Holiday Cards: Forging Relationships with Reporters

This holiday card by Pasado’s Safe Haven shows a rescued pup

It’s the holiday season and many nonprofits sent out weeks ago their infamous “end of the year” fundraising appeal letters, aiming for last-minute holiday donations from well-wishers (who also don’t mind getting a tax write-off). Many nonprofits focus on end of the year fundraising, but have you ever considered the value of simple holiday cards for relationship-building with reporters?

I’m always surprised when I encounter nonprofits that don’t send out holiday cards. Some view them as a stodgy antique from the past, or as a luxury they simply can’t afford (after seeing what the larger nonprofits do when they specially order holiday cards with their logos and program images and lamenting that they could never afford anything half as nice). The big boys have a point – holiday cards can help nonprofits build relationships with donors, the media, supporters, and partners.

For some nonprofits, a holiday card image can be a great opportunity to be a little playful with your mission and cute – in a way that nonprofits often can’t be. Even if you don’t have a big budget – printers today have more options for customizing cards – including simple layouts where you can pop in your logo. While it’s better to send a card that reflects your nonprofit’s mission and work – even just a regular box of Hallmark cards will work just fine. Pick something in tone with your organization and its work.

As a public relations professional who works with a number of reporters on behalf of nonprofits – I see a lot of value in sending holiday cards from the nonprofit to the reporters they’ve worked with throughout the year.
I constantly remind nonprofits – media relations should be about forging long-term relationships with reporters. Sending simple holiday cards are an easy way to foster and build those relationships.

It’s rare in our society today, that people hear the words “thank you” and sending a card is a great way to express your gratitude and wish them a happy holiday season. Many people today only get holiday cards from vendors selling services, not people who just want to say thanks for support or help.

The holiday card is a great opportunity to thank reporters, producers and others who have helped the agency throughout the year. Conveniently, it also reminds reporters about your organization and what you are about. When they return to their office after New Year’s – there your card will be – hanging in their cubicle in the newsroom – a reminder to call you about that story – and a reminder that you are a decent person who knows how to say thank you – and isn’t just in it to sell them another story.

Keep what you write in the card short and sweet – thank them for their help this year and wish them a happy holiday season. This is no time to pitch a story, followup on a call, request a donation, or ask for a correction. Just be neighborly and gracious.

And yes, some people did already send out their holiday cards this year and it’s December 14th today – but you still have time for this year to send out a few cards to reporters you want to thank. You don’t have to do a lot – just send a handful to people you worked with this year on stories.

A number of nonprofits also raise money (and awareness) by selling holiday cards for supporters to mail out to friends and family. The card shown above by Pasado’s Safe Haven shows a rescued pup wearing a fun Santa hat, and they sell these cards to raise funds and awareness. Don’t forget to mark your calendar for next year’s holiday cards – so you can get started earlier if necessary.


How Not to Flounder on Facebook: Tips for Your Nonprofit

Quite often, I hear about nonprofit organizations starting a Facebook page and floundering. They launch a Facebook page without consideration for the medium, the audience, or their own goals and needs for their organization. To make it even worse, usually someone in charge (who did not launch the page) has heard a rumor about another nonprofit that is raising thousands of dollars on Facebook with just a few clicks, and wants for you to do the same thing overnight, while continuing to do your other job responsibilities.

So how do you rescue your nonprofit from flopping around and become a tech-savvy nonprofit using Facebook with expertise? These five tips are a starting point to rescue your nonprofit from floundering on Facebook.

1. Set goals for your organization’s Facebook presence. What does your organization want to gain from being on Facebook? Do you want to connect with existing donors and supporters? Are you hoping to meet new donors and supporters? Are you planning to raise money for your programs? If you are mainly just trying to claim some Facebook turf because someone told you to – can you consider that maybe your organization could gain more from this form of communication? That you might see other dividends, in the form of closer relationships with supporters and a less formal face to your mission?

2. Keep the tone conversational. Facebook is an informal environment. This is the place where people share photos of their children, comment on sports teams, and play games like Farmville or other computer games using the best gaming accessories from sites as Your tone should be conversational and not just PR-ese or news release copy. If posting a link to a press release or a program page, write a more informal comment with the post.

3. Ask for engagement.  Ask questions with a photo so your organization stands out. Invite your Facebook users to talk about things that matter to them and relate to your nonprofit’s mission. Acknowledge key dates and holidays that matter to your supporters.

4. Add Facebook to your organization’s website and email signatures. You would be surprised how many nonprofits forget to add a link to their Facebook presence to their website and email signatures.

5. Use a social media calendar. As nonprofits acquire Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts and compete for attention, the need for scheduling outgoing communications has gotten even more significant. It’s an information-heavy world, even for nonprofits. If you have two programs jockeying for Facebook time, schedule them over two days. Try to post regularly on Facebook – once per day is great. Look at your comments and “likes” – determine what is the best time for you to post information by the level of user interaction you attract.

6. Appoint staff time for managing your organization’s Facebook page. Yes, Facebook can be added to another person’s job responsibilities. But it does not take care of itself. Tending and feeding of this medium is required. Don’t forget to cross-train a few people and share the passcodes among the staff, so if someone is out of town or gets sick, you don’t have any way to update.

7. Do not set up your nonprofit organization as a person.  Setting up a nonprofit entity as a personal account on Facebook like a person violates the terms of use, and can get your account deleted. I am always amazed when I see groups on Facebook who are still doing this, and have heard some horror stories from those who have been busted. Set up your account as a nonprofit organization.

8. Familiarize yourself with the tools and monitoring capabilities. Set up notifications for comments so you can monitor them in real-time and not be surprised by a phone call from a higher up who just went on your page and found something alarming. Learn how to read the Insights reports Facebook will email you and look at the numbers weekly.

9. Design policies for commenting and posting on your nonprofit’s Facebook page. What comments should be kept on your Facebook page? If another organization posts information on your page and is trying to raise money, for a similar cause, do you leave it or delete it? If someone is posting a link to promote something that might be useful to your supporters/members, should you leave it, or delete it? If someone goes on the page and posts something obviously crazy, then do you keep it or delete it? And what qualifies someone to be banned as a user? If a researcher goes on your page and wants to solicit your members for research, are you ok with that? What about a reporter who is fishing for a story, comment or source? What about internal policies for your staff about what qualifies for a Facebook post?

10. Remember – it’s about building relationships. Facebook is another avenue for communicating with supporters, donors, and the public. Ultimately, it is about furthering your organization’s relationships with these key audiences. To do that, your conversations on Facebook must be real and authentic, not just auto-feeds, pleas for money, and press releases. This is a format that rewards sincerity and invites sharing. It’s a great opportunity for many nonprofits to share their stories and missions.

These are just a few tips – here’s some additional online resources to help your nonprofit manage its Facebook presence:

Facebook Best Practices for Nonprofits by Heather Mansfield at Diosa

Nonprofits on Facebook

Facebook 101 for Nonprofits


How the Top 50 Nonprofits Do Social Media: CraigConnects Gives the Scoop

Are the top nonprofit organizations using social media effectively and how are people responding? CraigConnects examined Facebook and Twitter postings by the top 50 nonprofit organizations in August and September 2011. All of the organizations in the study had net incomes over $277 million dollars.

Far and away, PBS had the most comments on Facebook with 17,205 comments during the two-month study period. It’s closest competitor was Planned Parenthood, with 6,577 comments, followed by the American Red Cross (5,336 comments), the Nature Conservancy (5,254 comments) and Susan G. Komen for the Cure (3,782 comments).

PBS was also the most “liked” on Facebook with 928,605 fans, followed by World Vision (656,152), the Metropolitan Museum (555,992), Susan G. Komen for the Cure (499,661) and ALSAC/St. Jude’s Research Hospital (476,270). PBS was a second in terms of Facebook postings with 211 posts in two months, compared with Food for the Poor’s 220 posts. Feed the Children made 209 posts, the United States Fund for UNICEF made 175 posts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art had 120 posts.

No surprise – PBS ranked #1 in Twitter followers with 840,653 and was the most talkative on Twitter with 877 posts over the two-month study period. PBS ranked second in following others, with 174,137, behind the American Cancer Society (200,522).

It should be noted that even the smallest organization in this study, had a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars. So they potentially had the funding and staff time to learn social media technologies and hire consultants to help them as they built social media presences. Yet for all their dollars, that didn’t necessarily mean social media success. A number of the larger nonprofits have low numbers – with YMCA of the United States with only 176 Twitter followers and Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home with only 134 Twitter followers. Both didn’t join Twitter until 2010.

But for an early adopter like Operations Blessing International Relief, early adoption of social media technology didn’t necessarily mean followers in the hundreds of thousands. Even after 3 years on Twitter, the organization only had 2,306 followers – a far cry from the American Red Cross’s 534,006 followers. The American Red Cross joined Twitter only 5 months before Operations Blessing International Relief.

What’s the good news in all this for average, run of the mill nonprofits? First, money did not always equate to dominance, even among these larger nonprofits. PBS ranked 31st in funding, yet was #1 in Facebook comments and likes. The researchers noted when looking at Twitter activity, that quality seemed to matter more than quantity. The researchers note that a commitment to fostering conversations and interactions, matters more than money, when it comes to the social media space.

Because the researchers at CraigConnects only looked at the 50 largest nonprofit organizations (in terms of budgetary size), the results may seem disheartening to smaller nonprofit organizations, who may be doing quite well at engagement in social media. 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.

See the infographic summarizing the report.


How to Pitch a Blogger

A glowing post on a blog frequented by people likely to empathize with your nonprofit’s cause can be a PR bullseye. But how do you reach out to a blogger to talk about your organization and suggest a post or visibility?

First of all – you need to know what a blog is. It is an online “web log” or journal, written by one or more people. A blog may be devoted to a particular topic or niche group of interests. You need to read blogs that cover your field to understand how dialogue is structured and the topics that crop up.

You need to understand the blog you want to pitch. Read several posts on the blog. Look at the comments and see which posts have tended to attract more comments or interaction. Read the “About” section if there is one. Try to understand who is writing the blog and what he or she cares about.

Comment on a post. Select one of the posts on the blog and write a brief and appropriate comment. DO NOT pitch your organization for coverage or visibility right off the bat. Just try to contribute to the dialogue that the blogger is trying to foster.

Pitch a story that will be of interest to the blog’s readers. The temptation is sometimes to beg – but the reality is that you will get covered by a blog, when the owner thinks you have a story of interest to his or her readers. Write a succinct email to the blogger and suggest a good story idea. Demonstrate in  your note why you believe his or her readers will be interested.

21 Tips on Pitching Bloggers

11 Tips to Pitching Bloggers

How Not to Pitch a Blog


How TV News Changes Are Impacting PR for Nonprofits

To save money and maximize profits, many TV news stations are making radical changes to their staffing plans. Instead of keeping seasoned reporters and anchor people around, they’re opting not to review contracts on middle aged and older staff.

The departure of three well-known news anchor women in Baltimore from local TV news stations and the loss of sports staffers from the Washington market, certainly sparked consternation. Bob Papper, a journalism professor at Hoftstra University and author of a major media industry study, told the Baltimore Sun that finances are a big consideration for stations:

Stations have found they can do just as well in the ratings with one anchor as they have done for decades with two. And dropping an anchor who is making $200,000 to $250,000, as a veteran anchor in Baltimore can do, is an instant and significant savings.

“That’s four to seven positions or more,” Papper says of the $250,000 figure. “And as new media become more and more important — and those are young people being hired in many cases right out of school — that’s a whole bunch of positions you can fund by cutting just one veteran anchor who comes up for renewal.”

Today’s news operations are getting leaner and meaner, they’re hiring younger staff and jettisoning “seasoned” reporters and anchor staff, and they’re shifting their reporting styles to cover what’s popular. So what does this mean for communicators working at nonprofits who are trying to share their story with the media?

Don’t assume that a reporter will spend a lot of time understanding your issue or program. I went on a six hour shoot last year with a reporter who was covering a major story about one of my clients that had broad implications to thousands of people. It was the longest shoot I have EVER done with TV news – covering two locations in different parts of the city. The TV crew included a reporter, a producer and a camera operator. But that’s highly unusual. Typically, you can expect a reporter to stick around maybe 20 minutes to an hour. Sometimes a little longer. And nowdays, the same person might be operating the camera and doing the interviews.

Expect to see more pool footage in big markets, and make friends with the people running the pool footage operation. I held a news conference last week for a client at the National Press Club to announce a major settlement in a class action lawsuit helping veterans with PTSD who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I got a call an hour before it started from the local DC TV pool group. This organization actually sends a camera person, occasionally with a local producer from one of the participating stations, to events to film b-roll and collect interviews that are utilized by all four TV news stations in the Washington, D.C. market.
They were planning to arrive late (after the news conference) and were hoping that we could linger a bit so they could get some interviews. Of course – we lingered and talked with them. And sure enough, a story ran. I monitored all 4 stations to see which ones picked up the story.

Expect more solo camera people who double as reporters. It used to be you would see a TV news crew pull up in a van, and there would be a reporter in the passenger seat, usually talking on the phone setting up the next story. And there would be a guy driving who was often the camera person too. Increasingly, local tv stations are hiring young reporters who can shoot footage and gather interviews as solo operators, as well as edit the stories back at the station. My stepson was actually hired in this role for his first job out of college with a journalism degree, with a CBS affiliate. While he was sometimes paired with a reporter, he was often on his own to collect footage, voiceover the story and get it on the air.

The studios at WBAL in Baltimore.

Be aware of the time. TV news has always been very driven by the time of the daily newscast. Don’t expect for the reporter or camera person to linger for hours to get a few shots or wait for someone to get out of a meeting.But these changes in the TV industry today mean that the reporter often has even less time to try to understand your story, and is usually in a big rush to get footage on the air in time. The closer it gets to evening air time, the more stressed reporters are for time. If you are planning an event, don’t time it for right before the evening newscast.

It’s imperative that you be organized for a story pitch. Have your statistics, interview sources, and background materials ready before you pitch a story to the media. Be able to explain your issue clearly and succinctly to the reporter, so he or she can clearly understand what you are trying to say. They are more reliant on public relations staff today, than ever before, for the materials and research for a story.


Integrating Social Media Strategies: Care2 Webinar Sept. 28

Getting your social media outreach and other campaigns in synch can be challenging. Care2 is offering a free webinar on Tuesday, September 28 at 2pm EDT on “Cutting Edge Integrated Social Media Strategies.” Here’s the description:

Join Alan Rosenblatt, Associate Director of Online Advocacy at Center for American Progress, Garth Moore, Internet Director at 1Sky, and Justin Perkins, Director of Nonprofit Strategy at Care2 for a discussion about cutting edge integrated social media strategies . Alan will discuss some of the latest techniques he has used for building community and cultivating superactivists at the Center for American Progress, and Garth will share a case study of using Care2’s new Social Network Tracker Data tool to rapidly grow 1sky’s Facebook and Twitter fan base via email campaigns, and identify and cultivate some of the highest-performing activists – both online and offline – in the process.

Register online to attend.


Is the Kony 2012 Campaign a Flop? The Jury’s Still Out

Nonprofit Quarterly ran an interesting article about the Kony 2012 campaign fizzling out. The writer looks at several issues, including issues with Invisible Children effectively mobilizing its base for Make Kony Famous and Cover the Night  on April 20, questions about where the money raised is going, the fact that Ugandans (including some of the people appearing in the Kony Part II video) were upset by it and found it mis-represented their country, and the satires and lampoons that happened in the popular media based on the video and its creator’s mental breakdown.

It also raised a lot of questions about Invisible Children as a nonprofit, with the international NGO community asking where this small organization came from, that had produced this moving and emotional video that garnered the most hits ever on YouTube. I can’t help but think that some of the criticism, at least, was jealousy, that such a small group, unknown in broader circles, had stirred up such a ruckus. The crush of attention was so paralyzing that the film’s creator was hospitalized and images of him running naked in the streets became associated with the campaign and stimulated a flurry of additional media reports.

Instead of this being a nonprofit fairy tale where the bad guy gets captured and the good guys get what they came for, it’s become a case study in how rabid success can overwhelm a small nonprofit and its leaders.

It’s also sparked commentary from Ugandans and a new campaign called Stop the Pity by a nonprofit called Mama Hope which views the Kony 2012 video as feeding into stereotypes about Africans. They’ve released three videos using humor to create new perceptions of Africa and show it is full of capable people with the potential to support themselves.The aim is to create a new conversation about the continent and humanize the people who live there.

By and large, Invisible Children seems to be holding its own, but the organization is facing renewed scrutiny of its activities, memberships, fundraising, and work on the ground in Uganda. Invisible Children reported $13.7 million in revenue on its 990 with a significant amount held in assets (about $6 million) and a little more than 80% of funds going to program expenses. Charity Navigator gives the nonprofit a four star rating for financial management and a two star rating for accountability and transparency.  It’s Charity Navigator rating was lowered 15 points for not having an independent voting board with at least five members. The charity’s audited financials were prepared by an independent accountant, but it did not have an audit oversight committee. As a relatively young nonprofit founded in 2003, Invisible Children has still got some growing to do.

But is the Kony 2012 campaign a flop?

It definitely simplified the situation – and stirred ire among people who feel the Kony 2012 video mis-portrays their country and stereotypes Africans. But it also got Americans to talk about Africa a lot more than we have for a very long time. It’s garnered huge press attention in the United States and gotten people talking about something that to date, had never captured their attention before.

It did get us to talk about the warlord’s crimes. Kony and his weakened Lord’s Resistance Army continue to terrorize villages. Since leaving Uganda several years ago, they have targeted villagers in a triangle of forests straddling the Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan. Since 2008, the LRA has killed more than 2,400 people and kidnapped at least 3,400, according to the United Nations. Last year the LRA displaced 466,000 people.

The campaign sparked officials to do something. A rare bipartisan effort to condemn Kony is underway on Capitol Hill. The Associated Press reported that US Special Forces are involved in the hunt for Kony (attention an advisory military mission might not have garnered, were there not a campaign drawing attention to it) and President Obama also affirmed his commitment to helping locate the on the war criminal and bring him to justice.

The campaign demonstrated the power of social media in a new way. The numbers are staggering, with 88.9 million views on YouTube for the original Kony 2012 video. In an interview with the Washington Post, Invisible Children’s founder says their original goal was for the video to garner 500,000 views in a year.

It also affirmed the ability of a nonprofit organization to stir attention. Is Invisible Children perfect? No. Is their video perfect? No. But have they gotten people to talk about an issue and weigh in? Yes.

I think the jury is still out on whether the Kony 2012 campaign is a flop. This fairy tale soap opera nonprofit saga still has a few acts to go.

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.


Keeping Your Website Re-Design From Sputtering: Tips to Help

It all starts so promisingly. You envision a website with clean design elements, clear copy that demonstrates your organization’s passion and uniqueness, and pristine navigation that directs clients, volunteers and donors to their respective pages. On this new website, no one will ever complain about not being able to find something, not properly showcasing a program or project, and users will understand how to interact with your organization.

Sketch of’s re-design in progress

Then you start the re-design. You enthusiastically meet with co-workers, gather input, get clarance from the boss, and start dreaming outside the box. You sketch flip charts full of navigational structure diagrams and mock up a new home page. You look at social media tools, photos, and think about best practices in web design and how your site will “speak” and interact with its core audiences.

Then,the reality of the re-design -with roll-out needs and time lines, people who must be “in the know” or want to offer feedback, and the sheer size of it – threaten to overwhelm you. Your enthusiasm – when the navigation looked so tidy, the new home page design was so awesome, and the ground rules for referreeing the home page seemed so clear – has  slipped away. How do you re-capture the heady momentum of early days and prevent your website re-design from sputtering to a slow and painful halt?

1. Block time. As much as you can. 
Doggedly schedule conference calls and planning meetings if you are working with a team. Don’t settle for just meeting – each person should have at least one accomplishment that moves the project forward to report. Block time outside of project team meetings to work on your tasks related to the re-design.

2. Listen to feedback, but don’t allow other voices to sabotage the project.
One thing a website re-design will bring out of the woodwork is a cacophony of voices – the program manager who thinks his program must always be on the home page, the obsessive compulsive editor who wants to approve every detail, and the doomsday naysayer who thinks the database will proverbially bite. All of these voices may have input to offer, but they can be momentum suckers. Meet with the people with concerns one-on-one or in focus groups, but do not allow the project to be steamrolled by a cumbersome project committee comprised of everyone with an opinion. Structuring a mechanism for listening to and responding to stakeholders can address their concerns and allow you to keep momentum.

3. Keep the dream team on task.
Hopefully, you asked your boss to help you assemble the team you need for the re-design – the real team to do the work – whether that’s staff, or staff plus consultants. Only put on the team the people you need to implement the re-design. If the team has been meeting for a while and feels stuck creatively – talk openly about your concerns and how to jumpstart your productivity. Maybe you need to look at new designs, take a break from your regular meeting format and do some exercises to expand your creative vision for the project. Maintaining a sense of community within the team, is an important part of keeping a large re-design project on task.

4. Draft a plan for the re-design. And follow it.
It’s amazing to me how often organizations – complex ones – with large websites – will start a re-design without a project plan in place. Sometimes this happens because of the creative process. One person started sketching and shared a vision, and others latched onto it and started moving forward. Sometimes it is easier to hold a committee meeting than to write a plan – but too many committee meetings and not enough action will leave you feeling like your wheels are spinning. It’s important to draft a plan for implementation with a time line for the website re-design. Hold yourself accountable to the deadlines in the plan. If you get off kilter or out of synch – whip out the plan and revise the time lines to something that is realistic.

5. Facilitate conversations – to get approvals and keep the re-design moving forward.
Sometimes a re-design sputters because the project team is waiting on valuable feedback from above. The team is eager to move forward, but their early drafts and versions are waiting on critical approvals. Park your butt outside the boss’s office. Get on the calendar. Do what you have to do, to get designs and copy approved. While you’re waiting, keep the team moving forward on the project implementation plan, as much as possible. Sometimes the re-design sputters, because of technical glitches. Perhaps an outside company was hired for the re-design, but the organization’s internal IT staff will need to maintain the pages and critical technical components must be in synch in order for the transition to be seamless. Getting all of these people talking to each other can be really important. You may have to facilitate these conversations and continually ask if follow-ups are happening.

6. Keep your focus on what’s important.
Remember why you started the re-design in the first place. You wanted a website that clearly communicates with volunteers, clients, staff and donors. You wanted a site that not only spoke to people, but allowed them to speak back through social media components. You wanted to have a website that truly showcases how your organization makes a difference in the world Sometimes writing down a few keywords – of what you really want in a web re-design – and putting them up in your office – can be a big help. Cheesey? Perhaps. But when you get stuck in the muck – an inspirational note may help restore your focus on what’s really important.

Your nonprofit organization’s website is your window to the world. If your website re-design sputters – you can get unstuck and get back on track.


Legal Protections Extend to Social Networking Site Features

We PR people often have to protect our clients from, ahem, themselves. And social media sites offer plenty of opportunity for clients to do a great job promoting themselves and the companies and organizations they work with and support. Unfortunately, they also open up an abyss of trouble.

Recently, as part of a copyright infringement case, a federal court ruled that comments and messages to a restricted set of users on a social networking site are protected from discovery, reports the National Law Journal.

According to the writers:

The ruling could permanently change the way “social networking” sites are viewed by businesses and those involved in litigation. The decision also appears to offer the first in-depth analysis on the effect of “privacy settings” found on many social networking sites and whether information is protected from discovery by federal privacy laws.

One of the biggest things about the decision – privacy settings matter – the court ruled that private messaging features on social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, are private communications, similar to email messages. It also ruled that wall posts on Facebook and MySpace to only a restricted number of people, are protected.

For more information about the case, look up Crispin v. Christian Audigier Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. Lexis 52832 (C.D. Calif. May 26, 2010).


Livestrong Foundation After Lance Armstrong: Will It Survive?

CBS News has an interesting piece on the Livestrong Foundation and its efforts to dis-entangle itself from disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and launch a new identify apart from him. The news story and the charity’s efforts beg the question – will one of America’s most well-known charities survive a crisis of epic proportions, or go by the wayside for good?

Now I’m not so sure. In the past, I have praised the Livestrong Foundation for making many of the right moves in handling the crisis precipitated by Lance Armstrong and thinking about its own longevity, so it could continue to help cancer survivors. But today, I can’t do that.

Their website sets the right verbiage with a dominant “Mission Above All Else” greeting site visitors. And the online features about cancer survivors with touching personal stories are prominent. But their actions don’t exude the right tone for a charity on a comeback.

If  I had been hired to give Livestrong advice on how to work its way out of the trick box the charity has landed in, I would have suggested that they tally up the number of people who want their money back. Then look at their rainy day fund, and start writing checks. While most charities don’t give refunds on donations, the reality is that  some donors feel cheated – and a few are so disillusioned that they have launched a lawsuit to try to get their donations back. The amount of headache that such a lawsuit will cause, the dirty laundry that it will unearth, the financial cost it will entail, and the media stories that will continue to link the charity to Lance Armstrong’s misdeeds, could do significant damage to a struggling brand. The CEO’s “on point” message –  that “a small, tiny percentage of people” want their money back – is also a big target. If only a few people want their money back, then why not apologize and send out some checks? And move forward with a clean slate.

I would also recommend that the Livestrong Foundation seriously consider ditching the color yellow, which is still featured prominently on their website and permeates many of the products and fundraising events for the organization. I’m sure plenty of branding experts told the foundation’s PR staff that their equity in yellow was so high, that they would be crazy to abandon it. And I’m sure many of their supporters and the families they serve still love yellow because they associate it with the foundation’s work that has touched their lives. This is the organization that got millions of Americans to wear plastic yellow bracelets and launched a nonprofit envy-craze for awareness bracelets that has never fully abated.

But here’s the problem -yellow = Lance Armstrong. The color yellow is so well-known for its linkage to the winning jersey of the Tour de France and associated with Lance Armstrong, that the color yellow is a “scarlet letter” for the Livestrong Foundation. So long as yellow permeates the Foundation’s branding, the taint of the Lance Armstrong scandal remains for those who aren’t sure they can trust the foundation.

If the Livestrong Foundation is going to survive, it needs to soothe the wounds of its supporters, abandon the last vestiges of its relationship with Lance Armstrong, and chart a new future built around its mission.

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.


Lowering the Stress Load: One Working Mom’s Ideas

My life as a public relations consultant is pretty busy – there’s always press releases to write and send out, reporters to call, campaigns to design, websites to overhaul and clients to work with. But I’m also a working mother with a toddler, a husband, and three grown stepchildren. I work from home a few days a week, and I bop around Washington, DC visiting clients usually 2 days a week. As a working mom, I know I need some breaks for me – but they can’t be lattes mutliples times a day – because that will make me both fat and mega-caffeinated. Here’s a few things I try to do to keep myself happy and operating on a lower stress level.

Lower the overall volume of email I am handling on a daily basis. I was getting way too many emails on a daily basis that were just crap – filling up my phone and email account with junk I had to skim over and delete – every day. I am unsubscribing like crazy from stuff I don’t need. Leapfrog emails promoting their products? Gone. Driscoll’s berry promotion emails? Toast. Amtrak weekly updates on my account? Over. Jetblue/Travelocity/Expedia/Orbitz promotional emails? See ya the next time I am planning a trip. Thanks to all the deleting, I’ve lowered the overall volume and made it easier for important messages I care about to attract my attention.

Get some exercise. Sometimes this feels counter-intuitive (what – add one more thing to our schedule 3 times a week?!) – as I am giving up time with our toddler sometimes in the morning to go to the gym – but I’ve found that I’m a happier and better Mommy and worker bee when I’m healthy. I’ve also added walks with the stroller and my daughter to my exercise mix. I’ve combined gym time with reading time for my book club (making gym time much more appealing for me) too, which has made going to the gym less onerous. I joined a gym in October and while the holidays did a number on me getting to the gym to work out – I did manage to lose a few pounds, and I feel better about myself.

Read a devotional once a week. I resolved for years to read a devotional a day – and every year I failed at doing that. Starting with a goal of one a week – I can handle. Blogger and virtual friend Susan DiMeckle, an attorney and mom with three kids, has started publishing a Friday devotional for working moms on her blog and Facebook. Susan is also the author of Chasing Superwoman (which I reviewed on this blog). Susan talks about many of the issues that I wrestle with as a mom and a person of faith. Her Friday devotional topics coming up:

January 13:  Do Working Moms Have More Guilt?

January 20:  Why Do You Work, Mom?
January 27:  Working Moms: Do You Feel Alone?

Drink herbal tea and water more. Have less coffee and virtually no soda. While I still have coffee every day, and I LOVE a great latte (coffee is the one vice I will probably never give up fully) – I’ve discovered that hydrating more makes me happier and less stressed out. And while giving up soda was a stretch for me just because I had a soda habit for about 20 years – I find I am happier without it.

Schedule stuff for you. I do Saturday morning breakfasts with my girlfriends and bring along my toddler, who everyone loves to play with and see. I also go once a month to a book club discussion – which keeps my head out of work stuff to some extent (without this book club – I would never read ANY books not related to PR, social media or nonprofit management) and helps me stretch my mind and interests a bit.

Get one-on-one time in with your children. And your spouse. Keep a routine and stick to it. We live in a world where hyperconnectivity means people expect us to be “on” all the time. I’ve told clients that I go off the clock at 6pm and unless they have a media emergency of mega-import – that family time is not getting interrupted. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are not every day. I’ve also found it’s challenging for my husband and I to get time together – so scheduling a babysitter a couple of weeks in advance forces that one-on-one time for us to happen. We are also trying to eat at home more and out less – which gives us more time together as a family – and is cheaper.

Got tips or ideas to share? Moms who are out there – what are your tips for lowering your stress level and being happy?

Oh the life of the working at home mom. I have done this.
And so have many other women too! See my ideas on
keeping the stress load manageable.

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.


Making the Most of #GivingTuesday – Tips to Help Your Nonprofit

Disgusted at seeing Wal-Mart shoppers duke it out on CNN for Black Friday deals? Want to see charity come back to our holiday season? Arriving on the heels of CyberMonday, #GivingTuesday is a movement to create a national day of giving on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Consultants, nonprofits and others have been tweeting excitement for the event on hashtag #GivingTuesday for weeks, but if your nonprofit wants to participate tomorrow, you still can. Here’s a few tips to help.

Communicate clearly what contributions can do, so potential donors can visualize the impact of their gift. Many nonprofits keep a set of examples like this on file as part of their standard fundraising materials, but if you don’t have them on file, now is a good time to draw them up. What will donations of $10, $25, $50, $100, $1,000 do? Write out a basic list that you can tweet in small bursts. Try to connect the donation with the impact that your organization is working toward.

Fire up your Twitter account and draft tweets today for tomorrow. Tweet under hashtag #GivingTuesday on Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Stagger your tweets out across the day, so you overlap into multiple time zones. Communicate your organization’s mission clearly and share how others can help. Using a service like Hootsuite can allow you to advance program tweets over the course of a day and set up a campaign to run on Twitter in a few minutes. If your day tomorrow is full of meetings, the campaign can still roll out without you being chained to your computer or smartphone.

Write one great story of how your organization is making a difference that you can share online. Many organizations keep a few success stories on file for this purpose, but if you don’t have one, now is a good time to draft one. If you have a blog, an easy way to update your website, or a Facebook page, share one good story of how the organization is helping someone. Aim for a personal story. Write 1-4 paragraphs on someone who has benefited from your organization. Then add a paragraph at the end about how the organizations helps many more people, and cite current program numbers, statistics, etc. Now make an ask – explain what giving can do to help your organization. Link to a donation page on your website. Add one great photo to accompany the story that showcases your organization. After publishing, you can share this story on Twitter, Facebook and other venues.

Monitor Twitter and other social media sites on #GivingTuesday and amplify. Watch for tweets that mention your organization. Re-tweet and favorite those who support your organization. Thank those who share information on Twitter about your organization. Recognize any new followers that start following your account by doing a simple “Thank you to our new followers @…” post on your Twitter feed. Share the impact of #GivingTuesday on your Twitter feed in real time – if that includes calls from people wanting to volunteer, donations that arrive for your organization, etc. Comment back on Facebook to those who post and watch your blog for comments.

Cross post information about #GivingTuesday on your website and other social media accounts. Post information about Giving Tuesday and your organization’s participation on Facebook, Twitter, your website, and other accounts.

Don’t despair. #GivingTuesday worked last year.  According to organizers, “Blackbaud processed over $10 million in online donations on 11/27/12 – a 53% increase when compared to the Tuesday after Thanksgiving the previous year. DonorPerfect recorded a 46% increase in online donations and the average gift increased 25%. More than 50 million people worldwide spread the word about GivingTuesday – resulting in milestone trending on Twitter.”

Track your results. Pull donation records from last year for the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Compare how donations measure up this year. Don’t forget to track non-monetary aid – like Twitter shares, offers to volunteer or in-kind donation offers. Using these numbers, put December 2, 2014 on your calendar, so you can plan ahead for participation for next year.

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.


Making the Most of Your Public Relations Internship

Internships play a vital role in helping young professionals make professional contacts, improve their skills, and see the real world links between what they are learning in the classroom and the real world. Here’s some tips on how to make the most of your internship with a nonprofit organization or an association:

Talk with your supervisor about what you’d like to learn – emphasize skill areas, not just tasks. Understand that what the organization or association needs may be very specific and well-defined, but let your supervisor know the areas you are most interested in. Even if your role involves a lot of prescribed tasks, he or she can keep an eye out for opportunities for you to work on those special areas of interest.

Don’t be a prima donna. Public relations can be a lot of hard work – and even drudgery when we are sorting thru media lists, doing database entry, tabulating media totals, and fretting over the minutiae of an event. Yes, there are moments of glory when we get to be in the spotlight as PR pros, but more often than not, we are shining attention on someone else – be it a cause, organization or industry. Don’t expect to be interviewed and in front of the cameras yourself.

Embrace hands-on learning. Offer to help when it’s obvious there’s a need for extra hands. Be willing to pitch in and get yourself a little messy if needed. Many nonprofits and associations are fairly small and staff pitch in to help on many projects, even those outside their area of expertise.

Write, write, write. One of the best skill sets you can walk away from an internship with, is the ability to write well under pressure. Nothing builds that type of skill set better than the real world pressure cooker of deadlines in the workplace. Ask your supervisor to help you in this particular skill area if possible. It may be-newsletter copy, tweets, brochure copy or a news release – but try to write if you can.

Journal about your experience. Reflect on what you are learning and write at least one paragraph a week in a journal about your internship. Record your observations and note the linkages between what you are doing and what you hope to do as your career progresses.

Get a reference letter. Always ask your supervisor to write a reference letter when you finish your internship and if you can list him or her as a reference. This will help you when you want to apply for other jobs.

Maintain a portfolio. Keep samples of what you worked on during your internship. Screen shots of a website, blog or social media posts can be helpful. Copies of printed materials you worked on are also useful.

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.


Marketing Volunteer Opportunities to Baby Boomers: Is Your Nonprofit Ready?

Baby boomer volunteers have a lot to share.
Thanks for the photo.

A recent article by the Associated Press noted that many nonprofits are hoping to inspire baby boomers to volunteer. These plus 50 adults are highly sought after nonprofit workers because they are well-educated, healthier, and have tremendous experience.

These boomers want to contribute in a meaningful way but they’re also busy people with a lot on their plates. Some are caregivers for other relatives and many will continue to work full or part-time. It’s important that volunteer opportunities being marketed to baby boomers be be skill-based, allow them to use their expertise and experience, and offer flexible hours or work arrangements.

Examine your volunteer brochures, web pages and materials. Are all of the images only younger people? Consider making a change so older adults can envision themselves as part of your nonprofit’s mission and vision. Make sure your staff understand the value of baby boomer volunteers and the energy they can bring to your organization.

For more helpful tips, see Keeping Baby Boomers Volunteering: A Research Brief on Volunteer Retention and Turnover from the Corporation for National Service, or the Resource Center.

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.


Matching Donations: How Do Small Organizations Do It?

Thanks to Beth Kanter for this great YouTube video featuring a Foundation staffer discussing how their small organization met a $50,000 match in less than 30 days. The Petersburg Community Foundation is devoted to improving the lives of the young, the elderly and vulnerable populations as well creating recreation, education and safety programs.


Matt Damon’s Toilet Strike: Will’s Awareness Campaign Go Viral?

I first heard about Matt Damon’s toilet strike campaign to raise awareness about the need for clean water from PR Newser – a great score for a nonprofit fueled by Damon’s celebrity involvement, since PRNewser usually worries more about big corporate PR failures and dust-ups in the media than nonprofit campaigns.

The YouTube spot announcing the campaign (which cost in the five figures for nonprofits thinking about emulating it) features a spoof press conference (the journalists are way too tidy to be real) where Damon announces he is going on a toilet strike and delivers some key statistics about toilets and clean water which can save lives. More than 780 million people worldwide don’t have access to toilets and more people have cell phones than have access to toilets (and good sanitation).
The campaign website invites users to get involved by loaning their Facebook statuses or Twitter feeds for a few weeks to share key information in the buildup to World Toilet Day on March 22nd. It also asks them to share photos supporting the strike using hashtag #strikewithme and streams photos onto its campaign site, and promises more videos and follow-ups.

According to an article in the UK Guardian, the campaign was influenced in part, by the success of nonprofit Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign (which I wrote about here and here) which is still getting hat nods in conversations about whether or not ads can be manufactured to go viral. The Kony 2012 video got tons of views and people talking and watching a LONG video – even if the grassroots organizing component around a day of action didn’t work so well.

Will the combination of celebrity, humor, connections to media giants Google and YouTube, and social media involvement fuel the campaign going viral? Maybe. The spot strikes an almost oppositional tone, but it has gotten people talking about something none of us normally would talk about – which is at least the point of starting a campaign. A Google news search for “strike with me” yielded 81,200 results. has designed their campaign with easier involvement pieces than the Kony 2012 project and a shorter video, with the benefit of star power and powerhouse online media pushing the campaign. This campaign may take off where Invisible Children’s project didn’t. I’m rooting for it to go well.

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.

Media Controversy: CNN Draws Ire of State Dept. Over Treatment of Late Ambassador’s Family

The late Ambassador Christopher Stevens

CNN drew a sharp rebuke from the State Department this weekend, which called the network’s behavior “disgusting” after the network broke a promise to his grieving family to not report on the existence of a journal kept by slain US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died in Benghazi, Libya.

Erik Wemple from the Washington Post gives a detailed description of the negotiations the network undertook with the family. The late Ambassador’s family never had the opportunity to build trust with CNN, because CNN made several critical errors in how they approached and talked with his family – which stand out to me even more so because I have worked with Anderson Cooper’s team at CNN and many others at CNN who have demonstrated sensitivity to grieving military families within the past year. Here are the problems I see that perhaps other journalists and advocates could learn from:
Mistake #1: Not using a higher-up person at CNN to talk with the family. The State Department said it was a relatively junior staff member who called the family, not a higher-up executive. Meredith Edwards is credited on CNN’s website with news-gathering often in tandem with others, but is not a well-known correspondent, on air personality or upper level news executive. A google search about her turns up little information on her role at CNN, other than reporting credits shared with others.
While several media outlets, including CNN, have postulated that the State Department was interested in squashing the journal because it showed the Ambassador’s fears about security, the reality is that the State Department employees entered into a role as a middle man between CNN and the late ambassador’s family without any knowledge of the journal’s contents. State Department officials have said that they never read the journal.
Most trauma survivors, like this bereaved family, are not public figures with news media savvy and PR people to help them. They are private and ordinary people, thrust by tragic circumstances into the public eye. It would make sense that the family would reach out to the State Department for help in negotiating with CNN, when they got a phone call from CNN saying the network had their slain loved one’s journal and wanted to report on it. While plenty are now trying to read political intrigue into the State Department’s involvement, my sense is the PR officials got involved to try to help the family of their late colleague.
A better option would have been to deputize a senior level network executive or a known personality to talk with the family and should have carefully thought about what to say when it called the family to ask for permission to report from the journal. While CNN quickly involved upper level staff when the State Department got involved, CNN staff should have realized at the very outset before placing the first phone call, that calling the late ambassador’s family required the utmost sensitivity and care.

Mistake #2: Not realizing how much the family didn’t trust them and considering the perspective of the family. It’s a minor detail in the Washington Post account, but an important one – the fact that the family declined to give CNN an email address so it could read the transcript of the journal immediately. The State Department served as a middle man to relay the email file to the family because the family didn’t trust CNN enough to provide an email address.

This was a highly publicized death that sparked public statements from the upper most levels of our government and even became fodder on the presidential campaign trail. Horrific images of the dying ambassador were broadcast worldwide and a media maelstrom erupted around his grieving family. This is a family who loved someone who died violently, suddenly and publicly while serving his country.
My sense is that the family had to be reeling in shock and grief – and was just trying to find some footing, when CNN came knocking with news that it had his journal in its possession. To know that a news agency has ALREADY TRANSCRIBED your loved one’s journal and wants to report on it – would add to your feelings of violation. For people who have gone through a traumatic loss and are not accustomed to working with or responding to the media, it may feel easier to trust an intermediary or the organization your loved one served with to assist with a media request.
If you were the grieving family of Ambassador Stevens – would you want to have his journal – as soon as you could? Would you have provided an email address right away? Even if you didn’t want to read it immediately – just so you would have it? I know that when my brother died in Iraq while serving with the US military – I found it important – but hard – to look at his papers and images on his camera that came back months after his death – but in part I felt driven to do that because I wanted to understand better what he did before he died. But others in my own family did not feel that way nor find comfort in it. Each family and person is different, in terms of how they cope with loss.
For the last ambassador’s family the journal presented a gift – but also a conundrum – for how could they grant permission to publish something they had not read? Perhaps the family surmised that CNN might use email contact away from the  eyes of State Department officials  to continue its conversations with the family – which had not gone well to that point – so they were willing to wait and use the State Department as an intermediary. At a certain point, grieving people just can’t take any more and focus on the loss of their loved one – something that news agencies and their timelines often struggle to relate to.
Mistake #3: Asking the family for permission to report on the journal, and then not complying with the family’s wishes. If CNN ultimately planned to report on the journal’s existence and use it for reporting regardless of the family’s response, CNN should have asked the family a very different set of questions than it did, and been very clear about its intentions.
Frankly, one might think that a news agency would simply start reporting from the journal immediately – and not notify the family at all. News agencies can do things like that. CNN didn’t do that – not in the least. They did call the family. I have sometimes talked with families who had no idea how the media got information about a deceased loved one and had to hunt it down for themselves or call the media to try to get access to the materials. There are no good choices in a lot of these scenarios – often only really painful ones.
According to media accounts, CNN told the family that they wanted to report on the contents of the journal and asked the family’s permission. The family declined to give permission, and asked for the journal to be returned so they could read it privately and make a decision about what to do. The family asked CNN to not report on the journal’s existence (which would surely fuel more requests and media pressure on a grieving family) and to not report on its contents. CNN promised to not report on the journal’s contents or its existence to the family.
While CNN has refrained from quoting from the journal or showing it on air – last week Anderson Cooper reported on the existence of the journal and said that CNN had used it in its reporting.
Mistake #4: Getting the short story when the long one might ultimately be more meaningful and insightful for reporting. What did CNN really gain from its reporting about the journal and breaking a promise to the family, that it could not have found in some other way? CNN’s statement makes no reference to the journalistic imperative of the content – rather that it reported on the journal due to questions about the network’s behavior.

The reason CNN ultimately reported Friday on the existence of the journal was because leaks to media organizations incorrectly suggested CNN had not quickly returned the journal, which we did.

Let me get this straight – CNN – an international news network with considerable stature – felt it had to report on the journal because of what other people were saying about it? One would think CNN was getting bullied from this statement.My suspicion is CNN knew that its dealings with the family had gone so badly – that it feared another news media outlet would “scoop” it on the journal because the family would never want to deal with CNN again – and those fears overrode the promise to the family. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I would hope as this terrible chapter in journalism wends its way into case study status – others might learn from it and not repeat these mistakes when dealing with trauma survivors.
 I am sure that there are many good people who work at CNN who found this treatment of a grieving family deplorable. I have worked with many journalists at CNN and call some of them friends. Many times, I have seen CNN journalists really work to share the stories of grieving families in ways that are respectful and appropriate – which is part of why this whole episode is so bizarre to me.
This episode has likely also cost CNN what might have been a valuable relationship with the family. I would not be surprised if the family were to go to another news outlet down the road, when they are ready to talk.Updated 6:27pm – September 24, 2012
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.

Media Ethics: Is It Appropriate to Publish Images of Dead or Dying People?

US Ambassador Christopher Stevens

US Ambassador Christopher Stevens

I followed the news this week about the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as well as their Libyan guards, at the consulate in Benghazi on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Yesterday I was horrified to see images online of the injured and dying ambassador, which many outlets opted not to run (although some did – including the NY Times which ran an Agence France-Presse image in their online gallery of the dying ambassador and prompted criticism from readers and a commentary from the reader representative). NY Times staff felt the photo had “journalistic imperative” and proceeded to splice hairs on how the photo was labeled saying:

It’s notable that the caption stopped short of saying it was a photo of Mr. Stevens’s dead body. The caption reads, “A man, reportedly unconscious, identified as Mr. Stevens.”

As if people would not know who it was. Or this absurd splicing of nuance would blunt the pain felt by this man’s family and friends. The NY Times reader representative went on to say the news outlet was justified in running the photo, because it has run photos of other dead people as part of its news coverage.

Often those photos though are run without a name and show war deaths or civilian deaths en masse – it is not a situation where a major media event is reporting that four people died, with only two names available – leaving little doubt as to who the dying people are.

To make it even worse – the NY Times proceeded to argue that had only a more graphic image was available, they might not have run it:

“I can understand why people feel it’s more disturbing to see a photo of an American, particularly an American diplomat,” he said. For that reason, he said, editors chose a relatively distant image of Mr. Stevens, and placed it in the last position in the frequently updated gallery, where it would be less prominent. If only an extremely graphic photograph had been available, it might not have been used, Mr. Fisher said.

I was appalled by the photos online and the comments by the NY Times staff about them – especially given that the image they are running in the gallery on is not “relatively distant” but one of the more up close images available.

Graphic images like these define a person by the moment of their death – not the years of life and service. I couldn’t help but think of the Ambassador’s family and friends who were just finding out about this horrific tragedy – knowing that these images taken of the Ambassador in his last moments or after his death on the Internet would add to their sorrow and grief – and that the photos would live forever online.

The professional bereavement community counsels that seeing images like these can often complicate grief further for families and friends.  Bravo to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal for choosing to not use the photos.

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.


Media Relations & Suicide Prevention: What I’ve Learned

Two months ago I went to Florida to support media relations for the TAPS National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar. It was a time of healing, sharing and comfort for hundreds of people grieving painful losses.

I still remember the first time TAPS held the event in San Diego in 2009.  It was the first time the organization devoted an entire weekend program to the needs of military families grieving deaths by suicide. In 2009, the congressionally-mandated Department of Defense Task Force on Prevention of Suicide in the Armed Forces arrived ahead of the event and held a field hearing to listen to families grieving these terrible losses and gather data on how the system could improve and prevent future losses. It was like a huge ball of pain sat in the hotel that weekend with us – the pain of these families was so present that when I called my husband, I said it felt like the walls of the hotel were crying, there was so much pent up sorrow pouring out of these families. My role included prepping families to share with the task force, working with media on-site, and even working with Sesame Street which was creating a video about the experiences of grieving military children. I arrived home to Virginia emotionally wiped out.

Over the years. I have supported dozens of military families grieving deaths by suicide in sharing their stories with the media. And I learned a few lessons that I think are insightful for anyone working in media relations with trauma survivors.

You have to feel it. You can’t do PR for something like this, if you don’t empathize. I had suffered my own loss when my brother died in action in Iraq in 2007, but my experience was very different from the experiences of these families grieving deaths by suicide.  My pain was mine, and theirs was theirs. I wouldn’t begin to say I understood how they felt. I knew loss and my brother was killed in action while serving in Iraq with the military, but I didn’t know the stigma and shame that so many of them carried because their losses involved suicide. And I could see how that stigma affected their pain and perspectives.

I was deeply struck by these military families and their pain. It was so palpable. The  speakers, workshops and support groups at the events clearly offered them a lot of help. But it was in the quiet moments – when I sat with a family in the art therapy studio, or encountered a young widow smoking outside who was angry at her late husband, or saw a family sob a river of tears over a photo in a slide show – that their sorrow came surging forth, threatening to drown us all.

It would be easy when faced which such emotion and sorrow to shut down. But I don’t think you can antiseptically detach yourself completely from suffering. No matter how thick an emotional barricade you erect – these stories would still get to you. You have to walk alongside them in it, even if you don’t fully understand it. That doesn’t mean you have to sob with them, or spill your own sorrows out, but walking alongside them to support their stories means you will listen, understand and honor their stories by seeking the right venues to share them (or protect them from intrusion when it’s not desired). Being entrusted with a story of sorrow and pain is a unique trust.

Give people options that always give them control. So often with trauma, people are living with a horrible feeling of lost control – often something happened to them, or to people they care about, that they had no control over personally. It was not their choice for a loved one to die in a terrible way. This is incredibly disorienting for the survivors left behind to grieve.

In talking with families about sharing a painful story that involves a death by suicide publicly, I try to give people a sense of control. We talk about realistic options, goals in sharing (what do they want to see happen as a result of sharing publicly), and making choices that help them feel comfortable and contribute to dialogue, if that is what they want to do. Families can talk to press without limits, can talk to press with some limits, can talk only to one reporter, can talk through intermediaries, or can avoid talking at all. Even in what many public relations experts would call a no-win situation, there are always choices that can be made by families. And choices give people back a sense of control, who may feel that so much in their lives is beyond their control.

But media attention by default, involves a loss of control. Because the story is entrusted to a reporter who will interpret it, write it, probe it, and position it. It is important for these families to understand that. And once a story is in the public eye there is even less control. The story can be criticized, dissected and broadcast. This is especially hard for people who are already dealing with a feeling that life is out of control in their personal lives because of a tragedy.

You have to provide support. While the media can provide a powerful lens that focuses public opinion, it can also hurt people. The responsible approach helps families think ahead of time about what they should consider before going public. They should consider whether other relatives know about the nature of the loss and how they will react. They should weigh how going public will affect other family members or children and their healing. And they should evaluate their own personal health and strength and how that might be impacted by additional stress.

It is always their story, and it’s important to emphasize that to people who feel like they have lost some control in their lives. Talking to a reporter, especially about personal matters, is sometimes uncomfortable and nearly always unfamiliar to people who have suffered trauma. It can help to practice and also to humanize the reporter and talk about how an interview is typically conducted.

Families often need someone to help them look at their story and consider how to put elements together.  The family sees an entire life spread out before them – how do you summarize that in 10 minutes for a talk in a community forum? What do they know? Are there elements that relate to others?  Do they know prevention information to share? Is the goal to inform others about mental health care and prevent other deaths by suicide? Can the story be told in a way that is understood and clear? Can they handle the fact that an element of the public may post hurtful comments ore negative comments about their loved one if the story appears online, or that the story will be online for the rest of their lives?

And during an interview – it’s important for survivors of trauma to feel comfortable and supported. That might mean having a grief counselor in an interview with them, or a close friend for support. It could mean doing an interview in a location away from home, or in their home, depending on their comfort zone.

You have to educate yourself. There is evidence that certain types of reporting about suicide can contribute to contagion, or copycat deaths. Research indicates that contagion is more likely if reporting glorifies the manner of death, shares intimate details from the scene of the death or about the manner of the death by suicide, or presents suicide as inevitable, and as if there is no hope of not completing suicide. Even the language we use – when we say commit suicide, we are passing judgment on the manner of the death – contributes to stigma about suicide. It’s important for public relations professionals working with survivors of suicide to educate themselves on the research and best practices. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has issued a great resource with recommendations for reporting about suicide.

You have to believe that walking in pain ultimately leads to something better. I don’t think you can work with trauma survivors doing media relations if you do not believe that the result of sharing a story that includes pain and sorrow can lead to something better – whether that is better understanding, improved legislation, more willingness on the part of the public to seek mental healthcare, etc. You have to believe there is a greater purpose that can come from sharing. You also need to take care of yourself if you are walking alongside people who have suffered in sharing their stories. Sometimes that belief in an effort leading to something better can be all-consuming. It’s important to take care of yourself so you don’t burn out.

Note: Photo courtesy of Harold Lloyd, who was kind enough to offer it through a Creative Commons license. Source available here.

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.


Media Relations 101: Don’t Make Spam, Build Relationships Instead

Having good intentions to improve the world, is not an excuse for sloppy media relations. One of the most common media relations mistakes I hear about is using a blast email list to distribute a news release. The nonprofit may have an email list from the last communications director on file or subscribe to one of the media databases with access to thousands of email addresses for journalists.

Before you start hitting send, consider who you are sending your news release to and what result you want. You should only send your release to reporters or assignment editors who are covering this type of event of topic. If the news release for an upcoming event in your community, local media assignment desks should be top priority.

I’ve heard many a reporter complain about having to mass delete dozens, if not hundreds, of news releases that are completely irrelevant to what he or she actually covers. Don’t add to the spam news release logjam. Wanting to solve society’s ills does not excuse mass-email bombing.

Don’t send your release or story pitch to the sports desk, if the event has nothing to do with sports, or to the station meteorologist if it has nothing to do with the weather. Clogging email inboxes of reporters with news releases they don’t need, only wastes their time and causes them a lot of headaches and aggravation.  It may also guarantee you and your organization’s domain name a fast track listing on a spam filter.

Instead, you want the opposite reaction. In the harried world of today’s 24-7 feed the beast media outlet, you want to stand out as a helper, not a pest. You want to provide a story idea (typically by email or phone) that is compelling, newsworthy and interesting, to a journalist who covers the topic or shows some degree of interest. You don’t want to overwhelm with information, but provide enough material so they have a sense of what’s possible. If your topic is timely or links to a national trend or story, you’ll want to mention those too.

The goal should not be just a story about an upcoming event. The goal should also be building a relationship for your organization with the reporter. Over time, a relationship with a journalist who understands your organization and the issues you work on can be incredibly valuable. He or she may ask your opinion when a story breaks, cover events your organization is holding, introduce you to other reporters and also explain what types of stories will work for the media outlet.

The only way to target your media pitch to the right journalist – is to do research. That means you need to read the newspaper, watch the local news at 6pm, or listen to the morning newscast. Listen to how the reporters are identified in the stories and what topics are covered.

If you subscribe to a media database, use this as a starting point. Even if you don’t, news media websites often list reporters and their beats with contact information. Search the online story archive or google a reporter’s name to see what types of stories he or she covers. If it looks like you have a match, add the reporter to your list. Note how often this person is publishing stories and what topics are covered. Send him or her your story idea or news release. Follow up with a phone call.

Is this time-consuming? Yes. But 5 good relationships with reporters, are worth way more than 5,000 off-target spam emails that infuriate the recipients.


Media relations and surviving families

I try to be upfront with reporters about what may be possible, in terms of locating a family or expert to speak with them. On some topics, like suicide, it can be harder to find a family that is open to sharing. But many families see sharing about their loved one is a way to honor their service and life. So some families are open to it.

When I reach out to a family and ask them to share their story in a public setting, I am vouching for that reporter with my credibility, and often asking the family to make a decision about sharing something that is deeply personal to them. So it’s important I know what the journalist is planning and the angle he or she is going to take, so I can talk with the family about what to expect and they don’t feel surprised.

I had a photographer contact me recently with some questions. He had been embedded with a unit in Afghanistan and while the unit was in a firefight, was taking photos. He realized later that he had captured images of this family’s loved one’s final moments. He never published those photos, but he wanted to talk with the family, offer to share his experience if they wanted to ask him any questions, and offer them the opportunity to see the photos if they desired to do so. This was not for media coverage – just a private talk he wanted to have, that he felt he ought to have, with this family. He was making a special trip to visit them, but wanted to know from me what kinds of questions he should be prepared to answer from them. He wanted to know what he could say that might comfort them or be helpful for them in coping with their loss.

Unfortunately, in this line of work, sometimes we do get a few challenging requests from journalists. The biggest challenge is usually time and deadlines in the news business, that are beyond everyone’s control. Sometimes it’s hard to find a family on a quick deadline that is in a few hours that is open to talking. Families often need a little time to consider a story request. Occasionally a story concept will be unrealistic. And sometimes, the journalist has a pre-conceived script in mind or is just focused on the story angle and oblivious to the fact that there are people involved.


Media Relations When Tragedy Strikes

I have to admit, I didn’t set out to develop an expertise in media relations for organizations working with trauma survivors. Missing and exploited child issues, domestic violence, wounded warrior mental health, veteran disability issues, suicide, and the traumatic bereavement of military families are not cheery topics. And I have worked on all of them. And continue to work on many of them.

But the reality is that if no one knows about the nonprofit organizations that serve these populations, survivors will not find them, donors will not support them, and these resources will not exist for trauma survivors. So having good public relations support in place – that supports trauma survivors and facilitates engagement with the media – is critical.

Conversations in Public Relations recently interviewed me about my work with TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which helps families who lose loved ones who serve in the military. Here’s my interview discussing some of the challenging situations that come up and what it was like during the Fort Hood tragedy:

I know unfortunately, in an all too personal way, the very difficult decisions that often face surviving families when it comes to sharing their stories and the crush of media and public attention that can invade their private space. I’m a military survivor myself – my 22-year-old brother, US Army Spc Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Baghdad, Iraq in 2007. As a spokesperson and public affairs representative, I often work with surviving families as they think through the implications of sharing their stories.

Ninety-five percent of the journalists I work with are great people who respect surviving families and want to share their stories with dignity. I’ve had journalists say that they want for the family to feel  proud of the story and that they don’t want to betray the trust of the family. They know the family opened themselves up to share, and want for the family to feel like sharing their story was worthwhile.

I may have come across in the video as more closed to media coverage than I truly am. I know a number of surviving families who are open to talking with a reporter in their home, because it often allows them to share items left by their loved one or special mementoes. But I also don’t like to hear a request for an in-home interview within the first 20 seconds of my initial conversation with a reporter. Reporters need to realize that they are working with families – who have often experienced and are living out a trauma in their home – and so sometimes that is a lot to ask.

I’ll be upfront with a reporter and explain that especially with military loss – where families are often notified of their loved one’s death by the arrival uniformed officers arriving on their front stoop – images of the family’s home – especially the outside – are often haunting and traumatizing to families.

It may be appealing to the videographer to photograph the outside of a home so they can do a voiceover, but often families have very legitimate concerns about safety – both emotionally and physically. Widows with children and surviving parents sometimes worry about their homes being identified in the media or singled out. It’s well-known that families of our fallen receive life insurance funds – and some worry they will be targeted for crime or scams.

If a reporter is invited to go to a family’s home, I’ll often talk with him or her about having a conversation (ahead of time, before the camera is rolling) with the family about what is ok to film.

I enjoyed talking with Mary Fletcher from FletcherPrince at the TAPS office. She is very personable and easy to talk with. I think she was worried she might traumatize me by asking me about my brother, and even asked if it was alright to bring it up. We talked about him and my own experience with loss and media relations at the interview, although that didn’t make the final video cut.


Meet the Media: AP Religion Reporter Tom Breen

Associated Press (AP) religion reporter Tom Breen recently gave a lengthy interview to Get Religion, about his perspective on covering faith and religion for one of the largest news agencies in the world. He was originally drawn to the religion beat by genuine interest in the types of stories waiting to be told and shared.

He was helped along the way by editors who appreciated stories about religion – a rarity amid a newsroom landscape that often seems to ignore faith and devotes minimal amounts of shrinking resources to it. About his editors, Breen wrote:

“One of them put it to me in a way I’ve always remembered: compare the amount of resources the press spends on covering primary elections, he told me, with the number of people who vote in primary elections. Now compare the resources spent on covering religion with the number of people who attend a weekly worship service.”

In the interview, he talks about the growing role of social media and blogs in helping him locate story ideas and reach out to sources. Any faith community or faith-based nonprofit that wants to be part of critical stories that impact our society should take note of his comments, and realize that social media engagement is one piece of an outreach strategy. One of Breen’s most helpful comments goes to building bridges of trust between faith communities and reporters:

“I’ve had plenty of experiences where I’ve called a member of the clergy or a layperson for a story on a religious topic and as soon as I identify myself as a member of the press, they react like a babysitter in a 1980s horror movie hearing the words, “The calls are coming from inside the house!” One of my fondest wishes is that I will one day be able to make people understand that the vast majority of reporters want just two things: to tell a good story and to get it right. And the only way reporters can tell good, true stories about religion is by developing relationships with people who know faith and aren’t afraid to trust their story to someone.”


Millennial Women Go for Work-Life Effectiveness, Change How We View Work

There’s a great article in the November 28th Washington Post looking at how millennial generation women are changing how we think about work. More than 9 percent of millennial women in the DC area are working full-time from home offices, which is higher than the national average.

An education consultant interviewed for the story said how her family didn’t initially believe she worked for a “real” organization because it is a virtually run firm. Taking a more fluid approach to work allows people to focus on their jobs and the other things in their lives that are important to them – helping them achieve what the other calls “work-life effectiveness.” An interesting observation in the story is that work-life balance can leave people feeling out of balance, simply because with today’s working hours and always-on technology, it’s impossible to really devote 50% of your time to something other than work.
While millennials may be normalizing working from home as acceptable, in my opinion, many of the women who came in the generation before them who started telecommuting or consulting from home were the trailblazers who bucked the water cooler socialization system. Technology has been a huge driver in fueling new ideas about work and how we collaborate with each other.

Another nugget I liked, was when an executive for nonprofit fundraising software maker Blackbaud, talked about why she chose to hire a young woman named Emily Goodstein.

“I can teach systems and process, but I can’t train someone to care,” Gressler told me one morning at her office. “I wanted Emily even if she only stayed for a short time.”

The emphasis in hiring people who don’t just view work as “just work” but who view work as an extension of themselves and their values – is a huge shift. Many people bring great skills to jobs, but demonstrating caring and commitment to a job or a cause set some apart.

Millennial women are changing the way we think
about work and confident in the future, says this article in the Washington Post

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.


My Most Popular 2012 Blog Post: Lowering Your Stress Load, One Working Mom’s Ideas

My most popular 2012 blog post was Lowering the Stress Load: One Working Mom’s Ideas, with nearly a thousand page views. This particular blog post got a head start on the others in racking up page views because it was posted on January 6, 2012, so it had all year for people to find it, but I’m still pleased to see others found it interesting enough to look at. It’s not surprising, given that balancing work and family life remain one of the biggest challenges working parents face.

Many of my own suggestions written for this post in January 2012 were linked to my New Year’s resolutions. In giving myself an honest assessment of how 2012 went with these ideas – I have cut back on the higher caffeinated lattes and we are eating at home a lot more frequently these days. I try to cook one large item (e.g. lasagna, pan of enchiladas) on Sunday that we can “eat on” during the week to take some of the stress out of cooking an evening meal on days I am downtown.

The volume of email coming in continues to be a challenge to manage – I am doing a new round of “un” subscribing for the New Year. I am also trying to work more efficiently, searching out ways to better manage social media, keep tasks under control, and trying to use down time to get work done, instead of staying up later.

I can’t say I did well at getting back to the gym in 2012 – my efforts were half-hearted, but staying more physically active (and going back to the gym on a regular schedule three times a week) are on the list again for 2013. I have found that our local Methodist congregation’s daily email morning devotionals are one of the easiest ways for me to retain my spiritual anchor. Scheduling “stuff for me” has worked to some extent – although I did bail on book club a few times this year just because I wanted to spend time with my family (but thankfully I didn’t ditch book club because of work obligations).

Perhaps the greatest challenges we face as working parents are:
(1) to say “no” occasionally to things we don’t really need to be doing or don’t have time to do, and
(2) to opt for the simple route, rather than the most complicated.

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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