Teen Twitter Flap: A Governor’s PR Staff Learn a Lesson the Hard Way

The blogosphere and media have had a field day lampooning Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s staff for their heavy-handed response to a rude tweet by a teenager. In case you missed the hubbub, Emma Sullivan, an 18-year-old participating in a Youth in Government program, tweeted a rude comment about the governor for her friends, from the back of a pack of youth he was speaking to. The governor’s staff (an assistant scheduling secretary for the governor) saw the tweet and contacted the Youth in Government program to let them know it might have come from one of the students attending the program.

The staff running the program contacted her high school principal, who demanded Sullivan apologize, in writing, to the governor (and offered talking points to help). Sullivan famously refused, and a media firestorm erupted after her older sister alerted the press. The Governor’s spokesperson got sucked into the fray. Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Sullivan’s tweet “wasn’t respectful”, that it takes mutual respect to “really have a constructive dialogue” and “It’s also important for students to recognize the power of social media, how lasting it is. It is on the Internet.” More than one blogger is now calling for Jones-Sontag and others on the governor’s staff to lose their jobs.

Today, the Governor apologized to her and said his staff had overreacted. And her school district said she will not be required to write an apology letter, to boot. After all, there is that pesky thing called freedom of speech out there, that extends, to even teenagers on Youth in Government programs. What exactly did the Governor’s public relations staff do wrong? And what can we learn from their mistakes?

Have the right people keeping an eye on social media and news mentions, and determining responses, if any. As communicators, we all monitor social media and news for information and commentary about the organizations and people we represent. That’s part of the job description these days. The governor’s staff didn’t go wrong in doing monitoring – which is an important part of understanding criticism and dialogue on issues for any elected official – but in how they reacted to what they found.

Why was an assistant scheduling secretary (who should be worrying about meal planning, security details, or calendar management) seizing the reins to do response on a communications issue?!  Why did an assistant scheduling secretary for the governor have so much time on her hands that she could monitor a high schooler’s twitter feed and locate the contact for the Youth in Government program and contact them about that Twitter feed?

There’s no harm in monitoring social media, but this got blown out of proportion right away. The people doing monitoring should be communications staff, who can evaluate what comes in. Not someone who is going to react with emotion or take things into their own hands. If you respond at all to criticism in social media or the press, it should be well thought out and strategic, not haphazard.

Evaluate the situation. This was a snarky teenager being mouthy in front of her 61 followers on Twitter, looking for a grin. This was not a reporter with ethics or a reputation hinging on accuracy. Nor was it a political opponent with an axe to grind. This was a teen who enjoyed tweeting about Twilight way more than spouting negativity about the governor – about whom she sent one tweet.

It was a teenager. Annoying. Yes. Make you wish her mama taught her some manners, or at least to be smart enough to tweet she was mad the Governor took away all public funding for art instead of just tweeting snark? Sure. But a bona fide PR problem to be worried about? No. This was a kid standing at the back of a pack of kids during a speech, who offered a virtual snide side comment – to her friends – the equivalent of an elbow rib cage jab. Any response from a governor’s PR staff to that type of comment – looks petty, bullying and like a lion stomping on a molehill.

Don’t let your response become a PR problem. The heavy-handed response from Brownback’s staff quickly escalated into a full blown crisis. By contacting the program, and also engaging with the school district – both of whom rely on relationships and funding from the state – there’s a sense of “going to teach a lesson to that obnoxious kid” in the staff’s response. Sullivan’s twitter feed now has 12,436 followers.

These were public officials or people acting on behalf of public officials – yet no one seemed to consider how the public might feel about the governor’s staff and educators spending time stifling free expression from a teenager – who was in reality – just mouthing off with her friends. The logical response from the public is – this is what the governor’s staff are spending time worrying about?  Really? This is what educators and school principals are spending their time worrying about? Come on. No wonder the public got mad. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. A good PR person could have spotted this disaster a mile away.

Let go of negative social media comments. Admittedly, “letting go” of a negative comment can be tough to do. But you have to have a thick skin if you are in the social media space, where anyone can say anything, regardless of age, education, position in life, or opinion – it’s the beauty and the disaster of the whole social media enterprise.

“Letting go” of a negative comment can be especially difficult if the comment is tagged to an official Twitter name (which Sullivan didn’t do) and shows up in “mentions” for an official account. But elected officials will have to weather much worse browbeating than a little steam from a teen – that’s a lesson Sam Brownback’s staff have learned all too well.


Telling Your Nonprofit’s Story: Tips for Nonprofit Videos

Many nonprofit agencies are now investing in digital cameras and making their own video stories to share on their websites and through social media. Understanding storytelling techniques used by journalists can help share your message in a powerful way. This video from the Pulitzer Center offers great tips for assembling your story:

To make a really good piece of video journalism, they recommend:
(1) Make a clear outline of the story you are trying to tell.
(2) Decide what kind of background infroamtion people need to know to understand the story.
(3) Think about characters. You will need strong characters who lead the watcher through the story and help him or her understand. Should it be a person directly affected by the issue being discussed, an outside observer or an expert?
(4) Consider carefully the images and visuals you will use. Don’t just feature a person talking – show us. Avoid talking head syndrome.

The golden rule for video storytelling: you never have enough b-roll.

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.


The Big Three Shake Things Up: Evening Newscasts Make Changes

Photo by MediaBistro

There was a time when you could predict what the lead story would be on the evening news for the three major networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC. But all three networks are mixing things up and making changes to their story lineups to stay competitive with cable and the Internet, and offer content viewers want to watch.

While the different anchors have always brought their own personalities into the mix, ABC is trying to humanize the news, writes New York Times reporter Brian Stelter. CBS is trying to stand out by emphasizing hard news and wooing 60 Minutes viewers to its other newscasts.

Why does this matter to PR professionals working with nonprofit organizations and associations? If you are pitching reporters at these networks – notice their nuances. Watch a few newscasts before you pitch a reporter, so you understand what he or she is covering and the angle they are trying to define. And take heart – the changes in the evening network news casts bode well for many human interest stories – for the stories we are building movements around.

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.


The Culture of Victim-Blaming Assaults Lara Logan Again, Discourages Trauma Survivors From Speaking Out

CBS reporter Lara Logan is barely out of the hospital after surviving being sexually assaulted and beaten  in Cairo last Friday, and already the victim-blaming and bashing have begun on media discussion boards and public forums.

An NYU fellow and author of a book about the Iraq war resigned his post earlier today over tweeting crude remarks when news of the attack broke.

I was horrified to read comments earlier today on the Wall Street Journal’s website about the attack on Logan that represented attitudes that one could only describe as Neanderthal, misogynistic, racist, bigoted and victim-blaming at their finest:

And what was a woman journalist — really, ANY journalist — doing in a sea of drunken, lawless people reveling in an overthrow of a 30 year dictatorship, in a third-world country, AFTER DARK?

Shame on CBS for allowing a (attractive) woman to travel to a nearly-like war zone in which women are 2nd class citizens! All for ratings.

Ms. Logan and CBS : What did you expect where entire families live on garbage landfills and women are considered chattel? That they were going to play by our American standards? What were you thinking sending a white woman into that situation? Would you have sent your daughter? I don’t think so. Your judgement and your rationale is entirely suspect.

And there is plenty more that’s way worse. What’s even crazier – is the Wall Street Journal actually requires people using its discussion forums to use their real names. So real people actually own up to making these horrific remarks posted above.

Bravo to NPR for deleting posts on about Logan and the attack that violated its community discussion rules. One can hope that the Wall Street Journal will follow suit.

Unfortunately, Logan is now getting dragged into the murky pool of commentary assault that some survivors of traumatic personal violence who speak out (or whose experiences are publicized) may be forced to endure.

This seems to occur more often to survivors of suicide, sexual assault, rape, or domestic violence. When survivors left behind after a suicide talk to the media about the warning signs they saw in their loved one in the hopes of preventing another death – internet trolls go on media discussion boards and anonymously post vile comments. Domestic violence victims who speak out after leaving a batterer and rebuilding their lives are blamed for tolerating abuse for “too many” years. A survivor of sexual trauma and gang rape testifies before a legislative body about her experience and changes needed, and she is called a slut, a whore and worse on public websites read by thousands of people. She finds the public commentary to be so vicious, that she later says she will advise other survivors to not speak out in public forums or to the media.

What these attacks on Logan and other survivors demonstrate – is that our society is often incapable of engaging in a dialogue that is respectful and appropriate when it comes to personal trauma violence. Even turning off the anonymous comment feature on media discussion boards, can’t prevent our dialogue from descending into a quagmire of victim-blaming and worse. Survivors of trauma are encouraged instead to hide their experiences behind cloaks of silence.

Yet many don’t get that option. Few trauma survivors, like Logan, have an assault announced to the world by their employer. CBS likely went public with news of the assault in a pre-emptive move. Perhaps Logan glimpsed cell phone cameras in the crowd during the assault. It was likely only a matter of time until news of the assault was publicized.

It’s a situation with no good decision: either wait until the shoe drops and news of the attack is announced by someone else, or pre-emptively make a statement with the minimal information you can tolerate. Unfortunately, that’s often the case when working with trauma survivors – we are trying to resurrect the best situation we can for a survivor from a crumbling nightmare. It’s an “all rocks” scenario – no choice that preserves privacy is even able to get onto the table.

As a public relations practitioner who has spent years working with organizations that provide services to help trauma survivors, the issues of victim-blaming and public reaction to a survivor’s story – cross my desk on a regular basis.

The thing I try to give survivors the most in working with them on media coverage issues- is the feeling of control of their own voice and their own story. It is their story. It is their life. They can make decisions about what is shared, how much is shared, and what they will talk about – from that moment forward. We can’t undo what’s already happened. We can’t control what other people – the public, the media, their attackers, will do.

The impact of public exposure on the trauma survivor – and the possibility of public ridicule after a media report for survivors of suicide, sexual assault and domestic violence – should be talked about up front with survivors and reporters as much as possible. When I meet someone who has been hurt by that exposure, we talk about ways to deal with it and cope with the aftermath.

Things can be done to minimize public exposure for survivors, but often only on the front end before a story is reported. I’ve requested anonymity for trauma survivors, put grief counselors in interviews to offer support, and asked media websites to remove comments that attacked survivors and went beyond the bounds of human decency.

I’ll be speaking for PRSA-NCC’s Nonprofit PR Day on March 9 on “We’re Not Victims, We’re Survivors: Lessons in Using Survivor Stories.” If you have suggestions or ideas for me to consider, please feel free to drop me a note or post a comment.

Today’s vicious commentaries about Lara Logan illustrate the problems faced by many survivors of trauma violence when their stories are aired in the media. News organizations offering public comment forums could crack down like NPR and enforce their terms of use and remove inappropriate remarks. People posting in these forums, might consider how they would write if they knew the person involved. Instead of blaming the survivor, they could offer up their concern and contribute to a meaningful dialogue.

If we learn nothing from this hubbub about a terrible trauma that happened to a respected journalist – then it’s truly a sad day.


The Gates Foundation and Its Impact on Philanthropy: Free Dec. 14 Webinar & Alliance Magazine Issue

If you work in the nonprofit world, you’ve probably had more than one person naively and kindly suggest that all your funding worries would be solved, if only you could get a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While often these people have a very limited knowledge of what it takes to get a grant – knowing little about the applications involved and the fact that your proposed project must align with the foundation’s funding priorities – the heft and influence of the Gates Foundation is significant. 

It is the world’s largest foundation. But the Gates Foundation also “differs from the institutional norm in almost every way: in size, ambition, high-level connections, proactivity, long-term commitment, operational engagement, and public leadership,” says Ed Skloot, with the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) notes that the Gates Foundation is tredding new ground, changing expectations and the policy environment of philanthropy by its very existence. As a result the foundation carries tremendous influence that impacts philanthropy and nonprofits around the globe.

You can join moderator Tim Ogden and a distinguished group of panelists for an in-depth and extended discussion on the Gates Foundation on Wednesday, December 14 at 11 am PST/2 pm EST. The live webinar is jointly sponsored by SSIR and Alliance magazine. Panelists will discuss the import of the Gates Foundation, based on their articles in a recent Alliance magazine.

  • Ed Skloot will discuss his view that the “foundation’s behavior will have consequences that will be felt for years to come.” Skloot is director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, Duke University, and former president of the Surdna Foundation.
  • Megan Tompkins-Stange will share her perspective that the greatest impact of the foundation may be reinvigorating discussion about foundations’ role in society. Tompkins-Stange is lecturer, Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan.
  •  Laura Freschi will discuss her concerns that the foundation could become a “benevolent dictator” in global public health. Freschi is associate director, Development Research Institute, New York University.
  • Bruce Sievers will examine what such a large institution means for democracy. Sievers is visiting scholar, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and former executive director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.
  • Moderator Tim Ogden is the guest editor of the special Alliance issue, a frequent contributor to Stanford Social Innovation Review, and editor-in-chief of the Philanthropy Action blog.

Webinar participants will be able to ask questions and voice opinions about the influence of the Gates Foundation and how it is and isn’t changing the world. Participants will receive electronic access to the special issue of Alliance magazine upon registration.

Register here for the webinar


The Kony 2012 Video Forces Us to Pay Attention: What Nonprofits Are Learning

There is an interesting article this week in the New York Times about nonprofits learning from the overnight success of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video. With 84 million plus views, the video has netted donations, media attention and actions for Invisible Children, and even a response from Ugandan government. Here’s the video:

The video is long at about 30 minutes, but it holds attention because it tells a very human story with universal elements that many can relate to. It showcases the desire to make the world better for one’s children, grief over the death of a family member, a promise to make things better that are unjust, and an invitation to join a movement for change that is time-limited and offers a solution.

The video has also sparked a flurry of discussion and criticism – with dueling bloggers on Huffington Post arguing over whether the video can spark real change, opinions columns and blog posts galore, tabloid coverage of the filmmaker’s bizarre mental break, and yes, the envy of the nonprofit world (noted in the New York Times).

What does it have to teach nonprofits?

  • Personalized storytelling is highly effective at pulling viewers into a story – showing the journey of one activist and one survivor – showing a bigger issue through their lense – helps people understand the passion behind a cause. If people can understand how a bigger problem impacts one person, they can understand how it impacts thousands of people.
  • You don’t always have to be short – we would typically advise a nonprofit creating a video for YouTube to stay under 10 minutes, even under 5 minutes. This video is nearly 30 minutes long and it’s captivating because of its narrative.
  • Tell people why they should care  – This videos talks about a big problem that may seem far away to many of the people it’s trying to reach, but it connects people to that cause – both thru technology and thru appealing to a generation and ultimately, who the viewer aspires to be, as a person. It’s powerful stuff.
  • Outline action steps people can take to help – It’s not enough to just raise awareness about a problem. People need concrete steps that they can take to do something, after they are interested in helping.

Is the film simplistic? Yes. Does it offer real solutions? It certainly leans more heavily on a military or political solution, but it does talk about helping child soldiers build new lives through education. Does it come across as neocolonial? To some people, yes. Does it stir people out of apathy and into connection with a cause greater than themselves? Yes.

Come what may – the film is doing what it was intended to do – getting us to sit up and take notice.

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.


The Nonprofit PR Pro: Being Strategic About What You Read

iPad showing weekend blog reading
Thanks to umpcportal for licensing this
image under Creative Commons

PR folks are known for comparing notes about what they like to read in the morning to stay on top of news relevant to their clients. And they are reading now all types of ways – thru their iPads, SmartPhones, e-newsletters that summarize news, and yes, the old-fashioned printed newspaper. If you work with a nonprofit organization and can’t spend all day reading but need to spend it cranking out the work, what should you be reading?

Be strategic. When you have limited time, you need to evaluate what you invest your time in reading for the maximum benefit. Clearly, if you are engaged in media relations in any way, you have to keep up with current events. If you are planning to pitch a story to a group of reporters – include pieces they are currently writing and broadcasting into your reading plan, so you know what they are interested in and care about.
Remember you. You also need to think about yourself. Professional development and training dollars are often limited at many nonprofits. Reading can help you keep up with new trends and develop your skills further so you can work more efficiently.
Get the news you need to build relationships with reporters for your nonprofit and stay abreast of trends related to what your nonprofit works on. Most PR people who do press engagement should be reading a significant dose of current news every morning related to the organizations they represent. Many also try to keep up with industry trends so they can develop professionally.
If you work in a smaller nonprofit with a local reach, that might mean really following the local newspaper and local stations well – and supplement with some Google news alerts on topics related to your nonprofit, so you know about industry trends.
For a larger nonprofit organization with chapters or offices around the country – you probably already have Google alerts for your organization’s name so you are aware of news that comes in all around the clock about your nonprofit – but it’s also important to keep up with current news trends and topics related to what your nonprofit works on. That way you know what others are talking about when a hot new report comes out, and a reporter calls to ask if your organization has an opinion about XYZ research or the new white paper – and you know what he or she is referring to.
Growing professionally through reading. If you work primarily in nonprofits – is it to your advantage to read tons of public relations industry publications? Probably not. Focus on reading the ones that can help you do your job better or share insights that help you think about doing things in new ways.
One easy way to footnote materials as it shows up is to put it on your twitter feed – you have a permanent repository of stuff you found interesting. There are tons of great tools out there that can help you catalog and archive information you are reading, but it can be easy to make your reading a project unto itself – so use the tools that work for you.
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.

The Norway Aftermath: Resources for Reporters Working in Trauma

How do you talk with teenagers who survived a horrific mass shooting? Or cover such an event when you are a student yourself?

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has collected a series of resources to help journalists who are covering the aftermath of the Norway attacks.

Advice for journalists from journalists, information about the experiences of survivors, suggestions for how to talk with children who have experienced trauma, and tips for self-care are included.


The State of Giving in America: Nonprofit Fundraising Trends

Visit the study online

Earlier this week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published a free interactive online tool to help nonprofits look at giving nationwide. The tool will allow you to examine how giving looks in your community and state, and you can sort by zip code.

There are some fascinating insights in the data compiled by the Chronicle staff. The states that give the most: Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Idaho, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Maryland. In states like Utah and Mississippi, the typical household gives more than 7 percent of its income to charity, while the average household in Massachusetts and three other New England states gives less than 3 percent.
The Chronicle’s analysis notes that neighborhoods, religious faith and tax breaks have significant impacts on giving. You can look at overall state numbers and many metro areas are included, as well as search for specific zip codes. The online tool can give you a giving profile examining a zip code that tells you what percentage of income people are donating to charity and how the community stacks up in comparison with others.
Key questions for fundraisers moving forward will be:
– What can we learn about giving patterns in our community and where we raise money, based on this data?
– How do we structure our nonprofit’s giving campaigns for the most generous Americans who are part of the middle class?  Can we talk to middle class donors we know who support our nonprofit now, about why they give and what motivates them to give? Can the information they provide better inform our giving solicitations for others in the middle class?
– How are we failing to motivate other Americans who are not as generous to give? What would motivate donors in higher income brackets to give at greater levels? Can we talk with donors we have in higher income brackets that we already know to find out why they are contributing and what motivate them to give? And can that information help us structure fundraising differently?
The study was based on the most recent available Internal Revenue Service records of Americans who itemized their deductions. It examined taxpayers who earned $50,000 or more in 2008. They donated a median of 4.7 percent of their discretionary income to charitable causes.
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.

Time at Home: Flexible Schedules & Work-Life Balance for Working Moms

The New York Times profiled on Sunday the story of working mom Sarah Uttech, who works from home one day a week from her job managing member communications for an agricultural association. The story, “Coveting Not a Corner Office, But Time at Home,” has garnered more than 450 comments.

Writer Catherine Rampell contrasts Uttech’s approach with the “lean in” advice of Sheryl Sandberg and notes Anne-Marie Slaughter’s highly-debated Atlantic essay on what has to change for women to be successful in the workplace.

What the writer finds remarkable about Uttech are her priorities – that family comes first and that work is fit around family life. Even so, Uttech works in an office four days a week and manages a grind familiar to many working moms – using her crock pot and freezer to prep meals for the week, multitasking kids needs alongside others, and trying to be a highly productive employee when she is working.

The author notes factors that led to the association agreeing to Uttech working at home one day a week, and what is surprising is how often others seem to judge Uttech for getting this great accommodation to her family life:

“People have said to me, ‘It’s not fair that you get to work from home! I want to work from home,’ ” she said. “And I say, ‘Well, have you asked?’ And they’re like, ‘No, no, I could never do that. My boss would never go for it.’ So I say, ‘Well you should ask, and you shouldn’t hold it against me that I did.’ ”

Perhaps that is one of our greatest problems in addressing work/life balance issues – our unwillingness to accept a solution that makes someone else different from the rest of us. Instead of rejoicing that someone found a way to make it work – we clamor jealously for the same benefit ourselves, even if it might not be what we need.

Personally – I find achieving work-life balance to be extremely difficult but an important goal to strive for. Being at home at least three days per week (in an ideal week) puts me in proximity to my young daughter and relieves commuting stress. It also saves time (when you commute 2.5 to 3 hours a day on a day you commute this is huge) that I can use for client work.

I can do some work after hours – but it is still challenging even when working at home to make it all happen. And like many working moms – I use the weekends for laundry time and prep some meals in advance – even though I work from home quite a bit.

But being nearby at home during the work day doesn’t make me an engaged parent, if I am pounding away on a computer. calling back a reporter, and distracted by a writing project. I take breaks and time away from my desk to check on my daughter’s day but the emotional tug of a young child who wants mommy is strong. And sometimes sitting at that desk is hard. Today my daughter is going to the zoo with my husband and some of her preschool friends, and I’m wishing I could tag along – but I can’t. It makes me a bit sad.

What works for you in balancing work and family life?

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.


Tips for Talking with Reporters About Home Donations to Nonprofits

USA Today reported a few days ago that a record number of homes are being donated to charities in the wake of the housing crisis. The numbers remain low, with Bank of America donating 150 homes in 2011, but there are plans for the financial institution to donate an additional 1,200 in 2012. Wells Fargo donated 1,120 homes last year and plans to donate more. Habitat for Humanity reports that they are receiving additional home donations – in some cases they are able to rehab them.

Often, home donations have to be demolished because the home is in extremely poor condition. When I worked with a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Florida, we had to demolish a donated home that was in poor condition. Tearing down that house was an intriguing (and learning) experience for our volunteers. We built a new house in its place alongside a family that needed it and improved property values for that community.

If your nonprofit receives the gift of a home donation, how can you talk about it in the media, even if the home is a blight?  Here’s a few tips to help:

  • Before talking with the media, make sure the donors know your plans. Hopefully, you  were able to talk with the donors about the home donation and your plans for it, so they know if you are rehabbing the property for someone in need, planning to tear it down so you can use the land, or intending to refurbish it and re-sell it to make money. Even property owners, don’t always realize that their generous donation may have insurance, liability and financial implications for your nonprofit. Make sure they know your plans before you talk about them in the press. Use the media pitch or a news release to mention the donor’s name (if they are willing) and recognize them for the gift.
  • Tie into the bigger story of the housing crisis. Talk about this trend in home donations by banks and property owners who are eager to remove blighted homes from their rosters. Link your messaging to the bigger discussion about America’s recovery from the housing crisis, so onehoem donation in one community, can become part of the larger story.
  • Discuss how your nonprofit will benefit from the home donation. Perhaps you can’t use the home in its current condition, or you will have to rehabit. Talk about about how your nonprofit can benefit from this generous donation and its value.
  • Ask for what you need in your messaging. Talk about what you may need to rehab or improve the property. If your nonprofit is currently searching for land with or without a home on it, so you can expand or move facilities, say so. I was on the board for a nonprofit that did this – while some of the offers they received from their media campaign were duds, a few had poential, and the community became better educated about the organization’s needs.
  • Allow the media to visit the house. Invite the media to take a tour of the house and get footage and photos of you talking about your plans. Allow media to come in and film while you are working on the house so they can see dreams becoming reality. The golden story here is that something good is emerging out of a sad chapter in our nation’s history – emphasize the positive value of the gift.

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.


Twestival: Tweeps Rally Communities to Help Charities, What You Can Learn

Only a month from today, Twestival will hold local events around the globe using Twitter as an organizing tool to raise funds and awareness for charities. On March 24, 2011, organizers in 120+ cities worldwide will hold Twestival events in their communities, raising funds and awareness for local nonprofit organizations.

While Twitter is used to promote Twestival, the actual charity events that raise funds are held offline and face-to-face. According to Twestival organizers, events have been held in bowling alleys, pubs, and even in trapeze studios and on yachts. It’s about local communities using the resources they have available to them to make a difference. One hundred percent of ticket sales and donations at Twestival events go to the designated charities.

Interestingly, Twestival alternates each year between local events (this year) where local Twestival organizers select a local charity, and global events, where communities raise awareness globally for one chosen charity. You can search their global map to see if your community has a registered organizing team.

Mashable did a great profile of Twestival organizer Amanda Rose and the behind the scenes action it takes to coordinate a global festival of this size.

How can your charity get involved? Charities are selected by local Twestival organizers, and there are no strict guidelines on how the selection process works. At this point, it is likely many Twestival local events already have designated charities.

Even if your charity can’t be a beneficiary of this project this year, you can learn from Twestival. If your charity is new to using social media to inspire support and organize an event, shadowing the local Twestival team as it puts together this year’s event could help you learn how to apply social media strategies and tactices to your own organization’s fundraising. Ask how messages are crafted and supporters identified.  You can take what you learn and apply it to Twitter organizing for your own organization.


Understanding Broadcast News Writing: July 23rd #APStyleChat

There’s a free Twitter chat on Monday, July 23rd, 2:30pm Eastern Time on hashtag #APStyleChat offering tips on how to write broadcast news coverage with Barbara Worth from the Associated Press.

While I expect some of the conversation will be related to the technical aspects of the AP Stylebook (PR pros – you should all have one on your desk!) and its requirements for broadcast news copy, this is a great opportunity for nonprofit professionals and activists seeking to learn more about the news media. The AP Stylebook is the gold standard in the news business and guides how stories are presented throughout the industry.
If you can understand how a journalist approaches writing something, you can better understand how to prepare your story pitches and interviewees to meet their needs. One of the big challenges I face constantly is how to best present a complex story knowing that television news coverage may only be two minutes or less. Understanding how broadcast journalists put together copy can also help you explain to your boss why the reporter might not have time to reference in the story certain layers or nuances. 
Worth oversees the national broadcast wires, the Washington, DC area broadcast and print reports, and the 50 state broadcast wires for AP Television News. AP covers stories at all levels – from the local to the international. For nonprofit staff and activists who are often time-starved and cash-strapped, a Twitter Chat like this is an easy way to enhance your professional development without ever leaving your desk. I hope you’ll join in.
AP broadcast guru
Barbara Worth

will offer tips

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.


Using Interns for Social Media: Pitfalls to Avoid

I am often amazed at how often I hear nonprofit organizations talk about hiring or using interns for social media. Inevitably, the organization has no presence on social media or a very limited one that is not updated. The person says they realize social media is an important communication stream today and that they need to “get with it” and adds that the organization has virtually no resources (human or technical) to help them implement or develop a social media presence.

The notion that you can hire (or recruit as a volunteer for an unpaid internship) someone who is young, and just expect them to implement your organization’s social media presence is foolhardy. Just because someone can use Facebook for themselves personally,  does not mean that they know how to build an online community that nurtures a community of support for an organization and is consistent with your brand.

Part of the problem is that social media is still viewed by some people as a siloed communications function that is not essential to the lifeblood of an organization’s communications strategy. When email was emerging as a means of communication in the workplace, I don’t remember anyone saying at the paper-driven office that I worked in, let’s hire a young person to manage our email communication. Staff might have been reluctant, even dragged kicking and screaming, into training about how to use email, but now using email is viewed as a standard office skill.

And that’s part of the problem – people making statements like “we should an intern to do social media for us” often don’t understand social media or what it can do for an organization. Just as email became viewed as a core part of workplace communication, social media should also be seen as an essential part of how we communicate today. That does not mean that every staff member in an organization needs to tweet on behalf of the organization or have the ability to commandeer a nonprofit organization’s Facebook page, but staff and supporters should educate themselves about social media and how it operates so they can understand its power and how it can help them achieve the organization’s goals.

Because social media is so essential, it needs to be integrated within an organization’s overall communications strategy. Can an intern be part of implementing that strategy? Yes. But the strategy needs to be clearly defined and social media as a function should not be siloed away from the rest of the organization’s communications strategy.

With direction, an intern can be part of implementing this strategy, but an intern cannot be relied on to design and build the entire strategy. Nor should an intern be expected to just “build” a social media presence for an organization without guidance on branding, messaging and audience.  Interns can be part of implementing a social media strategy for your nonprofit organization, but organizations must integrate social media into their overall communications strategy and provide guidance to interns as they use these tools.

An intern should not be expected to craft content in a vacuum for social media channels. Interns can be part of reshaping existing content for social media if you provide them a little guidance on tone and content. If you wouldn’t allow content on your website home page that is not approved, why would you allow content on your social media channels that is not crafted with your organization’s tone and priorities in mind?

If your organization publishes a magazine on a quarterly basis and uploads individual articles to your website – those are great items to share through social media. You can’t expect for someone to grab a link to that magazine story, post it on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other places, and get a great response. Someone will need to write a post or tweet that summarizes the article you want to share in a way that makes it useful to readers, and then distribute the information through social media. The post or tweet should be slanted toward the people who are on that social media platform.

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.


Using Statistics in PR: New Guide Available, Dealing with Stilted Language

Statistics can be critically important to constructing a story pitch, writing a news release, or explaining an issue to the public. Statistics can convey the importance of a story by reaching beyond the anecdotal and describing a trend or new research. But if those numbers don’t hold muster and aren’t valid, they can damage both the story and an organization’s reputation with the media and the public.

A new best practices guide on using statistics in public relations is now available online for free from the Public Relations Society of America and the American Statistical Association. It’s blissfully brief, at only 3 pages, but loaded with good advice on how to best use numbers to share your story.

A couple of key points that jumped out to me when I read the guide were:

  • Using graphics to communicate results often helps make them easier to understand. It is best, however, to make sure they are clear in terms of the main points you are making about the statistics. Remember, it is less about the numbers, and more about what they mean to the audience.
  • Run your insights from the data by the person who actually did the research to be sure the data support its interpretation and use.

I’ve been in situations where researchers, at times, hindered the effectiveness of a news release by insisting on using very stilted and academic language. The resulting news release draft was so loaded with gobbledy-gook, no one could understand what it said. And I’ve also seen situations where PR staff valued a particular finding in a statistical report, that the researcher felt was not nearly as signficant as something else.

A press release and other media materials can accurately use statistics, and be written in a way that the general public understands – but getting there can be tough.

It’s important that communication/PR staff collaborate with researchers or statisticians on how numbers are presented in a story.  For nonprofit communicators, it helps to build positive relationships with the research staff in your organization. Often, I think researchers and PR staffs get into conflicts over language for news releases simply because they don’t understand the perspective each brings to the table.

It will also help if you can provide media training for research staff so they understand the perspective that the media bring to crafting stories and how to talk about their work with the press. Media training will help the researchers feel more confident about participating in media interviews and build their trust in the communications staff too.

Talk to Us: How have you used statistics used in your organization’s PR efforts? Do you have an example to share? Post your comments below.


Victims vs. Survivors: Dis-Empowering Messages Can Hurt

The term “victim” has become a pet peeve for me. After working for so many years with nonprofits supporting survivors of trauma, I no longer like to see the word “victim” used solely to describe the amazing and courageous people I meet and support who are figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other again and rebuild their lives after experiencing trauma or violence.

It should be no surprise that a tweet this week by @Good encouraging do-gooders to send valentines to “a victim of war” caught my eye.
While the project itself is great (kudos to Women for Women International for launching a campaign that links to their mission and raises funds) – the headline on uses the term “victim.” While surely the Good post was a well-intentioned effort to support this worthwhile charity, is “victim” the best choice available for language in this case? I think not.
To call survivors of war trauma victims – and victims only – is dis-empowering and stigmatizing. The words we used to communicate can make a huge impact. Victims are passive and not able to take steps to help themselves. Victims are devoid of strength, agency and intelligence. Surviving may require tremendous strength and courage – just getting to tomorrow may be a gargantuan feat for someone who has suffered trauma or violence. Survivors try to step forward in their lives beyond a traumatic experience, refusing to allow that experience to define them.
Victim terminology is used heavily in the law enforcement and legal communities and as a result – that language is often found in the nonprofit community assisting trauma survivors. Some organizations that work with survivors of trauma use survivor and victim as paired language (see the Sensitive Language Guide from the Women’s Funding Network). Other nonprofits heavily emphasize survivorship over victimhood in their language and messaging – and many note this language can influence receovery. Organizations working in domestic violence response and prevention are sensitive to survivor/victim language – see one activist’s comments here on the victim vs. survivor language issue.
Women for Women International, emphasizes survivorship in banner headlines on its website and says that victims transition to being survivors and informed citizens through its programs. A splash page promoting the campaign on Valentine’s Day on their website encourages participants to help the women the organization serves. Victimhood is nowhere near the messaging being used for this campaign for a reason. Women for Women International has made an intentional choice to embrace a language of empowerment.
I fired off a tweet to @Good last Tuesday in response:
I didn’t get a response back. If activists truly want to make a difference in this world for those who have suffered tragedy, they need to take a serious look at the language they opt to use. We cannot allow our desire for marketing a good cause, to dis-empower the people we are trying to help.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

What Makes a News Story Huge? What We Can Learn From Terry Jones & His Threat to Burn a Quran

The self-flagellation and examination over how a story about a fringe pastor in Florida threatening to burn the Quran attracted mega-media coverage has begun. What perfect storm made this story so huge, when so many other stories are just noticed for a day and then gone?

The outrage factor – You had a vocal person threatening to do something, in public, that was blatantly offensive to most people – complete with a banner in red letters, plenty of notice so the media and opposition could get organized, and a photogenic wild-looking man prone to uttering sound bytes.

The emotional tie-in – On top of that, pastor Terry Jones was threatening to do his despicable act on a day that stirs emotions for Americans – September 11, 2010 – the 9th anniversary of terrorist attacks on the United States that took the lives of the thousands and radically altered our lives and perceptions of security. And his action played on our fears – while discrimination against Muslims in the United States has been soundly condemned – it has often taken on subtle forms since the September 11th attacks. His proposed act and statements were so blatantly offensive – they stirred our fears and caused us to question who we are as a society. If our culture could produce a crackpot like Terry Jones, then how tolerant are we as a society?

Statements by public figures – When the President, Secretary of State, commanding General in Afghanistan and other public leaders are issuing statements – the story is going to attract attention.

The rise of opposition – The threat to burn a holy book was so vilely offensive, that this act was bound to stir emotions and cause others to “oppose” it, generating other events – some in the community and elsewhere- that would trigger media coverage.Known for its progressive nature, people in Gainesville, Fla, where the pastor and his church are in residence, were horrified that their community would be known for such intolerance – eliciting comments from community leaders and additional protests throughout the community for media to cover.

The presence of visuals and a willing interviewee. The images accompanying the story showing the sign with an offensive message, and the pastor’s willingness to provide continual statements on September 10th to the media, fed the coverage as well. Had he locked himself in a house in the woods and not spoken to the press, and never given interviews, the coverage could have been minimized to some extent.

The tie-in to a national debate – As the country discusses the proposed building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York – the proposed actions of a renegade minister in Florida were linked to a national discussion – and cited as an egregious example of the intolerance that dwells among us. There was no shortage of talkative people happy to go on news shows and condemn Terry Jones and his plans to burn a Quran.

The absence of other major news stories to fill the void, with wall to wall coverage descending into sensationalism – While things happened in the world over the last week, there were few mega-stories with the staying power and visuals to replace this one. Had a story the level of the Haiti earthquake disaster or Hurricane Katrina come along, it would have diluted or evaporated completely the attention on Jones. The media  self-selects stories that are compelling and bound to trigger reaction – the story about Jones and his plans fit the criteria perfectly. So is something wrong with the selection criteria? Oh yes. It’s way too easy for fringe elements like Jones to hijack news coverage. Media coverage gave a crackpot credibility and poured gasoline on a raging fire of outrage. Personally, I hope that this incident encourages news directors to re-evaluate their decision-making process – while it’s in the public interest for stories like this one to be reported – they don’t deserve sensationalistic wall-to-wall coverage.

The use of social media – While major news outlets like the Associated Press indicated that they would not distribute images of a Quran being burned and would exercise restraint (funny how AP didn’t feel that way about distributing images of a dying US service member in Afghanistan), social media means that images and outrage can be shared, whether the media cover an event or not.

News stories reflecting on the whirlwind coverage:
Did the media elevate the Florida Quran-burning story?  Kevin Baron, Stars & Stripes
The Quran burning coverage conundrum, Brooke Gladstone, National Public Radio
One nut, given a global pulpit by the media, John Farmer, New
Social media inflames news coverage of Quran burning, Jake Coyle, Associated Press


What’s Next at the Washington Post: Speaker Dishes to PR Indies

Change and experimentation are coming to the Washington Post, according to Chris Jenkins, who spoke the Independent Public Relations Alliance (IPRA) in January 2014. The October 2013 announcement of the Post’s sale to Jeff Bezos, founder of, sent shock waves through the DC PR community – and now that our initial surprise has worn off – many want to know what the sale means for the future of the Washington Post.

For those fearing that the sale means heads will roll – that’s not the case. “You will not see a bunch of 22 year olds come in and throw us out,” said Jenkins, who is an assistant local editor at the Post. The first year after the sale is a grace period and news editorial will not be changing.

At the same time, the Post is not a charity case, and Bezos definitely wants to make the DC area’s flagship newspaper successful financially, said Jenkins. As we all know, newspapers have struggled financially in the information age and  been under increasing monetary pressures as readers have flocked online and cancelled paper subscriptions.

According to Jenkins, Bezos wants to take a changing institution and make it successful. He is trying to take the long view and create what the 21st century newspaper look like. “There will be change and disruption. This is not all milk and cookies,” said Jenkins, in one of his more memorable quotes.

One of the ways the newspaper is changing is through creation of “nodes” that facilitate conversations between journalists and readers. In place for the last five to six years, these individualized verticals, such as Wonkblog,  focus on special topics and offer specialized content that allows the reader to get informed and discuss a topic. Jenkins said there are going to be more of these individual nodes, and if you have a client that is relevant and has something interesting to say, these verticals present new opportunities for public relations pros eager to score digital ink.

A vertical is structured more like a blog, with some analysis of a defined subject matter. So it offers opinion and is observational. The curator of the vertical may write  3-4 times a day. The tone may be a little less formal than traditional print reporting. And the curator may pose questions, ask for comments, make lists or share content. It is designed to foster conversation.

These verticals and social media  have opened up new ways to have conversations with readers. Jenkins discussed the education blog (The Answer Sheet) produced by Valerie Strauss and how a particular post about a teacher wanting to quit teaching went viral. While Strauss wrote only a few sentences to introduce the teacher’s original words – the story netted 8 million views. Giving others opportunities to write something that can be shared is a key part of these verticals and builds their participatory nature. “We want to be the curators. They want more stuff, more content. It has to be useful, conversational, that people want to read and want to share,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins offered advice to help PR pros too. “Have a cheat sheet for yourself and update it. Know who runs each section. I can’t stress too much how dynamic things are going to be in the future for the Post. There will be surprises. Make sure you stay in touch with the changes we are making.”

In this new more entrepreneurial/experimental version of the Washington Post, things may be tried and then abandoned if they don’t take off or succeed. “We are experimenting. When one thing doesn’t work, they will change it. We should expect change. The spirit is that as we move forward as a news organization, we are trying to create a new thing that has never been invented before. There is going to be a lot of disruption in all of our lives,” said Jenkins.

It’s more important than ever, for PR pros to know who they are pitching when they are trying to suggest a story about a client. Is it a traditional reporter or a blogger? What does he or she write about the most? When dealing with bloggers, you may have to change your approach, advises Jenkins. They are often writing opinions, and not reporting, in the traditional sense. Bloggers are quick and speedy, but everyone at the Washington Post is operating under increasing deadlines to create copy for online dissemination. All reporters are being asked to post at least one story online every day, even if it is just a short piece.

Cultivating relationships with reporters will be even more important as changes disrupt work flows and content creation and dissemination become king. “Try to find the right reporter and strategically engage. Those personal relationships are invaluable even more now,” said Jenkins.

It’s also important for PR pros to realize that photos may carry more currency than a story.  “A photo gallery of an event you are promoting is more shareable than an article. It may not be a story but photos would be shareable,” said Jenkins.

When asked if reporters are getting story pitches from Twitter, Jenkins said yes, they do take pitches via Twitter, and he pointed out that reporters troll Twitter for story ideas at times. However, he added that not all reporters are Twitter-oriented (so if you are trying to pitch a story to a reporter who isn’t into Twitter, you need to try something else).

The audience also asked if reporters read all of the comments posted online for a particular story. Jenkins said that writers managing verticals do read their comments and that sometimes new stories result from comments. But some reporters don’t read them, even though they are encouraged to do so. Comments today are monitored more closely now than they were five years ago, and comments are removed if they are hurtful to the reporter or the subject.

IPRA is part of the Public Relations Society of America – National Capital Chapter. Our next IPRA lunch will be held April 3, 2014 and discuss delivering impactful, targeted and thoughtful online video.  Thanks to Rob Udowitz for sharing his photo.

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.


When Grief is Not Private: Coping with Media Attention After a Military Death

When a Soldier, Airman, Marine, or Sailor dies in service to country, it’s not uncommon to see thousands of people line the streets to witness a funeral procession and honor that military service member’s life. Iconic images of families receiving folded flags at funerals are snapped by the news media and run in our newspapers.

The death of a service member is mourned not just by a family, but by a community, and by a nation. Our language even talks about this type of death differently, using terms like “made the ultimate sacrifice.”  Following the military’s notification of the next of kin, a news release is issued. Funerals are often attended by hundreds of people, local dignitaries, news crews, and even protestors.

In my role at TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, I talk with surviving families of our fallen military about media relations. Unfortunately, I know the issues involved all too well. My brother, US Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Baghdad, Iraq in August 2007. Even with a background in crisis communications, I found it challenging to manage the media attention focused on my family in the immediate days after my 22-year-old brother died.

For the family in the midst of a media maelstrom following the death of their loved one, there is no road map to follow. My personal belief is that families should be able to choose when and if they want to talk to the media, and that grieving families have every right to privacy if they desire it. I’ve learned a few things that might help others supporting bereaved families who are coping with hefty media attention.

Get consensus among the family. Some families see any media intrusion as an offense. Others think media attention may help share the story of their loved one’s life. The family needs to agree on what approach makes sense and what they are comfortable with.

Realize there is no “right” approach. One family might be comfortable sitting in their living room with a reporter and talking for an hour for a feature story. Another might be comfortable with 15-minute phone and in-person interviews, but not on-camera interviews. Some might release photos and provide an interview, but want no media presence at the funeral. Others might permit news crews at the back of the funeral in an unobtrusive spot, but forbid them from being up front. Another family might ask that any reporters calling respect the family’s privacy and refer them to a written statement.

Select a spokesperson. Designate one person to be a point of contact to route all media requests to and to speak on behalf of the family. Ask a trusted family friend to fill this role if no one in the family is comfortable doing this.

Focus on the life lived if you talk with the press. What I hear from many families is the desire to share the life lived by their loved one. The reality is that if the death is of public interest and the family does not talk publicly, does not issue a statement, and does not designate friends to speak on its behalf, the media will still publish a story. Not speaking means losing an opportunity to influence what is said about your loved one in the press.

Talk about how the community can honor the life lost. People in the community often want to help remember the service member and the media can help distribute information about funeral services and memorial funds.

Decide which family photos to share – and realize that once something is online, it’s not private. It’s often helpful to put together a set of 2-3 photos that the family agrees it is comfortable sharing with the media. Tell the media these are the photos you prefer be used. Do not assume that photos on publicly accessible Facebook pages or high school yearbook photos will be ignored by the media if they are available.

Set your own ground rules. If your family is nervous about on-camera interviews, don’t do them. If you don’t want the media to photograph your house, tell them not to do it before they pull up out front. If you want a friend to come with you for emotional support during the interview, bring him or her along.

Look for the reporters that are thoughtful and respectful. Good reporters still exist and will come along. They are sensitive to the high emotions in bereaved families, and will want to create a story that shares your loved one’s life and that you are comfortable with. Any outlet that is excessively aggressive, sends a rude reporter, or makes an unreasonable request, should not be dealt with. Turn down any requests that smack of sensationalism.

Stay away from politics. Occasionally reporters come along who expect for a bereaved family to suddenly be experts on all things political, or the reporter wants to intimate a political dimension into a story about the death of a loved one. Surviving families are often deeply offended by this type of behavior and may feel ambushed by it.

Never say no comment. Even if the family has no intentions of saying anything to the press, ever, it is always a bad idea to say “no comment.” Instead say, “The family is not able to speak with the press right now. We suggest you consult our written statement for information or talk with Joe, our family friend at xyz phone number.”

Consider issuing a statement. Issue a written statement on behalf of the family, if the family is not comfortable speaking with reporters. In the statement, share what they would like to say about their loved one, mention how the community can honor the service member, and ask for the family’s desire for privacy to be respected.

Keep private things – private. If there are details the family would prefer not be known publicly, don’t offer them to the press. Remember that anything said to a reporter is “on the record.”

Be gentle with yourself. The unexpected death of a close loved one is a trauma. Do not overdo it.

Public attention on the family of a fallen service member may continue long after the death. Families may be asked to attend memorial events honoring their loved one months, and even years, after the death has occurred. Families of the fallen may be asked to attend public ceremonies for Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, or other community holidays.

While many find these invitations a comforting reassurance that their loved one’s service and sacrifice is not forgotten, some also find the public nature of a military death to be very challenging. Give surviving families of our fallen military the support and care they need as they cope with grief in the spotlight.

This article originally appeared in Forum Quarterly, published by the Association for Death Education & Counseling (ADEC), in 2011.

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.

Photo is courtesy of the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDs)

Blog, Toolkit

When There’s No News: What Do Nonprofit PR People Do?

Thanks to Lisah and Jerry Silfwer for this
Creative Commons licensed photo.

What do you do when you don’t have any news to share with the media related to your nonprofit organization? You’ve got no upcoming events to encourage press to cover, photograph or video. There’s no breaking news stories or new reports or white papers to comment on or issue statements about. And there’s no new campaign or program to announce or tout for attention. What does a nonprofit PR professional do to drum up media attention?

First – don’t send out press releases about crap. This is not the time to send out non-newsworthy releases about someone who got an award six months ago, a generic release about your nonprofit that lacks substance, or to bug reporters with junk. Don’t ruin the good reputation you’ve spent time building.
Second – get your PR house in order. Use the extra time to get your media lists updated and organized, follow reporters you want to build relationships with on Twitter, focus on shoring up your social media outreach plans for other key audiences, and do some long-term PR planning for the rest of the year.
Spend time working with staff and volunteers at your agency to identify stories worthy of pitching that have real news hooks. Educate them about what you need to pitch a successful story, so you lay the groundwork for better news releases and information will flow to you for story pitches.
Third – plan and dream a little. A dry time is a great time to pull out your nonprofit event calendar and figure out when you need to issue news releases and media pitches for upcoming events and programs. Look at what you’ve done in the past – what would you change? What would make your nonprofit’s events more media-friendly or more likely to draw coverage?
Dream outside the box if it’s not your busy season for press engagement and think about what you would do during that busy time period to work with the media more, if you only had time. Would you pitch a few more specialized stories and not just a big kahuna release about a big event to the planet? Would you try to do more radio interviews in the buildup to a major event? Would you like to see your nonprofit featured on a morning show?
What steps would you need to take to make those dreams reality? Now is a great time to draft tool kits and press releases for your needs later in the year – plus you can plan out the Facebook posts and tweets you’ll need to go with them.
Fourth – come up with other ways to generate news in the calendar. Now that you’ve got that calendar out, start dreaming up new ways to generate news. Is there a month or week of awareness coming up related to the issue or cause that your nonprofit is working on? Now is a great time to get that on your calendar and start mapping out what you could do that month to raise awareness in your community.
Planning a community event with a photo or video opp and tools to help people deal with the issue will always generate more coverage than just a tepid statement of support. Own the issue, share how it impacts people in your community, offer tips to help people dealing with the issue, explain research/statistics or key facts about the issue clearly for the presss, and plan media pitches in advance of the month/week to raise awareness. Here’s a few calendars to help:
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

Why Female Public Relations Practitioners Become Independent

In an article for Public Relations Tactics on why female public relations practitioners open independent practices, Ami Neiberger-Miller of Steppingstone LLC is quoted. She commented, “In many ways, I think life as an independent is the wave of the future. We are pioneers in a larger movement of workers. Instead of having one boss, we have multiple clients. If one client falls on hard times, we have others. If we need a larger team for a PR project, then we can assemble the best people with the right expertise, and the client benefits from having [access to] experienced professionals.” The publication is produced by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Clip available by request or through the PRSA website (members only).


Why Issuing a News Release on a Friday Before a Holiday Weekend is a Terrible Idea

It never ceases to amaze me – inevitably – a client will pop up clamoring to issue a news release announcement on the Friday before a holiday weekend. That’s a terrible idea for most organizations and here’s why:

1. Reporters are like everyone else – they take time off.
Issuing your release on the Friday before the holiday when newsrooms are low-staffed and the few folks around are on assignment covering breaking news – pretty much guarantees no coverage if your story is not extremely timely and related to immediately breaking news. There is a reason why companies wait until Friday afternoon to issue news releases about product recalls or poor earnings. It’s because they are hoping no one will cover it.

2. Your news release will end up in email hell.
Most news releases are issued via email or through a combination of email, web and social media nowadays. Your news release issued on Friday morning, will end up at the bottom of a long mountain of email the targeted reporter has to sift through after returning from a holiday weekend. Standing out is that much more difficult when you are buried under a mountain of email. Social media releases have a better chance of catching attention, but it’s still the holiday weekend and reporters are less likely to pay attention.

3. The dilution effect can steal your thunder.
A great and insightful report with new statistics on a hot topic may be sidelined or diluted by an ill-timed release. If announced on a regular weekday and within the context of an event that provides visuals, that report might have garnered significant media interest. Releasing the information on a Friday before a weekend may mean the report is reduced to a one-paragraph summary in media coverage by a wire service.

So what do I do with my client who wants to issue a news release on Friday? I usually talk with them about why issuing a news release on the Friday before a holiday weekend is like shooting their PR strategy in the foot. Then we talk about what is the best time to issue a news release about this particular program, report, development or story.

Holiday Weekend Events Seeking Media Coverage Require Pre-Planning & Early Notice
If the client has an event during the holiday weekend, it’s especially critical that media advisories and followup happen WELL in advance of the holiday weekend, so the event is in media planning calendars. So we often will backpedal our schedule and issue an advisory several days or a week or two in advance of the weekend and do followup calls. Unfortunately, you can’t do that if the client calls you the Thursday before the weekend.

Breaking News: The Exception to the Rule
If the organization has breaking news of enormous national, regional or local implications that cannot wait (and to be fair – I did once have a client in this situation on Labor Day Weekend a few years ago), then the news release should go out (and you should probably be staffing a crisis operations center).

For most organizations and clients – the best advice is to wait – and to issue a news release when the timing is better.


Will Nonprofit News Coverage Really Suffer if the NYT Doesn’t Have a Philanthropy Beat Reporter? Probably Not

When the New York Times announced it was reassigning writer Stephanie Strom from the philanthropy and nonprofit beat to business coverage (and nixing the philanthropy beat), it drew attention from Chronicle of Philanthropy and consternation in the twitter-sphere.

The Chronicle opined it was: “a move that could make it harder for nonprofits to get their stories told to a national audience.” The Chronicle also noted that the New York Times was one of the last daily newspapers to employ a reporter to cover national nonprofits on a full-time basis.

But I’m not so sure that nonprofit news coverage is really going to suffer so badly because there is no reporter devoted to philanthropy at the New York Times.

Strom’s work on the philanthropy beat was certainly admirable. In 2012, she published about withering excitement on text message donations, Blackbaud offering to buy Convio, a profile of a billionaire helping rebuild Haiti, and the challenges facing MIT and Harvard when collaborating to build the Broad Institute. Not a lot for two months worth of coverage, but her editors at the NYT clearly needed her to help out with campaign coverage, as her byline pops up a lot with stories in that area too.

Missing from her coverage were some of the trending nonprofit stories of our day, including the Komen/Planned Parenthood tussle,  the layaway philanthropy phenomena where people were going to stores and paying off layaway accounts to help people in need, and the Second Mile charity that was embroiled in the Sandusky scandal. While the New York Times covered all of those stories, it used other reporters to write them.

One could argue that it’s far better for nonprofit news to be spread across the newsroom with multiple reporters and popping up in several reporting beats, than to be pigeonholed with only one reporter. Just this week, J.  David Goodman published an interesting story in the New York Times on the lessons nonprofits are learning from the Kony 2012 video.

So how many “national nonprofits” really got coverage written by Stephanie Strom in the New York Times? Not that many. Looking back at 2011, here’s what Strom actually wrote about on the philanthropy beat:

The actual nonprofits mentioned in 2011 by Strom on the New York Times philanthropy beat (with very minor mentions included) were:

  • Acorn – controversial group wins nonprofit status (May)
  • Alliance Defense Fund – pastors take on politics (September)
  • Alliance of Polish Clubs in the USA – IRS revokes nonprofit status for 275,000 (June)
  • American Bar Association – charitable tax abuse (February), IRS drops audits (July)
  • American Cancer Society Foundation  – charitable giving on the rise (June)
  • American Himalayan Foundation – “Three Cups of Tea” memoir controversy (April)
  • American Hospital Association – Congress asks IRS about oversight of hospitals (October)
  • American Independent News Network – philanthropists require management training (July)
  • American Red Cross – Japan disaster aid (March), GiveBackMail (May),  charitable giving on the rise (June)
  • Americans for Prosperity – political activity by nonprofits (April)
  • Ashoka – Google philanthropy (January)
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – Wal-Mart names new foundation head (October), philanthropic giving (November), foundations buy stocks (November)
  • California Collaborative – Louisville confronts obesity (June)
  • CARE – virtual care packages (March)
  • Cash for Critters – Pepsi Refresh contest controversy (January)
  • Center for American Progress – hedge fund chief takes role in philanthropy (September)
  • Center for the Next Generation – hedge fund chief takes role in philanthropy (September)
  • Center on Philanthropy – famine gets few donations (August)
  • Central Asia Institute – “Three Cups of Tea” memoir controversy (April)
  • Children Now – hedge fund chief takes role in philanthropy (September)
  • Citizen Schools -Google philanthropy (January)
  • Common Sense Media – hedge fund chief takes role in philanthropy (September)
  • Community Catalyst – Congress asks IRS about oversight of hospitals (October)
  • Conservation Northwest – GiveBackMail (May)
  • Cornell University – science school (December)
  • Crossroads GPS – political activity by nonprofits (April), IRS drops audits (July), IRS denies nonprofit status (July)
  • David & Lucille Packard Foundation – foundations buy stocks (November)
  • Democratic Leadership Council – IRS denies nonprofit status (July)
  • Direct Relief International – California scrutinizes nonprofits (August)
  • Do Something – charity goes mobile to involve teens (June)
  • East Palo Alto Community Law Project – hedge fund chief takes role in philanthropy (September)
  • Ecotrust – foundations buy stocks (November)
  • Emerge America – IRS denies nonprofit status (July)
  • Emerge California – IRS denies nonprofit status (July)
  • Emerge Maine – IRS denies nonprofit status (July)
  • Emerge Massachusetss – IRS denies nonprofit status (July)
  • Emerge Nevada – IRS denies nonprofit status (July)
  • Endeavor Global Inc. – philanthropists require management training (July)
  • Feeding America – charity goes mobile to involve teens (June)
  • Ford Foundation – hedge fund chief takes role in philanthropy (September), philanthropic giving (November)
  • Found Animals Foundation – philanthropic giving (November)
  • Friends Seminary School – bonds (January)
  • Girl Scouts – bell ringers go digital (November)
  • Giving USA Foundation – charitable giving on the rise (June), philanthropic giving (November)
  • Global Giving – Japan disaster aid (March)
  • Guardian Angel Feline Rescue – Pepsi Refresh contest controversy (January)
  • HFZ Charitable Supporting Organization of Santa Barbara/Dove Center – charitable tax abuse (February)
  • Independent Sector – foundations buy stocks (November)
  • Indiana University –  charitable giving on the rise (June)
  • InStedd – Google philanthropy (January)
  • International Community Foundation – California scrutinizes nonprofits (August)
  • International Medical Corps – Japan disaster aid (March)
  • Jewish Care – nonprofits going out of business due to mission completion (April)
  • John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – foundations buy stocks (November)
  • John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – charity goes mobile to involve teens (June)
  • KaBoom! – charitable giving on the rise (June)
  • Kaiser Family Foundation – hedge fund chief takes role in philanthropy (September)
  • Kaiser Foundation Hospitals – California scrutinizes nonprofits (August)
  • Kanye West Foundation – closure (April)
  • Kids in Distressed Situations – Japan disaster aid (March)
  • Kiva -GiveBackMail (May)
  • Kritter Kountry – Pepsi Refresh contest controversy (January)
  • Landesa – Google philanthropy (January), philanthropists require management training (July)
  • Living Word Christian Center – pastors take on politics (September)
  • Malaria No More – nonprofits out of business due to mission completion (April)
  • Management Center – philanthropists require management training (July)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology – donation with tax questions (April)
  • Mercy Corps – famine gets few donations (August)
  • Meyer Foundation – philanthropists require management training (July)
  • National Association of State Charity Officials – Congress asks IRS about oversight of hospitals (October)
  • National Council on Nonprofits – IRS revokes nonprofit status for 275,000 (June)
  • Nonprofit Finance Fund – philanthropic giving (November)
  • Omidyar Network – philanthropists require management training (July), foundations buy stocks (November)
  • Operation Smile – failed merger (February, March)
  • Otto Schiff Housing Association – nonprofits going out of business due to mission completion (April)
  • Out2Play – nonprofits going out of business due to mission completion (April)
  • Oxfam America – famine gets few donations (August)
  • Pasadena Roving Archers – IRS revokes nonprofit status for 275,000 (June)
  • Phoenix Industrial Development Agency – bonds (January)
  • Planned Parenthood – bonds (January)
  • Presbyterian Community Center – Louisville confronts obesity (June)
  • Priorities USA Action – political activity by nonprofits (April), IRS drops audits (July)
  • Project Veritas – controversial group wins nonprofit status (May)
  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – Louisville confronts obesity (June)
  • Rockefeller Foundation – philanthropic giving (November)
  • Salvation Army – lawsuit (April), bell ringers go digital (November)
  • Save the Children – Japan earthquake aid (March)
  • Seva Foundation – Google philanthropy (January)
  • Silicon Valley Community Foundation – philanthropic giving (November)
  • Skyline Church – pastors take on politics (September)
  • Smile Train – failed merger (February, March)
  • Social Finance – philanthropic giving (November)
  • Soros Open Society Foundation – leadership change (December)
  • St. Peter Claver Community Garden – Louisville confronts obesity (June)
  • Stanford University – California scrutinizes nonprofits (August), couple donates $150 million (November)
  • Three Ring Ranch – Pepsi Refresh contest controversy (January)
  • Thrive Foundation for Youth – couple donates $150 million (November)
  • Unicef – Google philanthropy (January)
  • United States Fund for Unicef – famine gets few donations (August)
  • Urban Institute – IRS revokes nonprofit status for 275,000 (June)
  • Wal-Mart Foundation – Wal-Mart names new foundation head (September)
  • Water Advocates – nonprofits going out of business due to mission completion (April)
  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – California scrutinizes nonprofits (August)
  • World Jewish Relief – nonprofits going out of business due to mission completion (April)
  • World Vision International – California scrutinizes nonprofits (August)
  • YMCA of Greater Louisville – Louisville confronts obesity (June)

Should the nonprofit world be lamenting Stephanie Strom’s reassignment to the business beat? No. We should rejoice to see a reporter on the business beat who understands the nonprofit world. I’ve heard Robert Egger and other nonprofit leaders talk about seeing nonprofits as businesses, and it’s time for nonprofits to accept their role in this sector and ask for media coverage. We should not just be asking for human interest stories with the features editor. If our nonprofits serve particular niche audiences or industries, we should pitch coverage ideas to reporters covering those areas. We should also be pursuing stories that look at the multi-billion dollar nonprofit sector as a legitimate entity in its own right from the business desk.

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.


With Lance Armstrong Sanctioned and Without Sponsors, Will LIVESTRONG Survive?

Cyclist Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and sanctioned for illegally using drugs by the US Anti-Doping Agency, but will the popular cancer-fighting charity he founded, the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LIVESTRONG), survive? Are we about to witness the collapse of one of America’s innovative charities due to its founder’s fall from grace?
Not all charities survive a scandal involving its founder. The charity Second Mile will not survive the Jerry Sandusky scandal – because his crimes were so horrific (sexual abuse of children) and Sandusky used the charity’s programs to groom his victims. Some of Sandusky’s victims have blocked the charity’s transfer of assets to another organization, pending the settlement of litigation, but the ongoing plan appears to be that the Second Mile will evaporate – for good and forever.
But doping is not child abuse. Armstrong is admired as a cancer survivor in his own right and for his charity’s wildly successful efforts to raise funds for research and inspire cancer survivors to keep fighting the disease. That golden effort may be tarnished, but it is not destroyed by the scandal that has taken Armstrong off his public pedestal and out of sanctioned sports for life.
Other nonprofits have looked to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, in its brief 15 years of existence, as an innovator to emulate – talking about its social media strategies, storytelling messaging and merchandise marketing. But now there are hard lessons emerging – not borne from success but from pain – these are the kind of lessons that make or break an organization. What can we learn now about how to communicate in a crisis from the foundation?
Separate the founder from the charity. Armstrong has stepped down as chairman of the charity and moved to the Board of Directors. At the 15th anniversary celebration for the foundation a few days ago, Armstrong said to supporters, “The mission is bigger than me. It’s bigger than any individual.”
Keep your messaging focused on your work – while addressing media needs if you feel you must make a statement. The foundation issued a press release about Armstrong stepping down as chairman of the board on October 17, a statement on October 10 by  President and CEO Doug Ullman focuses mainly on Armstrong’s work fighting cancer, and the work of the foundation to fight cancer, and a statement on June 29 again focuses on the foundation’s work supporting cancer survivors. My guess as an outside observer, is that most of those statements were driven mainly by the need to respond to media requests. Most of the press releases issued in 2012 by the foundation focus on its work and partnerships, not the investigations into  Lance Armstrong.
Focus on your mission. The public image on the Foundation’s website is about getting support for dealing with cancer and upcoming events to help cancer survivors, not dealing with the recent controversy around Lance Armstrong. The Foundation’s Facebook page remains focused on the charity’s work to help cancer survivors. Looking at posts by others – you see many professions of support by cancer survivors for the charity’s work (and one super tacky link from someone touting “a great cancer surviving foundation if any of you wish to jump ship”).
Share the stories of people you help – keep the eye on what you do. This morning LiveStrong posted on its Facebook page, Brian’s story, the story of a stage 4 melanoma survivor who loves baseball. The story links to resources that help cancer survivors find clinical trials that might help. The story continues a linkage of previous survivor stories the foundation has shared – focusing on how survivors have faced their fears with the help of the foundation.
And the LiveStrong Foundation may succeed in a new era- even though there are reports of a few donors asking for their money back from the foundation.
A Los Angeles Times op-ed asked what owners of the 80 million LiveStrong bracelets will do now – will they continue to wear their bracelets. The author notes that his friend ultimately decided to continue wearing his bracelet – because it had stood for solidarity with family members diagnosed with cancer and an inspiration for his own struggles. He said, “Its meaning is greater than the man to him, even if there’s no way to extricate one from the other.” CNN voiced a similar question with many similar responses – although some expressed trepidation about continuing to wear their bracelets due to the scandal.
I think the Lance Armstrong Foundation can survive this – as a leaner and humble organization – if it sticks to this strategy and remains focused on its mission to help cancer survivors and raise funds for researchers trying to find a cure.
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.

Wordle About Public Relations in a New Year

I created this wordle about public relations. Enjoy!

Create your own at

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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