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“Your story and how it fits into the landscape of the marketplace, business practices, breakthrough moments, and how we live our lives, is the heart of compelling communication.”

– Laine Conklin, President, Conklin Communications

You know you’ve “made it” (or made it somewhere at least) when you can finally affix the coveted icon of a major publication like Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, or Fast Company to your website. It’s a signal to viewers that you’re a trustworthy organization. Executed correctly, a solid public relations (PR) strategy will help you gain visibility and position you as a thought leader – resulting in greater brand awareness, and new users, partners, and funders.

But how do you earn media? How do you persuade a reporter that you’re worth talking about? The answers to these questions and more in the sections that follow.

Nonprofit Public Relations 101

PR is defined in a variety of ways, and often encompasses all external communications from an organization, including crisis management and owned media like email marketing, social media, and blogging (more in Chapter 10: Tech Nonprofit Marketing). For the purposes of this chapter, we’re going to focus on the holy grail: earned media.

Earning media is time consuming and can wear on your patience. If you don’t have the luxury of hiring communications support in the form of in-house staff or a PR firm, you’ll quickly learn that it’s not easy. You may (honestly…will) email 200 reporters and only hear back from one or two. But the hours of effort are worth it when you get a press placement that amplifies your story.

The most important thing to remember when trying to earn media is that reporters are people, too. They are motivated to report on true stories that interest their readers. If you think of PR as relationship-building, it will make approaching the task easier. The better a reporter knows you, the more likely they are to read your pitches. A few tips:

  • Personalize your pitches. 
  • Put extra effort into building relationships with reporters whose beats are aligned with your work.
  • Regularly update reporters on what your organization is up to.
  • Let reporters know you saw and enjoyed their recent article.
  • Make their job easy by heeding the advice in the sections that follow.

Bonus: the fact that solutions journalism, or the approach to news reporting that focuses on the responses to social issues, is becoming more common means that by virtue of being a tech nonprofit, you – my friend – are in a great position to earn some media. 

Build Your Media List 

Start building a media list as soon as possible. Think of your media list as your press handbook. A living document, you should regularly expand it and keep it up to date. You can use this sample media list as a starting point (it includes outlets you may want to have on your radar as a tech nonprofit). In its most perfect state, a media list contains:

  • Every possible reporter who could be interested in covering stories about you.
  • Each reporter’s contact info.
  • Their beat, or the specific topic within which they write. 
  • Notes on how to pitch them.
  • Any of their coverage that’s relevant to you.

Pro tip

Follow reporters on Twitter and interact with their posts so they start to recognize you.

We recommend that you think outside the social impact beat. Yes, you should absolutely be on the radar of every reporter interested in social impact. And, you should broaden your horizons to include reporters who could tangentially be interested in your work when the time is right. For example, if you’re running a Fintech nonprofit, think about pitching to financial, economic, business, and tech reporters. Or if you’re located in Atlanta, think about local reporters whose beats align with your work, story, or the communities in which you’re making an impact.

Pro tip

Create specific media lists (or new columns in your spreadsheet) for each story you pitch. This way, you can focus on pitching the outlets and reporters best aligned to the story.

Tips for Creating a Media List

  • Do a Google search for terms that are applicable to your organization (click News in the top navigation bar to view news articles only). This will give you a sense of what publications and reporters are writing about your issue area (or relevant stories).
  • Go publication by publication and search for terms or themes that are relevant to your organization. Once you find a relevant article, check out the reporter and add them to your media list if their coverage is aligned. Remember to confirm that they’re still writing for the publication. 
  • Set up Google alerts anytime certain terms are mentioned in an article. This way, you can stay on top of who’s writing about relevant topics in real time. This article explains how to set up Google news alerts.
  • Once you’ve added a target, it’s time to find their email address. If it’s not listed in their site bio, try Twitter, as some reporters share their emails in their Twitter bio. You can also use free email finding tools like Hunter.io and RocketReach.

What’s Newsworthy?

If you’re trying to catch a reporter’s eye, pitch them a newsworthy story. A newsworthy story is first and foremost topical. It highlights a trend in society and will pique the interest of readers. Tailor your pitches to align with what you think the publication’s audience will want to read. Spamming reporters with non-topical pitches is definitely a faux pas, so save your pitches for times when your story might be of interest.

While we’d argue that you can usually find a way to position your pitch as newsworthy, sometimes, simply pitching your work, an impact story, or an important milestone in your social impact journey can land you a feature with smaller media outlets. Otherwise, here are some general guidelines on what stories tend to be newsworthy:

  • Announcements: Product launches or significant product updates – think major app overhaul, partnerships with recognizable companies or brands, events, etc. Consider pitching these stories under embargo. Examples include Amble Labs’ launch of Chalmers (which we outline below), or an announcement that you’ve reached 1 million users. 
  • Seasonal: Timely responses to current events or issues. The influx of coverage around tech nonprofits’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic is an example.
  • Evergreen: Stories that are continually relevant, including human interest, founder or user stories, data that shines a light on macro issues or that impact the broader sector or market, etc.

Pro tip

None of those fit your bill? A simple way to position your story as newsworthy is to take stock of what’s happening in the world and consider how your tech nonprofit is a part of that story.

How to Pitch Press

Got something newsworthy? Time to write a strong pitch. A pitch is an email sharing a concise, attention-grabbing overview of your story. Pitches should be personalized – wherever you can, draw a clear connection between your story and the reporter’s interests (more on this below).

How to Write an Effective Pitch 

  • Your ESL (email subject line) is as important as the content of your pitch. Keep it short and compelling. Leverage any newsworthy names or hooks that you can. 
  • Cut to the chase! Don’t waste any time getting to the big draw of your story. 
  • If there’s anything currently in the news cycle that could make your story more relevant, leverage this framing in the intro of your pitch. 
  • Personalize your pitch. Address every reporter by name (“Hi [Name],”) and try including something like: “I saw your article X, and thought you might be interested in hearing about…” 
  • Bold or underline any lines in your pitch that are particularly important. This could be a stat or the date and time of an event you’re pitching. 
  • In general, keep your pitch short. Make it readable by breaking it down into multiple short paragraphs. 
  • Always have a strong CTA at the end of your pitch. “Can I set up a time to tell you more about this news?” is better than “Let me know if you’re interested.”

With your tight pitch in hand, send out your emails – or schedule them to send – early in the morning (like 7am early). Gmail allows you to create templates, saving you time copying and pasting into each email. You can also schedule your emails to send at particular times. 

If at first you don’t succeed, follow, follow up! After sending your pitches, you should follow up with each reporter at least twice. How soon depends on your timeline, but generally, we recommend following up after three days. Think of a brief and polite way to nudge.

Pro tip

Know a PR expert? Have a persuasive friend? Send your pitch around to a few people to get feedback on how you can make your email more compelling.

The Pitch Structure

  1. Email subject line: Cut to the chase in the subject line. 

  2. The hook: “Make me care.” A lead sentence about why your story is newsworthy or relevant to the reporter. The goal is to grab the reporter’s attention.
  3. The body: Keep it brief and compelling. If you have a press release to share, include it below your signature. 
  4. 
More info: If your news is not under embargo, below your signature is where you can share the press release or get into all of the nitty gritty details.

Hi [Name], 

I’m the Founder of Ample Labs, and I wanted to see if you’re interested in covering the launch of our 1st product: Chalmers, a chatbot that connects people facing homelessness with resources like food, clothing, and shelter – anytime, anywhere.

Right here in Toronto, there are 10,000 homeless on the streets every night. What’s more, there are 150,000 individuals who are at-risk of homelessness. Chalmers is the in-your-pocket intervention that connects this community with the resources that can prevent them from spiraling into life on the streets. 

Chalmers has been operating in Beta in Toronto, and over the last 6 months we have seen usage go from 300 monthly users to over 700. This is just the beginning. 

I’d be happy to share the full details under embargo, or set up an interview prior to the official launch on [insert date and time].

Are you available for a short call to hear more?

Best,

CG Chen

__

Upsolve’s pitch to The Wall Street Journal about their impact to date. Note that this was forwarded to a few WSJ reporters who cover bankruptcy

ESL: Bankruptcy Beat — Human Interest Story

Hi [Name],

Dear WSJ bankruptcy folks, 

I’ve practiced corporate bankruptcy for a number of years, working on [mentions high profile work]. Business bankruptcy was fine, but I found myself really passionate about the Chapter 7 pro bono cases I did on the side.  

So I left business law to create a technology nonprofit called Upsolve. We’re using tech to make routine Chapter 7 cases simple, fast, and free for low-income Americans. We’ve already started filing cases in New York. We’re on a mission to blow this thing out and increase access to justice for millions of Americans.

Our nonprofit stems from the landmark Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP) at Harvard Law School. We’re trying to scale the FDRP’s research on effective legal self-help using technology.  We’re advised by [mentions advisors]. We’ve been lucky to receive support from Yale Law School, the Harvard Innovation Lab, and the Robin Hood Foundation.  

My partner, Rohan Pavuluri, is a Harvard undergrad, who’s dropping out of college to tackle this problem, if we can make the project sustainable in the next few weeks. 

We’d love to have the Journal write a story about us.  We’re currently working out of Robin Hood’s legal tech incubator in Brooklyn Heights and could host you there anytime next week. 

Thanks for your consideration, 

Jonathan Petts

Pro tip

Jump on press opportunities by signing up for HARO, or help a reporter out. On this platform, a reporter submits a request for sources on a topic, and anyone (read: you!) who has signed up receives the request by email. Sources can respond to the request with their pitch. HARO not only helps you see valuable media opportunities, but helps you practice pitching. 

Press Page Tips 

You should have a press page on your website. Here’s what a press page should include: 

  • Quotes and links to your best press coverage.
  • A press@companyname.org email address where you can direct press inquiries.
  • Link to your Media Kit (more below).

The Nonprofit Media Kit

We live in a visual world. Therefore, preparing a media kit before you need it will set you up for success when you land a story. A media kit is a simple folder with everything a reporter (or partner) might need to share your story. We host our Media Kit on Google Drive. Here are some things every media kit should have:

  • A one-pager that includes your one liner, a paragraph describing your work, and important facts like your founding year, impact to date, funding, and your partners. 
  • Different versions of your logo (.png, which have the ability to display transparent backgrounds).
  • High quality photos of your founders and/or team.
  • Photos of people using your products from a few angles.
  • Product snapshots that show the platform in action.

PR Is Hard. Don’t Give Up!  

At this point, you should be no stranger to an empathy break…cut yourself some slack. PR is really, really hard. Nonprofit PR is no exception. With limited space on the airwaves and every organization on the planet clamoring for room on the page, standing out takes editing, effort, and persistence. Don’t give up.

We’ve all heard the old adage: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The same goes for yielding poor results in your PR efforts. Try something new. Write a few different pitches and see what sticks. The beauty of this complicated beast is that you can always try again. 

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