correction request should always be politely phrased and not stoop to the level of name calling. Responding when you are mad is always a bad idea.

Lesson #7: Don’t feed the flames. Start a fire break. If the reporting was so bad, I can’t help but wonder why the staff at the American Red Cross didn’t stop churning the water with these reporters at ProPublica and NPR, and go to a competing media outlet like the New York Times or 60 Minutes? They could have offered to open their books, share every file they have, and provide anyone this new outlet wants to talk with. To do so would have subjected themselves (and the series) to a big giant fact check and introduced transparency into the discussion. This might not be a viable strategy in another crisis scenario or with another organization (few situations might rise to the level of doing this), but in this case, it might have been an option worth considering.

Talk to Us: What do you think the American Red Cross could have done differently in this situation? What is your experience with requesting corrections from journalists? What advice do you have to offer?

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 engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites. She 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.


Baby Boomers & Older Adults Are Adopting Social Media Tools in Greater Numbers, Has Your Nonprofit Noticed?

Have you considered using Facebook,YouTube, LinkedIn or Twitter to reach older adults as volunteers or donors for your nonprofit organization? Nonprofit managers used to dismiss using these technologies to reach out to baby boomers and adults over age 65 in favor of direct mail or other techniques. Many even pooh-poohed the idea of using social media to reach older audiences, and insisted that only younger donors and volunteers could be found using social media technologies.

There is strong evidence that baby boomers donate online, with 52% giving online. Nonprofit workers need to heed a new report and seriously consider how social media technologies can be utilized to reach both the baby boomers and adults over age 65. A new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project points to increasing adoption of social media by older adults, even outpacing younger people in their growing adoption of these technology tools.

The report found that between April 2009 and May 2010, social networking use among internet users ages 50-64 grew by 88%–from 25% to 47%.

During the same period, use among those ages 65 and older doubled- going from 13% to 26%. By comparison, social networking use among users ages 18-29 grew by only 13% – from 76% to 86%.

So if you want to use social media tools to reach older adults – where do you turn for help and advice? There are many resources available to help nonprofits use social media effectively. You’ll also want to check out a great blog post by Beth Kanter about reaching baby boomers with social media tools and a  post on Frogloop by Allyson Kapin about reaching baby boomers as part of online fundraising campaigns.


Balancing Work and Family: The Challenges of Mixing A PR Career with a Toddler

Working as a PR consultant to nonprofits and associations with a toddler around is definitely exciting. This is an age of exploration for a child and of course, Mommy’s work is very interesting to a little one. The nature of working in the public relations field is that you can end up taking calls from the press in the evenings or on the weekends, while surrounded by your family.

I work from home a few days a week, keep my business office in my home, and have a toddler. Like a lot of other working professionals, I juggle the demands of a home and family alongside my work. Maintaining a professional PR consulting practice from home with a toddler around is challenging but not impossible. So here are a few of the challenges parents might encounter when working in PR with a toddler around:

  • Back twist– Mommy throws out her back climbing over the baby gate that blocks off her desk in her home office so the toddler can’t ransack it. Note to Mommy: get to the gym more often so you are more limber, or at least do a few stretches before climbing over the baby gate.
  • Discombobulation – the toddler helpfully unpacks Mommy’s work bag or brief case in the hallway foyer and hides various items around the house. Mommy finds her laptop under the dining room table, her phone in between the couch cushions and the newspaper she was reading on the bus on the toy shelf. Note to Mommy: always put your bag on the high shelf or in the office in the future.
  • Smartphone exploration – the toddler gets a hold of Mommy’s cell phone that, of course, Mommy loaded her primary media contacts into (after all Mommy was trying to be efficient). The toddler accidentally dials a reporter at USA Today. Thankfully, the reporter is not there, only gets subjected to a voicemail of Mommy discovering the toddler holding the phone proudly and also has young children and understands. Note to Mommy: Never leave the phone where the toddler can get to it and use the lock.
  • Smartphone destruction – having concluded that the SmartPhone is after all, a big distraction for Mommy’s time and energy, the toddler disposes of it in the kitchen trash. Note to Mommy: never leave the phone where the toddler can get to it. Really. And the trash can should be the first place you check when your phone goes missing.
  • Snotnose suit – the toddler does catch cold from time to time and has a runny nose. Unfortunately, Mommy’s suit and clothes bear the brunt of it. Note to Mommy: buy those little Kleenex packets and keep them in your purse – they are a godsend for parents with toddlers. Carry your jacket outside to the car and don’t wear it in the house. Don’t get dressed in your nice clothes until you absolutely have to leave. And keep your makeup, lint brush and hair brush in your purse (but keep the purse out of reach of the toddler) so you can freshen up after leaving the house.
  • News clip annihilation – while technology has changed much of our business and reduced the need to keep paper around, Mommy still keep news clips and newspapers for print stories that clients want to see. These big newspaper sheets are so much fun for a toddler to play with and are great for playing peek a boo. Note to Mommy: always keep the client news clips in your desk area, safely behind the baby gate. And give your toddler the pages you don’t need for some fun.
  • TV scribbles – keeping up with the news is an important part of media relations work and of course, TV screens are fascinating to toddlers. They also make great canvases for toddlers who like to color and use crayons – after all, they’ve just discovered that crayons can be used to draw on things, and aren’t just for eating. Note to Mommy: You got lucky this time. Crayons are waxy and come off TV screens easily. Keep the crayons on a shelf and ration them out in the future.
  • Sleep deprivation – toddler sleep patterns are unpredictable by nature and toddlers typically want their mommies (and daddies) at night when they get scared, need a hug, a glass of water, or anything else. It’s inevitable that if Mommy is burning the midnight oil on a project and tiptoeing off to bed, that the toddler wakes up and wants a snuggle. Note to Mommy: That sleep training for toddlers that your mom told you about – might not be a bad idea, but don’t forget that in a few years those snuggles won’t be nearly as forthcoming. Sleep whenever you can – on the commuter bus, in a train, or during a business trip (forget going out with the gang from the office if you can grab some ZZZs).
  • Bad mood-itis – sleep deprivation is unfortunately mood-altering. It can make Mommy grumpy. Note to Mommy: don’t take sleep deprivation out on coworkers. Or clients. Or reporters. Try coffee, working out, positive thinking, or chocolate to upgrade your attitude.
  • Coffee dump – coffee becomes even more essential when you are not getting enough rest and trying to get a lot done. This works great until the toddler finds Mommy’s coffee cup and helpfully empties in onto the floor, in Mommy’s work bag, onto Mommy’s note pad, or onto Mommy’s laptop. Note to Mommy: Never ever abandon the coffee.
  • Reporter interruptus- occasionally toddlers are loud. After all, there is a lot to explore in their world and they are excited about it. Their rambunctious behavior doesn’t always mesh well with an after hours call from a reporter who needs to confirm a last minute fact. When the reporter calls while Mommy and the toddler are in the car and Mommy’s phone routes through bluetooth onto the car stereo system (mommy was trying to be efficient when she set that up), the reporter also gets subjected to any noise made in the car – and can hear the toddler – who is of course, not asleep and watching Mickey Mouse cartoons in the back seat. Note to Mommy: When talking to a reporter after hours and a toddler is nearby, make sure reporter knows a. it is ok to call to check a fact, even after hours and b. Mommy has a toddler nearby who may erupt at any moment and is unpredictable. Having a understanding partner or spouse who can help corral/distract/carry off the rambunctious little toddler if a longer conversation is necessary can be a huge help.

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.


Before Criticizing a News Story Online: Get the Full Scoop

Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker’s story earlier this month about three slain National Guard troops caught some heat from online comment posters, who noted that a spouse was listed for the two males who died, but not the female soldier who died. Some alleged homophobism, as the fallen female soldier left behind a wife.

When contacted on Twitter by an angry reader, Biesecker responded: ‘Story was written 2 days before family statement confirming SSgt. [sic] Johnson had a wife. Check date before assuming,’ 

The AP updated the story after the family statement confirmed the information. Great lesson for those who want to get blustery online – do some research. The media can only report the news they have available to them. Read the story about the controversy in the Daily Mail.

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.


Beware Calls Promising Hugh Downs Will Promote Your Nonprofit

Some of my nonprofit clients were pitched for documentaries hosted by Hugh Downs and produced by Vision Media of Boca Raton, Fla., in exchange for a $20,000+ fee. The pitch smacks of advertorial, and while the production company is happy to promise viewing on “public television,” the reality is that few stations, if any, run the spots.

Last spring National Public Radio investigated the agency, which can’t prove to its clients that the spots they paid for ever aired. Unfortunately, the National Funeral Directors Association was among the organizations duped into paying thousands for video work that they can show on YouTube or in their own marketing materials (which they could likely have produced for less with other vendors) – but that never saw air time on public television.

The New York Times also investigated the agency in 2008, with similar results. PBS even has a standard question in its FAQ addressing the controversy and declaring – in no uncertain terms – that it does not have a relationship with this company and a number of others listed.

Another company contacts nonprofits promising to put them on CNN in airports. It offers a high-stakes “make a decision quickly” scenario to the nonprofit agency, requesting thousands of dollars up front for “pay for play.” These pay for play opportunities don’t carry the prestige or credibility of legitimate news reports.

The take-away from all of this – If you get a call promising massive air time for a few thousand dollars, and it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t leap and take the bait right away if you are presented with an opportunity like this. Ask questions. Google the company name online. Read the contract. Find out what you are really getting for the money if you choose to use their service. Advertising has its place, but it should be used strategically.

If you really want a celebrity to promote your nonprofit agency – consider who might be best to promote your cause. Approach their agent and reach out. You may be surprised by a positive response and support.

Consider what you truly need for video promotion. Many nonprofits have a promotional video about their work. Costs for video production have dropped, as more nonprofits use small cameras and create their own grassroots YouTube videos. And many video production companies will now work with you to use footage you’ve taken yourself to create a hybridized professional video that you can be proud of.

After you know what you want and have a budget established – then find the company that can do the work for you within your budget and meet your requirements.


Big Oops: What Not to Send a Reporter and Why Nonprofit Transparency Matters

Imagine you are the well-compensated (I can hear my nonprofit readers chuckling now) executive director of a taxpayer-funded nonprofit agency that oversees a 15 acre public park. A newspaper reporter emails you and requests to know your salary. Instead of responding before the reporter’s deadline, you email a public relations adviser and ask for advice on how to duck the question. But instead of sending the email to your adviser, you accidentally send it to the reporter.

Big Oops.

You can imagine the hubbub that ensued when Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy did those very things recently. When questioned by a reporter about her salary (a very reasonable request given that about half of the nonprofit organization’s $4.7 million annual budget comes from state transportation funds – aka taxpayer dollars), she wrote an e-mail to her PR advisor, saying:

“What do you think about: 1. My writing her with the FY12 salary of 185,000 as of July 1,” Brennan wrote, noting that the documents now publicly available date only to 2010. Those documents show her base salary at $162,000. Brennan suggested: “a. Ignore; b. Write her now; c. Respond after deadline later tonight.”

Thanks to the hubbub – she did eventually have to reveal her annual salary and what her staff earns – with five staff members in all earning six-figure salaries. Her actions also sparked an editorial by the Boston Globe saying the executive director’s actions to hide her salary from a reporter “threw a shadow on the agency” and led to calls from state officials for greater transparency (read the state transportation secretary’s letter).

She also landed a story in Nonprofit Quarterly, as well as numerous stories from the Boston Herald and other news agencies, not to mention tapdancing from her board. One of those stories goes way beyond salaries and raises serious questions about how the conservancy is managing the public park it is in charge of and how it operates. The Boston Herald reported:

The conservancy, which originally was formed to maintain the Greenway without public funding, has received more than $15 million in state funds since 2005, including more than $2.5 million for last year’s $4.7 million budget.

The Greenway’s maintenance costs ran to more than $300,000 per acre last year. By contrast, it costs about $50,300 per acre to maintain New York City’s Central Park, which also is run by a conservancy.

The conservancy spent more on fund-raising — $584,000 — than the $554,000 the group took in through cash donations and fund-raisers in fiscal 2010.

Wow. It’s not hard to guess where this train is headed. What could have been a story about inflated salaries is now a broader discussion about how the organization is managed. Serious questions have been raised about its operations and how it is spending money, especially if the organization is spending more money on fundraisinge events than it is raising.

What can nonprofit organizations learn from all of this?

If you work in the interest of the public, you should be able to answer the public’s questions. Transparency matters, especially in the nonprofit sector, and even more so when it involves state funds. If you are accepting public funds, you should expect to be held to a greater level of accountability. Public funds, by default, carry public trust. Any engagement in subterfuge with how those funds are expended is a violation of the public’s trust.

If you feel you need to hide something from a reporter, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Yes, nonprofits have lots of reasonable reasons to safeguard information, esp. if they work with at-risk or vulnerable populations. But if you are acting to hide information about how your nonprofit operates and the request is reasonable, you are doing something wrong. It is very reasonable to expect that a reporter might ask how much money staff are paid, when a charity is accepting public funds. Be ready to answer the question, not dodge it.

You should be able to explain clearly why you are doing, what you are doing, and how it helps people. Nonprofit organizations ask the public to trust them to do good works that improve humanity and make life better. But good intentions are not enough to justify poor management, bloated salaries, cost over-runs, bad decision-making and subterfuge. If you can’t be reasonably transparent about your dealings and what your nonprofit organization is doing – you shouldn’t be engaged in nonprofit work.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your project, review our portfolio, sign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven


Blogging for Your Nonprofit: Nuggets from the Nonprofit 2.0 Unconference 2011

One of the sessions I enjoyed attending at the Nonprofit 2.0 Unconference was on blogging. The big challenges raised by attendees included:

  • How do you motivate people within your nonprofit organization to write for your blog?
  • How do you market your nonprofit’s blog so others will see it?
  • How do you demonstrate ROI (return on investment) to the powers-that-be for your blog?
  • How do you engage others, get comments, and see interaction on your blog?

A few of the tips offered:

  • Have a few seeds in your back pocket to spark comments and discussion on your blog.
  • Tell others you have a blog and build connections. Ask your friends and family to comment on your blog.
  • Ask questions on your blog.
  • A blog is not a thing you check off on a list – know where it fits in your communications strategy.
  • Set up an editorial calendar for your blog to help you chart out potential future posts, budget your time, and integrate your blog with other communications (my suggestion).
  • Re-purpose content from other projects. You may need to tweak it to make it blog-format friendly, but that can be a huge time-savings.
  • Reach out to organization partners. Comment on other blogs and make friends with others blogging about similar interests.
  • Do not allow the act of “writing” a blog post to overcome the time you have available for the task. Blog posts do not have to be overly long. They can be brief and just 1-2 paragraphs and be effective.
  • Comments are not the only indicator of success. Look at web analytics, likes, re-tweets, page views, and other factors when evaluating blog success.
  • Good posts that others suggested have drawn reader interest and comments – case studies discussing when things failed and didn’t go as planned, Q&A interviews with experts tend to be evergreen (never go out of date) and popular.
  • Your blog audience should be targeted and defined. Know who you want to talk to. “Everyone” is not an audience.
  • You can use your blog to update your home page by streaming the feed onto the page. This can sometimes make it easier to update the home page and give your page a fresh look (my point).
  • It doesn’t matter if the blog is built using your web software or third-party software that integrates into your site. Do what works for you and is the easiest.

Blogging: Seven Reasons Why It’s Good for You

Blogging can do a lot for a nonprofit organization, an association or a small business. But many people struggle to find the motivation to blog and wonder why they should invest the effort and time into blogging. I try to blog regularly on my website and I’ve also advised clients about blogging. I find you often don’t realize the benefits of blogging until you do it for yourself.

I encouraged a nonprofit organization client to start a blog a few years ago because their website felt very formal and institutional. In person, on the phone, and at events, the organization projected an image that was touchy-feely, compassionate, informal, accepting and embracing for the people it was trying to help. Their online voice through their website felt very brand dissonant from their actual service and behavior. Since they didn’t have much staff time available for blogging, we recruited a dozen individual people touched by the organization’s work to blog, and assigned someone on staff to liaison with the bloggers, remind them of deadlines, and edit their pieces. This spread the workload but also ensured that what was published would be professionally edited and share the organization’s voice.

In addition to keeping their home page updated and looking fresh every week, the blog posts were recycled into social media. Over time, this built a library of content that was populated into other areas of their website, giving them lots of fresh first person material that related to the population that they served.

The blog also drew media attention to the organization. A couple of reporters – one for a national television network, another a recent Pulitzer Prize winner – went through the blog posts and contacted the organization asking to interview specific bloggers. One story aired on a national television network and featured the actual blog post written by the blogger, supplemented with photos she provided. The other story ultimately featured multiple people assisted by the organization, as well as the original blogger the reporter asked to talk with, and was part of a month-long series run on a major online news network.

Here are seven tips for why you ought to consider blogging:

Tip #1: It helps you learn by forcing you to stay up to date on industry developments. Blogging can be a big kick in the rear. It forces you to be on the cutting edge of your field, to think about what is going on, and to regularly formulate your own opinion and share it. To prepare your own blog posts, you do online research, review other blogs, and consider what others are saying. A tweeted article link that you might have overlooked in the past, sparks your creative juices and has you pounding the keys. If you are writing about a program your nonprofit or association offers, you are forced to think about it in new ways when you have to write a blog post – you consider things like why the program is needed, how you will judge its effectiveness, who it will help, how it will be managed, and how you will fund it. If you are writing about a new product or service – you discuss what the product does, how it compares with others, what people think of it, or the unique and interesting story behind its creation.

Tip #2: Publishing a blog regularly forces you to create content. Blogs are always hungry – for content. You get into a content creation mentality when you know you need to feed a blog on a regular basis.Having a blog also forces you to ask others in your organization to think about content creation strategically. When your nonprofit or association rolls out a new program – it’s not just an email or a press release announcement – now it’s also a blog post, written in the first person. Blogging forces you to build a culture in your organization or company that values content creation – and this pays huge dividends. Instead of scrambling to get the staff in charge to give you photos or share information after an event, it is flowing to you. Maybe the media didn’t cover an event held by your organization as extensively as you had hoped – but you can post information and photos or a video on your blog. More than a static website, a blog shares stories and impact and comes across as more of a “living” content representation of the organization or business.  A regularly updated blog, filled with a record of activities and stories that demonstrate your impact to customers, donors, members, partners and the media, is going to win for you friends you didn’t know you needed but that you will be very glad to have.

Tip #3: Content multiplies. When you hear a speaker at a lunch, it becomes a great opportunity for live-tweeting (or micro-content creation). Then you harvest the tweets and key nuggets of information into a  blog post and reflect on how the information impacts your work. You’ve just created a record of the event and applied it to your work (and improved the likelihood that you retained the information too).  Conversely, new blog posts can boomerang into your organization’s social media presence and provide share-able content on a regular basis that feeds your social media streams. The blog can be broadcast easily on Twitter and Facebook – with short snippets shared if appropriate. If your blog is part of your company or organization’s website or home page, regular blog publishing guarantees that your website will stay updated and look fresh.

Tip #4: You build credibility by sharing your real voice in a digital environment. Blogging builds authenticity, if it’s done correctly. It can’t be just a press release or an ad copy regurgitation. A valuable blog includes the voices of real people – the people behind the scenes of an organization, association or business. A good blog allows for personality to shine through and injects a personal element into your online presence. You can also use your blog to answer common questions, discuss new research, or address myths or stereotypes in your field.

Tip #5: It makes you approachable and builds community. A blog that accepts and publishes comments is demonstrating its commitment to open dialogue. When tools are provided on the blog so a post can easily be shared in social media, it invites others to engage and become brand ambassadors for your content. When a blog can be subscribed to through an RSS feed or email posts, it helps you build a dedicated fan base for your organization or business. A blog that invites guest posts or features posts from others touched by the organization sends the message that the organization is embracing its own experience in all its facets and values these many different voices. Blogging – if managed well – can build a sense of community and purpose for an organization or business.

Tip #6: It can help you garner media attention. A blog can showcase a personal side to your organization or business to journalists. If you have issued a news release about a new program, consider issuing a blog post, in the first person, that shares why your organization is doing this new program and your commitment to it. As in my example above, a blog may expose a journalist to people your organization has helped or assisted, and the journalist may find their stories so compelling that he or she wants to feature them in a broader way. A blog can also be a valuable tool for issuing a statement on current events in the first person, if your organization or business needs to weigh in on a court decision, research development or breaking news.

Tip #7: You improve find-ability. One added value to regular blogging, is it can help you improve find-ability and search engine rankings. Newer content tends to rank better than older content with search engine algorithms. You also want to have plenty of key words populating your blog posts by organically discussing topics that relate to your work. Over time, your blog should generate inbound links from other sources, directories or partner organizations, and these will also contribute to growing your visibility and search engine rankings.

Talk to Us: What do you like (or hate) about blogging? How does blogging help you market your organization or business? How does blogging assist you as a professional?

Featured image courtesy of Search Engine People Blog on FlickR and licensed via Creative Commons.

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 for publications and websites. She 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.


Brand Ambassador Revolt Wins: Susan G. Komen Foundation Reverses Defunding Decision

This graphic is circulating online in a big way. It references
Komen’s ubiquitous pink products, and makes it clear that
a revolt is underway among the foundation’s core audiences,
who are refusing to march lockstep in brand unison
on this decision.

Like many nonprofit PR pros, I’ve been following the fireworks over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to de-fund its grants to Planned Parenthood for low-income women to get breast exams and mammograms.

I’m convinced we’ve been watching the near downfall of one of America’s most well-known and successful nonprofit brands this week, due to inept communications and a core lack of understanding about brand management, esp. when it comes to stakeholders (aka brand ambassadors). When your brand ambassadors perceive your decision-making as violating the values of the cause – they are going to revolt. Because their loyalty goes far deeper than just an organization – they’re loyal to a movement for women’s health, and waging a war against a terrible disease.

Branding is not just about getting ribbons on a pantheon of products to raise funds for your cause. For years, the foundation has been aggressive in delineating its graphic and wordsmithed incarnations of its brand – going legally after small nonprofits (even those raising funds to find a cure for breast cancer) because they were using the term “for the cure” and the color pink, which I’ve written about before. As a result, their actions have turned off some potential brand ambassadors. These actions pointed to a lack of understanding within the Komen Foundation about the values driving their supporters.

Komen’s supporters and brand ambassadors just want a cure to breast cancer – and they want better healthcare in place that can save women’s lives. The values driving them are mission/cause-focused – not organizational loyalty. When news broke this week about the Komen Foundation’s defunding of breast exams and mammograms for low-income women through Planned Parenthood – Komen’s supporters felt their values had been fundamentally betrayed by the organization. And they weren’t going to stand for it.

Komen is facing a PR mess of gargantuan proportions that will cost way more than it was giving Planned Parenthood to fix. Its core stakeholders – including donors and board members for its affiliates, criticized the decision publicly (see this post on CNN), jumped ship (the main public health officer at Komen’s national headquarters resigned over the decision to defund Planned Parenthood), logjammed Facebook with commentary (check out the Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram cause) and issuing statements expressing profound disappointment and outrage. Nonprofit consultants have also been doing a great job at dissecting Komen’s PR mis-steps – including Shonali Burke (7 PR Lessons Komen for the Cure Didn’t Know They Were Giving You, Nancy Schwartz, Kivi Leroux Miller (the Accidental Rebranding of Komen for the Cure), Beth Kanter (Komen Kan Kiss My Mammagram, PinActivism, and Newsjacking for a Cause).

This morning, the Atlantic posted some of the foundation’s internal documentation which was sent to Komen affiliates before the announcement. The documents show the headquarters knew a PR backlash to the grant defunding news was likely, but also portray a lack of understanding about their core audiences. Their local affiliates are advised to send media requests to one person – the spokesperson at the national headquarters – and given little to use to manage their own responses to what has surely been a tidal wave of outrage. It’s no small wonder that many Komen affiliates went off script and tried to distance themselves from Komen’s decision after it was public.

While writing this post – Komen announced a reversal to its decision (see MS-NBC), saying:

We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.

The events of this week have been deeply unsettling for our supporters, partners and friends and all of us at Susan G. Komen.  We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood.  They were not.

Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation.  We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.

Our only goal for our granting process is to support women and families in the fight against breast cancer.  Amending our criteria will ensure that politics has no place in our grant process.  We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.

It is our hope and we believe it is time for everyone involved to pause, slow down and reflect on how grants can most effectively and directly be administered without controversies that hurt the cause of women.  We urge everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country over the last few days to help us move past this issue.  We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics – anyone’s politics.

Starting this afternoon, we will have calls with our network and key supporters to refocus our attention on our mission and get back to doing our work.  We ask for the public’s understanding and patience as we gather our Komen affiliates from around the country to determine how to move forward in the best interests of the women and people we serve.

We extend our deepest thanks for the outpouring of support we have received from so many in the past few days and we sincerely hope that these changes will be welcomed by those who have expressed their concern.

I’m glad to see the Susan G. Komen Foundation is shifting gears and reversed its decision. Their next steps will be critically important. They’ve got a lot of work ahead – to rebuild the faith and trust of their affiliates, donors and supporters (all those brand ambassadors).
Planned Parenthood is walking away from this week with more supporters, and has already raised enough money to replace what it was getting from the Susan G. Komen Foundation – and will now have more funding available for breast health exams and mammograms. Their use of social media and messaging during all of this will surely be studied and commented on by nonprofit communicators for a long time (as will the Komen Foundation’s mis-steps).

If nonprofits can take any lesson from this – it is that no brand, no cause – no matter how great – can act without factoring the reactions and opinions of its core stakeholders to its decision making. If those stakeholders believe your organization’s actions are contrary to your brand values and core beliefs, they will revolt. For brand ambassadors, it’s not about being loyal to the organization – it’s about being loyal to the cause.

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.


Brewing Your Village: Community-Building

Zack Miller of Hatch Norfolk talks about the value of building community at TedX Norfolk and how it is happening in the tech startup community. He argues for creating smaller companies and thinking internationally and nationally. He argues we should be sharing what we are doing in our communities. He also discusses how his work in business incubation appeared in Entrepreneur magazine, which named Norfolk, Virginia one of the best communities for entrepreneurs in the United States.

Full disclosure: Zack Miller is my stepson.

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 for publications and websites. She 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.


Building Relationships with Reporters: Change Up Your Mentality

The New York City newsroom for the Associated Press

I’m often asked by other nonprofit public relations professionals, how I know so many reporters who cover stories relevant to my clients. So often people seem fixated on the media outlet names, and not the relationships. The relationships are what matters.

Tip #1: Change your mentality. It’s not just about who you know. It’s about connecting with journalists who cover topics and stories you and the organization you represent work in.

My contacts with reporters who cover military families and veteran’s affairs, will not be useful for a story about a children’s book. Unless the book is related in some way to care for the families of the fallen,dealing with deployment for military children, or has a unique angle related to someone in the military or a veteran – those journalists I know working in this field will probably not be interested in this story. Even if the book has a military tie-in, a compelling author story and great visuals in real-life that relate to the story, may be needed for a successful story pitch.

Tip #2: Don’t just blast out your news releases to any reporter at whim, regardless of what they cover. Only send your news releases or story pitches, to journalists who cover those topics. Read and watch what they write and produce, and cultivate one-on-one relationships. There are plenty of people hawking media lists and offering to blast out your news release to thousands of reporters NOW. Blasting does not build relationships. It actually drowns reporters in piles of crap not relevant to what they cover. It gives everyone doing promotional work a bad name. Blatant abuse of these media databases  is common  in the industry. Don’t do it.

One reporter I know at a major national daily newspaper, loves to share periodically on her Facebook page, what off-the-wall news release she received that day that is completely irrelevant to what she writes about. They’re hilarious to read for their insanity – but would you like to be the one who makes that mistake?

Know what a given reporter or producer works on typically. You can often see full story archives online by author on newspaper websites now. Watch and listen to the stories they create for radio or TV.

Local television and radio news are different animals. It seems I find fewer reporters at the local level in the broadcast arena who are specialists. But you may notice a TV reporter or radio reporter who, even though he or she covers a huge array of story topics, does amazing interviews that stand out. Or they are especially sensitive about talking gently with trauma survivors. Their pieces just resonate more with you. If you are confronted by a sea of generalists who don’t seem to specialize, try to work with journalists doing work you admire.

I’ll be sharing some tips tomorrow on my blog.


Building Relationships with Reporters: More Tips

Yesterday I offered some tips for building relationships with journalists so you can share story ideas and talk with them about topics that matter to your nonprofit. Here’s a few more tips.

Tip #3: Be willing to be helpful. Seriously, it is not hard to be helpful to reporters. If they need help understanding statistics or reports or policy matters. Figure it out and try to help. Don’t assume that they have time to tease out all of the intricacies of  the issues that you probably know backwards and forwards. If they ask for help finding sources, offer up a few ideas. It is not hard to be a decent person.

One way to do this, is to create a set of tip sheets on statistics or legislation your organization cares about, that you post in your online press room. Keep your statistics current and updated. That online press room is available 24/7. Hopefully, you sleep and have a life. Having that information out there helps reporters who may be time-strapped to get something done.

Tip #4: Be willing to not always be in the story, and think about long-term relationship-building with journalists with reporters. Here’s a good example. On Monday I got a call from a major international radio network seeking help locating someone for an interview. The story angle really did not intersect with any of the areas my clients work on, even though it was a similar topic. So I suggested he call a contact at another organization, that I don’t represent, but that I knew had recently testified to Congress on this very matter. I knew they could likely drum up an interviewee for him in a few minutes.

What I’ve done by doing that, is built a relationship with a reporter who knows, hey, this pr person may not have had what I needed, but she helped me get to where I needed to go for this story that was on deadline to finish up. And when I need to pitch another story on a similar topic. I’ll reach out to that reporter. Nine times out of 10, he won’t be a jerk and blow me off. He’ll at least listen to the pitch and be  up front with me about whether or not he can cover it.

Tip #5: Try on their shoes for a couple of minutes. It never ceases to amaze me how often people try to work with the media, without trying to understand their business and the deadline pressures that journalists work under on a daily basis. Many reporters are willing to meet with you just to hear your story ideas and what your organization works on, if you work in an area of interest to them. They know having a rolodex (typically electronic nowadays) of potential sources is vital to helping them do their jobs. I’ve done coffee (we all buy our own, don’t try to treat the reporter) with many reporters to talk about active stories or to pitch ideas and share about an organization.


Building Successful Cause Marketing Relationships Between Businesses and Nonprofits

An interesting article by Ashley Halligan offers tips to help nonprofit organizations forge solid and mutually-beneficial partnerships with for-profit companies. There’s some interesting advice nuggets in the article. While  business information and research are helpful – it’s important for nonprofits to remember that they are building personal relationships with businesses. And courting businesses to nurture a campaign that is mutually beneficial and in league with your nonprofit’s goals and needs can take time.

While I’ve often heard nonprofits pine for bigger cause marketing partnerships (usually after visiting the grocery store and seeing other nonprofits cashing in all over the store with placement on product packaging or at the checkout counter), many don’t realize the time that goes into building successful partnerships. One of the sources cited notes that the most successful cross-sector partnerships and cause marketing campaigns do not hit their stride until the second or third year of the campaign.

While this book is not referenced in the article, it’s also a great resource for nonprofits getting
into cause marketing. Thanks to Cambodia4Kids
for this Creative Commons licensed image
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.

Can Five Questions Change the Nonprofit World?

“Charting Impact” is a new effort by Guidestar USA, the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance and the Independent Sector to help nonprofit organizations focus on their goals and results. The five questions are:
– What is your organization aiming to accomplish?
– What are your strategies for making this happen?

– What are your organization’s capabilities for doing this?

– How will your organization know if you are making progress?

– What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?

While efforts to encourage evaluation and introspection can be incredibly useful, the reality is that nonprofit organizations who have been raising money, applying for grants, and talking to the community are already answering these questions. Any organization that has filled out a detailed grant application, applied for a public service announcement, or written an annual appeal letter should be able to answer these questions in their sleep.

While the questions may be simplistic, they bring up a good point. Nonprofit organizations do need to zero in and focus. Far too often, charities become too broad in focus and find themselves spinning their wheels. They feel like they’ve tumbled off mission by following a plethora of things that are good to do, but may not contribute to achieving their mission.

While many well-funded grant projects require evaluation (and there are some wonderful firms out there who examine nonprofit programs carefully) there is a lack of evaluative effort in the nonprofit community as a whole. Far too often, organizations are set up hastily and duplicate services. A needs assessment and strategic planning can go a long way to helping organizations find their footing. After programs are put in place, evaluation measures can be implemented to determine if an organization is on target or falling victim to mission creep and a spate of good intentions.
Good public relations for nonprofit organizations should talk about results and impart a vision for where the organization is heading. Can five questions change the nonprofit world? Maybe. But we need to reach well beyond these questions to the research, numbers, statistics, stories, impacts, and self-assessments from program recipients and staff.
The five questions are a great place to start the nonprofit sector conversation on this topic, but more needs to be done to talk about the nuts and bolts of demonstrating benchmarks and results.

Can You Turn Average Nonprofit Employees Into Rock Stars?

There’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today by Michael Michalowicz addressing small business owners, who often expect for their employees to take on greater responsibilities and super-human tasks. He notes that there is a placebo effect in how managers present a task to employees, noting:

Simply put, when you tell yourself you can or can’t do something, you not only predict your future; you make your future….If, on the other hand, you tell your employees something like, “This situation will be resolved easily and peaceably,” you’ll “placebo” your team into being a calm, rational staff behaving in a way that would ensure that your prediction is true. Again, they believe you, and the appropriate action follows belief.

There are lessons in this article for nonprofit leaders too. We all want to have staffs and volunteers that are self-motivated and take initiative and tackle projects. We often pile many, many responsibilities on our nonprofit workers. How do we make nonprofit workers rock stars?

It’s far too easy to assume that nonprofit workers don’t need to be motivated to do their jobs with silly words from a leader, esp. when those workers are talking big and seem to be dreaming big for the cause. Their dedication and devotion to a cause or program should be far greater motivators than anything we could say, in theory.

Yet many nonprofits are the tiny Davids facing giant Goliath problems. Sometimes, even with serious self-motivation to be involved, nonprofit workers do need those words of encouragement. They already know the problems that the organization needs to tackle – that’s why they signed up. Now they need a road map to follow and positive steps they can take to address those problems, even if they are small ones, to move forward. People can only operate in an environment of negativity for so long before they can’t operate any longer.

Nonprofit leaders can set a tone for how their staffs approach problems and perhaps by doing so, help them avoid the burnout that is all too common in this business.

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.


Celebrating Fearless Nonprofit Videos: DoGooder Nonprofit Video Awards

For six years now, the DoGooder Nonprofit Video Awards has been shining a spotlight on all the innovative ways that nonprofits use video.  The contest is about moving the field of nonprofit video forward and encouraging cause-video creators to try new approaches that make their work different.

The Case Foundation  is offering a special award for this year’s contest. Did you experiment? Take risks? Did you highlight a failure from your past that’s helping shape the future? Share a big idea that will inspire others to dream big? Were you… Fearless? The Case Foundation is awarding one $2,500 grant to the organization with the most fearless video in each of the four categories, as selected by a panel of special judges.

You can also win cash prizes and products from Cisco, free registrations to next year’s NTC from NTEN and see your video on the YouTube homepage on April 5, 2012 (see prize info). To enter the awards, visit the contest website by February 29, 2012, and submit your video. 

Winners will be announced on April 5, 2012.   Last year’s contest was a record setter with almost 1,400 submissions from over 800 nonprofit organizations. See past winners here  to get inspired. Read the contest FAQ.

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.


Charitable Giving in 2013: What Nonprofit Fundraisers Need to Remember in 2014

The Urban Institute published a brief summary of 2013 charitable giving. Nonprofit fundraisers should plan to pay attention to the giving season between October and December (make a note on your calendar now!). The other interesting facet found in IRS data – people at the highest end of the income spectrum (and the lowest) tend to give the greatest percentage of their incomes to charity. While many nonprofits chase the “big money” with foundations and grants, it’s important to build individual giving – 72% of all contributions were from individuals. They also found that people who tend to give to religious organizations, tend to give more money, and that Utah is the most generous state.

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.


Church Opens Up About Abuse: Lessons to Learn

The Washington Post ran an incredible front page story yesterday about Vienna Presbyterian Church in northern Virginia and the congregation’s struggle to deal with sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse of a dozen young girls by a youth minister.

The original abuse was uncovered when one survivor bravely came forward, but when another tried, she was rebuffed. The fact that the congregation had been previously warned about inappropriate contact with a minor by the abuser by another ministry when he was hired, should have sent off alarm bells when the first girl came forward and triggered a serious internal investigation. Even though their denomination offers a sexual abuse response team to work with churches, the congregation tried to keep things quiet.

Members of the congregation raised money for the abuser, allowed him to bid farewell to the youth group even after he was ousted for abuse, and wrote dozens of letters vouching for the abuser’s character to a court when the abuser was tried. The message their behavior sent abuse victims was stifling and hurt. Now six years after the abuse ended, the church is still struggling to move through this incident and wrestling with it.

Just like corporations and traditional nonprofit organizations that are not faith-based, churches can make similiar mis-steps when it comes to communicating during a crisis. By not confronting what happened honestly and openly, the church created an environment where they appeared to betray their most deeply held values and suffering festered.

A little over a week ago, Pastor Peter James delivered what was the most difficult sermon of his life and apologized to the victims in public, for the very first time. He said:

“We failed as leaders to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed. Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed for this abuse. I am sorry. The church is sorry.”

What can we, as communicators, learn from this church’s experience, in facing our own organizational crises?

1. Understand the extent of what happened. Don’t pretend to not see what happened, or brush off other concerns. This is the time to look around – eyes wide open. Look at the impact of the situation on the organization and understand how far things went. A bad situation will fester into a cancer that consumes your organization if you don’t.

2. Always be upfront and honest. Don’t try to hide a serious problem or “handle it” internally by keeping things quiet.

3. Ask for help. The church messed up in many ways by not involving people who understood abuse and how to deal with it within the context of a faith-based organization. They put the 15-year-old girl who came forward about his abuse of her sister, in the position of having to confront the abuser with her accusations – a painful and damaging situation. The church forced him to resign but waited a week to call child protective services (unconscionable). Had the church involved someone with training in handling abuse (such as their denomination’s response team that assists congregations in dealing with situations like this) they might have avoided some of their early mistakes.

4. Communicate clearly and honestly. Look at your actions large and small, and what they are saying.Tell people what happened and say you are sorry. In a situation like this, you want to extend compassion and support to those who were victimized. Understand how small actions contribute to overall communication – by writing letters vouching for the character of the abuser, helping him move, etc. – the congregation sent a very loud and accusatory message to those victims.

5. If you mess up, you can find a way forward. But it may be very difficult. Your response should be heartfelt and consistent with your values as an organization. Even if you don’t handle things well in a crisis the first time around, you can reach forward. The keys are owning up to what happened honestly and taking real-life steps to show you mean it when you say you’re sorry. The church has now set up a ministry to help abuse victims and is reaching out to own up to its mistakes.


Confessing My Content Addiction: What I Read To Keep Up

Daily reading over coffee is not just a newspaper
but includes social media filters and email news alerts.
This photo is licensed under Creative Commons.

Since I wrote last week about how nonprofit PR pros should focus their reading to keep up with news and industry trends, I thought I should evaluate what I read. It’s mind-numbing to realize how much stuff I have coming to my inbox every day, but I don’t read all of it – I skim it and pause when something catches my interest. Still, one could easily argue that my content addiction rivals my caffeine requirements.

To keep up with the news each day – I usually cruise my iPad in the morning and evening to check on the major networks and newspapers. I get daily e-newsletters and some alerts from the Washington Post, Politico, The Hill and the New York Times. I have at least 20 Google Alerts that send me news about my clients and the topics they care about on a daily basis. I cruise Google News periodically during the day.
Because I have a few nonprofit clients who work with veterans and surviving families, it’s important that I stay on top of news in that sector. So I get the Early Bird (the media summary from the Pentagon which is shared with the nonprofit community by an association), the Early Brief, the TIME magazine Battleland blog e-newsletter, and Politico’s Morning Defense e-newsletter.I also like the At War blog by the NY Times, which I read online.
I skim the National Law Journal e-newsletter every afternoon – since I have a legal assistance nonprofit client that specializes in veterans benefits, and look at the Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) news summary each afternoon. I get newsletters from Huffington Post on topics that matter to my clients, including coverage of baby boomer issues, health, and several others.
With association clients who work in higher education, I read Inside Higher Ed every morning. I also get Academe from the Chronicle of Higher Education and other alerts the Chronicle publishes on higher ed topics and community colleges. I still glance at Education Week, and subscribe to some non-daily specialized e-newsletters so I can keep on top of things. And like many PR people, I scan Help a Reporter Out (HARO) and Reporter Connection to see if any of my clients might fit the journalist queries posted.
I get e-newsletters from Nonprofit Quarterly, Chronicle of Philanthropy, PRSA, MediaBistro and Association Media and Publishing, as well as the Daily DoGooder from YouTube which highlights a great nonprofit video each day. The LinkedIn and Yahoo Group Digest formats help me check on groups I subscribe to. I use list and hashtag features in Twitter to filter what I read.
A few books are usually jockeying for my attention as well – typically about social media or nonprofit communications and leadership. Some of them hang out on my “to read” list for a long time. Twitter for Good has been trapped there for a long time. And with book club tonight, I’ve been steamrolling a novel for fun instead.
I skim to extract what is helpful and delete the rest. If I don’t have time to read things because news is breaking or work is piling up – I know there will be more news arriving tomorrow and hit delete.
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.

Conquering the Jitters on Capitol Hill: Tips to Help

Testifying for the subcommittee on June 23, 2011

I testified before the U.S. Congress House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Memorial Affairs & Disability Assistance in June 2011 on behalf of TAPS about improvements being made at Arlington National Cemetery.

Needless to say, I was a little nervous about undertaking such a venture. I was rather shy in school and rarely spoke up in class. I gave some rather disastrous public speaking presentations while in high school, but improved in college and on the job at being able to talk in front of groups, largely because of my involvement in ministry and social action. I once gave a presentation for Habitat for Humanity at a huge church where I literally clung to the podium for dear life, I was so terrified. I was actually trembling I was so nervous. I did a job interview early in my career that bombed. So I resolved to get better and improve my presentation skills. I studied, rehearsed and practiced. So I totally understand when people get stage fright about public speaking. It is not a skill that comes easily to me and is something that I have learned I have to practice and prepare well for.

Testifying on Capitol Hill is definitely the big leagues for public speaking. It’s a time-loaded presentation, followed by Q&A, and televised live on the Internet (and often on C-SPAN). Every syllable you utter is recorded and transcribed for the Congressional Record. And you do all of this in front of elected officials who make major decisions impacting the lives of millions of people and the media too. There may be photographers and video cameras. Talk about a pressure cooker.

To prepare for my testimony, I sought advice from others who had testified for similar congressional hearings. I collected advice from veterans who’ve testified on capitol hill, legal advocates who’ve spent years pounding the halls of Congress requesting improvements, senior military leaders, and seasoned political staffers. Here’s some of the best advice I got, sprinkled with some of my own observations and thoughts:

  • Tell the truth. Plain and simple.
  • Organize your written and oral testimony to be easy to understand.
  • Number the items you are talking about, e.g. #1, #2
  • Your written submitted statement can be longer than your oral statement.
  • Pick 1-2 things to highlight in your oral statement. Your testimony may cover a broad topic, but highlight the things that need changing the most, that the panel can help with.
  • Share your best example or horror story.
  • When you sit down at the hearing table, pour yourself a glass of water, even if you are not thirsty at the time. You may get thirsty later.
  • When sharing your testimony, try to look the panel members in the face, and do not stare down at the pages. They are so accustomed to people reading from a printed page, you will stand out by looking at them.
  • Rehearse potential questions with others who are not entirely knowledgeable on the topic, so you can think through how to explain key concepts.
  • Try to end short so you do not run over your allotted amount of time.
  • Get your points in early.
  • Remember, it is their show.
  • Bring a friend along to sit in the audience for moral support.
  • You didn’t do anything wrong. They are not out to grill you. They just want to understand the experiences of surviving families.

I got some great advice and I tried to follow it as much as possible. I have to admit when I sat down at the table when my panel was called, and I looked up at the dais in this gorgeous room on Capitol Hill, there was a huge butterfly in my stomach. But it went ok. I just did my best to follow my plan and share what I had come there to talk about.

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