The CEO bully pulpit: Commentaries in the digital age


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

Communications audits: Media Analysis



Last week I provided guidelines for assessing the communications that you control. But that’s only half of the story–especially in today’s conversational Web 2.0 environment.

This week, attention turns to what the media is saying about you, and next week—what the Web is saying about you, and what your peers and competitors are up to.

Media Analysis

You all know your local media outlets, and you should be continuously tracking coverage of your organization and issue in them through Google alerts. But for this exercise, collect all the major coverage you’ve had in the past year—online and in print. (If possible, make this exercise an annual one so you can track trends over time.)

Don’t just read through the coverage, create a spreadsheet and answer the questions below for each story. There are two ways to approach this: 1) start with the media that you most wanted coverage by and work down to the media that covered you that you didn’t aim for, or, 2) start by tracking the coverage generated by your specific media relations efforts/news releases and work down to coverage that you didn’t generate yourselves. Both of those collection methods will yield insights.

For each story:

  • Where did it appear? (name of specific medium plus whether it was print, electronic, or online)
  • What date did it run?
  • Who wrote or produced it? Do you have any kind of relationship with that person?
  • Was it long, medium, or short?
  • Did it feature a photo, or a side bar?
  • Was is positive or negative about your organization or its work?
  • Did it include a quote from your organization? Who was quoted?
  • What was the main message about your organization that came through? (state this message in one simple sentence)
  • Was that the main message you wanted to come through? If not, what was the message you were aiming for?
  • What was the genesis of the story? Your news release, a call to a reporter, etc.
  • Were any parts of your news release repeated in the story?
  • Was the issue framed in the way your organization is framing it? Did media use any of the same language you are using in your frame?
  • Was there any measurable ROI for each of your major media pushes, e.g. attendance spikes at media-promoted events, a sharp increase in website hits from a media article, a rise in donations following a media feature, etc. Always try to track tangible results for your organization during and after a media push.

Glean trends and insights

Now, look over the spreadsheet for insights into how effectively you met your media relations objectives.

  • Are there any reporters writing about your issue, especially on a regular basis, that you haven’t built a relationship with? If so—start a relationship now, when you aren’t pushing a story. These relationships are as much about helping reporters/bloggers as they are about getting a story.
  • What was the biggest source of coverage—your news releases? your phone calls? other kinds of media networking you did? partners’ media relations? etc.  (If the biggest source wasn’t your organization, think about the implications of that.)
  • How does the coverage match with your strategic communication media goals? (e.g., If you’re trying for big hits every quarter—did you achieve that? If you’re trying to up your coverage in one particular media outlet—did you achieve that?)
  • Are there any media “holes” that you need to focus on: media popular with your key audiences that aren’t covering you at all.
  • Did your photos end up being used? (If not, consider why that may be. Are they of high enough quality? Are they compelling and relevant? Do they include human beings, especially faces? Do they tell a story?)
  • What’s the ratio of negative to positive stories? If there were negative stories you think were unfair and inaccurate, try to analyze what happened and consider how you can improve your credibility with those reporters.
  • Is there a recurring negative message or meme out there about your organization or work or issue you need to be aware of and try to correct? Is there a recurring positive message you’d like to reinforce?
  • Are the positive messages that appeared actually the most important messages you would want people to hear about your organization and its work? If not, you need to work on your message platform so you’re repeating the most important positive messages every chance you get.
  • Who is most often interviewed from your organization by the media? Does that person do a great job every time, or could they profit from media training?
  • Is your frame is gaining traction?  Are your language and metaphors being used by the media.
  • Were the correlations between media channels and ROI what you wanted and expected? e.g., did smaller, niche media deliver more than mass media? did online perform better than print? did TV disappoint?
  • Does the media seem more interested in some topics than others? Ask yourself why that might be and how you can use that knowledge.

You may even want to write a little summary of the image of your organization as it’s portrayed in last year’s coverage to clarify what you need to focus on changing. This whole analysis gives you a rich context to start planning the media relations component of your next strategic plan.

If you have additional ideas for things to watch for in a media coverage analysis, please add them below!


The power of naming: Clarify and frame your work



A week ago there was a piece in the NYT magazine about Frank Luntz, issue framer for the Republicans. You know him even if you don’t know him. He not only writes fundamental framing memos like his recent “The Language of Health Care,” recommending that Republicans link health care reform to “a Washington takeover” and other ominous forebodings. He’s also the guy who helped name many Republican policies—your know, “energy exploration” instead of “drilling for oil,” the “death tax” instead of “estate tax” or “inheritance tax,” and “electronic intercepts” rather than “eavesdropping,” among others.

I’ve marveled for years at the “opposite speak” employed in these names (e.g. the 2003  “Clear Skies Initiative“,” which weakened the Clean Air Act and required fewer reductions in air pollution). But we all have something to learn from Luntz about naming. No, not the art of opposite speak—but the power of names to shape perception.

He doesn’t just slap long, academic, left-brained names on issues and initiatives. He doesn’t rely on cute names that will amuse but also confuse. Nor does he rely on acronymns. He thinks carefully about how the language used in a name can tell the story and frame the issue. Names can even help define who’s got a stake in the story. (Only the wealthy may incur significant estate or inheritance taxes, but “death taxes” involve us all, right?) That’s a powerful practice when you’re trying to reach a populace awash in information and searching for quick filters to help them figure out what what’s relevant.

Here’s an example of how names can shape thoughts about a social issue. Take the name “domestic violence”—which is genderless (although the vast majority of such violence is against women) and places the problem—and thus the solution—in the privacy of the home. This name implies it’s a problem between two people, nothing to do with the public. Compare that with the name “wife battering”—which is more accurately gender specific and reframes the violence as brutality. With the latter, average citizens can see a prevention role for themselves. Who wants to allow the battering of any human being?

Likewise, compare the past name “day care,” which implied babysitting while parents are at work, and the current name “school readiness.” As a citizen, I may not be that concerned about helping provide babysitting services to working parents, but I might want coming generations succeed in school so they can become productive working members of society.

As I visit foundation and nonprofit Web sites, I see so many bland, generic names or long, academic names or clever but opaque names for their initiatives, projects, and research reports. And don’t even get me started on the acronyms. None of these names get at the story behind the work, frame the issue addressed in the work, or clarify its relevance for people.

Here are a few examples of names used by nonprofits and foundations to describe their important program work that I quickly pulled off the internet today.

The Home Visiting Initiative Program
Making Connections
Leadership for Community Change
Blueprint for Action
Effective Citizenry
Models for Change
Window of Opportunity
Creating Common Ground
Food and Society

Naming decisions deserve more thought, because names help frame a nonprofit’s core work. (They also can help differentiate your work from other nonprofits.) Names are the first filter that your audience uses to figure out whether something is relevant. They will be repeated far more than the rest of your content. Make it easy for people to understand what your work or information is really about and why they should care.

Even if it takes more time and effort to come up with a clear, concise, meaningful name…do it. The sector should use every opportunity to help people grasp the meaning and value of its contributions. More thoughtful naming would be a good start.

NOTE: A few days after I wrote this post, Andy Goodman’s newsletter called for nonprofits to reconsider their organizational names. I couldn’t agree more, but probably would never have been as optimistic as Andy that nonprofits would seriously consider such a big change. I’d just be happy if nonprofits chose better names for their programs, issues, and products. Anyway Andy, bold move and good for you!

CC photo credit: THEfunkyman


Guest post: It’s your nonprofit’s anniversary? Who cares…

Rick Schwartz

Rick Schwartz

Another great guest post by Rick Schwartz.

In late 2007, I was invited  to talk to a community foundation that was going to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2008.

Coincidentally, 2007 was my own 25th wedding anniversary, and that was the basis of my perhaps controversial opening question to the community foundation’s board: “Who cares?”

Think about it. A couple celebrates a landmark anniversary. Of course it should be meaningful to them. It offers all kinds of opportunities for reflection and renewal. But why do we expect other people to care? However warm your family, however close your friends, anniversaries have a very weak gravitational pull as you move outside the hot inner core.

Apply that reality to your nonprofit, too. Who really cares that your organization is having an anniversary? Your staff? Your board? Your clients? Your funders? Your grantees (if you’re a grantmaker)? What is it exactly they should feel so excited about?

Yet many nonprofits assume that a fancy-numbered anniversary will somehow magically: 1) finally make them as famous as they deserve to be, and 2) bring in lots of money.

Actually, it’s worth a try

Despite my cynical approach, the community foundation decided it would forge ahead with a 25th anniversary celebration with me as their for the following 14 months. I think it was because I told them that their anniversary did, in fact, mean a great deal to certain key people in its fascinating mix of urban and rural, tiny and larger, poor and wealthier towns.

We just had to tell those people what that importance was. An anniversary year would be a good start. We could use the occasion to: distinguish the organization from every other organization, and bring inside circles of people closer. It’s also a perfect time to reinvigorate staff and board with the meaning and mission of the organization. I promise you, your organization will change in the course of the year.

Everyone’s anniversary means something different

So, I’m a donor to your organization. Why should I be excited about your anniversary?

The community foundation used its anniversary to tell key people four important messages: proof of permanence, legacy, achievement, and gratitude.

  • We made it! Twenty-five years ago, our founders had a dream of people creating a permanent endowment for the region. Today, $30 million later, it could declare victory, for everyone’s good!
  • Your ‘investments’ have made a difference. At the 25-year mark, we can look back and count the successes: programs launched, scholarships granted, land protected, children’s services created, etc.
  • You are a part of history! Stop and take a breath. This is no longer a two- or three-year project, but the first 25 years of history of what will become an even greater institution.
  • Thank you! Have we had a chance to thank all of you who actually planted the seeds? Can one ever say ‘thank you’ enough

What does your nonprofit’s anniversary mean?

Nine basic activities that made the difference

For the community foundation, here are what turned out to be the nine most important elements of the year. The first five prepared the soil:

  • The board and staff agreed to be ice cold clear and realistic about our goals for the year.
  • Every item we planned was judged and designed for its direct relevance to the goals. Lots of great ideas were proposed; lots were discarded if the link couldn’t be made.
  • We developed a no-surprises budget that even Ed, the CFO, could comfortably live with
  • Everyone agreed to and embraced the answers for “It’s your anniversary. So what?”Every public mention of the anniversary included the “so what?” answers.

The other four key elements were specific to this organization; your activities may be different.

  • The foundation held two lovely gatherings. The first one was at the beginning of the year for key donors and funders, former board members, and committee members. Attendees were thanked for their essential roles in the organization. They were given the official “reasons” for the anniversary and were given the first look at the schedule of activities. Finally, as “insiders,” they were encouraged to be ambassadors during this celebratory year. The second gathering was in the fall. Invitations went to the above group of insiders, but also to people more loosely connected to the foundation, grantees, and just about everyone of influence in the state.    The program and the setting were choreographed to answer the “So what?” question, but entertainingly.
  • With appropriate fanfare, the foundation gave an anniversary “gift to the community” that brilliantly represented why the foundation is such a unique organization. In this case, it was a $1.5 million gift to the local public library system.
  • The foundation created an award-winning annual report. The two-part publication is pretty spectacular (you can see it online) but the process of creating it was almost as important. The CEO and others interviewed people who had started the foundation as a dream and a promise 25 years earlier. In doing so, the report honored people who had drifted, perhaps, from the fold, and reminded them they were welcome. Their stories were heartfelt and respectful.
  • We requested, and received, editorial meetings with the daily press. The parties and the annual report brought the foundation’s existing circles closer. The gift to the community and the media work introduced the foundation to a wider public.

Sure, we had some great outcomes, but the best are yet to come

Was all the effort worth it? Some measures are quantitative:

  • A 57% increase in contributions from the previous year, despite a horrendous economy
  • Major turnouts at both events
  • The Gold award for the annual report from the Council on Foundations (yay!)
  • Governor Jodi Redl declared a “Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut Day”
  • Congratulatory editorials.

The anniversary year has passed. Now it’s up to the community foundation to keep that spirit of celebration alive by continuing its good work.


Nonprofits: Ask yourself the hard questions before someone else does



It would be nice if everyone agreed with us all the time. But, in the world of nonprofits and foundations, sometimes the social issue you’re advocating for is controversial and has vocal, well organized opponents.

As your organization’s communications professional, you need to get to know them. You need to follow and understand their arguments in order to try to neutralize them. As uncomfortable as they are—situations where your work may be called into question or criticized can be opportunities for you to defuse detractors before they have the chance to voice objections. But you have to anticipate and be prepared. Your preparation may not stop them, but it can substantially weaken their position.

It’s pointless to fear opponents, dangerous to ignore them, but productive to be curious about them. Get inside their heads and hearts, understand where they’re coming from. Use Web 2.0 to listen to them. Read their blogs, social media sites, and speeches. Subscribe to their publications. It’s the only way you can anticipate their actions, reactions, and the nature of any potential attacks.

Next time your organization is about to take an action or a stand that could be controversial, spend time preparing for the worst scenario. Write out the most damaging objections and criticisms your opponents could possibly make. Then force yourself to answer all of them.

First, be brutally honest with yourself about any that are TRUE.  If there are weak spots in your organization or its plans, you can’t just hope those flaws don’t get noticed. You need to correct them before you act. The worst thing you can do is try to hide something in today’s world of transparency and connection.

For criticisms that are unfounded, develop positive talking points that make their point moot. (Don’t use your opponent’s negative language or issue frame.) Your goal is to answer convincingly all the difficult questions before they ever get asked, robbing your opponents of fuel. (Listen to his recent speeches; Obama is really good at this.) You’ll be amazed at how this process builds your confidence, and well as improves your powers of persuasion. If it’s useful and appropriate, share your talking points with your supporters.

This technique works for media interviews as well. Certainly, reporters aren’t opponents and shouldn’t be viewed that way. But they occasionally can ask hard questions as part of their job. You or your executives will feel much more at ease talking to them if you’ve addressed all the potentially difficult questions beforehand—and have come up with talking points that are positive, stay on message, and above all, tell the truth.

This is one way to prepare for possible criticism, but it’s no substitute for a crisis communications plan—which I will describe in a future post. Even small nonprofits should be alert to potential crises, and should have outlined an efficient process that goes into play the minute signs of a crisis appear.

Don’t forget to download my new, free 20-page eBook on best practices in nonprofit Web site design!

DOWNLOAD HERE: Best Practices: Nonprofit Web Site Design

CC photo credit: humanoide

Free tool of the week: PitchEngine lets you create and distribute social media releases


I blogged a while back about the desirability of nonprofits and foundations using social media releases rather than traditional press releases to share their big news with media. I know social media releases are still an emerging tool for many, but PitchEngine is a dandy way to try it out–free!

Social media releases efficiently organize of a variety of online resources to make the journalist’s job easier. In the previous post I gave you a template for developing your own social media releases, but PitchEngine does all that for you, and more. It has a great template that you plug all your information into, it hosts your release, and offers you many ways to share your release with media, friends, supporters, etc. Four short how-to videos get you started.

PitchEngine is billed as a place for PR pros to get together with journalists, because the service can be used by public relations practitioners AND by journalists trolling for story ideas. But it’s also a cool tool for nonprofit communicators to consider using. Your free release is active for 30 days, then is deleted–unless you sign up for a paid newsroom archive. For now, just use the release building template, share your release with your key media contacts through their email function, and use any of their other distribution methods that make sense for your organization. Experiment and see what happens. (If demand warrants–you can always sign up for the archive function later.) They also send your release out through their PitchFeed.

Next time you have a big enough story, with online resources you’d like to include (photos, slideshows, videos, bookmarks, links, etc.)–simply sign up for and try out PitchEngine. There’s a built-in Twitter function that lets anyone immediately tweet it, and if your organization has social media pages there are also opportunities to automatically share a summary of the release on those pages. You’ll end up with a much richer and more engaging release and very efficient distribution flexibility. As as Social Media Today says: social media relations is clean, green, and smart!

Media coverage + handwritten note = powerful touch for nonprofits



When you combine the power of the handwritten note with the impact of objective media coverage, you can make a memorable impression on your key funders, supporters, potential supporters, and partners. It’s all about building stronger relationships.

If you’re fortunate enough to receive positive media coverage, leverage it by attaching a short, personal hand-written note to a copy of the article and sending it to the people you want to see it. That may only be a handful of people. This isn’t mass production; it’s human touch. You can also do this with media articles that don’t mention your organization but that cover points you want particular people to understand.

On your note, include the big message that you want them to take away from the article—without sounding institutional. This is you talking to a friend. It may take a little longer than sending emails with links or scans, but it will leave a more lasting impression. People read these personal touch communications in a different way than they do an email. (Who among us doesn’t love to see in our mailbox—amid the junk and business mail—a hand-addressed envelope?)

Don’t hesitate to use handwritten notes for other important communications where you want a more personal feel—especially thank you’s! It’s a great practice to send them to reporters who have done a good job covering your issue or organization. (They get a lot of story pitches, but very few thank you’s.)

CC photo credit: klmontgomery