The CEO bully pulpit: Commentaries in the digital age

Flickr/southtyrolean

I’ve wanted to post for a while about one of my favorite media tactics for nonprofits and foundations. I guess it’s one of my favorites because I’ve been lucky enough to work with some courageous CEOs and executive directors who were willing to use their stature and credibility in the community to move the needle on social issues—everything from renewable energy to the importance of arts for school children.

I call this media tactic the bully pulpit, and you should only use it if you and your board are comfortable taking a public stand on an issue.

As more foundations and nonprofits understand that information is one of their chief assets, their leaders are using online tools like blogs and twitter to share their knowledge and perspectives with a wider audience. One simple sharing tactic is the submission of opinion editorials or commentaries to online media outlets—both mainstream and niche.

Most mainstream media have robust online websites, and nearly all include invitations for people from the community to submit opinion pieces or commentaries for online publication. Think about the media outlets—and don’t forget the specialty media—that are read by the audiences you’re trying to reach.

First, let me remind you that any tactic has to fit within your larger communications strategy. For instance, if you’re trying to change an issue frame on a particular issue, or bring new information and wisdom to light about a public policy, this tactic may be of use to you. If you’re trying to change public policy, this can work too, but be sure to adhere to nonprofit guidelines about advocacy.

Part one: Placing the commentary

This tactic actually has two parts, both equally important. First, you need to write and place the commentary. That involves five steps:

1) Clarify what you want to change (behavior, policy, awareness) as a result of the commentary and who can actually make that change (your key audiences).

2) Thoughtfully pick which media outlets reach those people and look over those outlets’ submission policies.

3) Think about timing (if you’re submitting more than one, do you want a blitz or a stream? Do you want to tie this to an event?).

4) Write a commentary tailored to each media outlet and the audience it attracts, which includes understanding your main talking points and path of persuasion, as well as the commentary guidelines for each outlet. Most op-eds run between 500-800 words.

5) Submit the piece online, including a brief explanation of who you are. (NOTE: Most outlets can take up to three weeks to publish op-eds. They may ask you for a photo.)

For each of the outlets you think are good matches for you key audiences, take time to read through the last few months of  published op-eds—both from  their editorial staff and members of the community—to get a sense of what kinds of issues and approaches each outlet is interested in. (Also, make sure no one has already written what you’re planning to write.)

Then do a topic search of their news for the past two months on the issue you want to write about. Pay special attention to what they’ve published about this issue in the past two weeks—there may be a news hook for your piece in there. For instance, if you want to write about education, it’s important to know that a new educational achievement report just came out last week—you may want to tie your commentary to that article.

Part two: Targeted recycling

Part two kicks in when the commentary is published. It’s great when visitors to the media website happen to read your piece, but don’t rely on serendipity for getting your key audiences to the website. Let them know once it’s been published through a short email with a link included. Don’t look at the email as a way to toot your own horn, think of it as sharing interesting content with potential readers. (Check to see if the media outlet requires link rights. Sometimes, these articles go offline after a couple of weeks unless you have obtained those rights.)

If you want to get even more personal, get reprint permission rights from the media outlet and send it out to key people with a personal note attached. (Be aware, reprint rights can cost money. Be sure to ask if they offer a nonprofit discount.)

More likely than not, this post-publication recycling of the op-ed is going to be the best way to ensure that those people you really want to see it actually do.

You can use online commentaries to create buzz by submitting different pieces to different media on the same topic in a short period–3-4 weeks. Or you can create a steady stream over a few months, or aim at quarterly placements that keep an issue in front of the public.

If you have any other advice for nonprofit leaders who write commentaries—please share it below!

CC photo credit: southtyrolean

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