“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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The Pitch Structure
Email subject line: Cut to the chase in the subject line.
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.
The body: Keep it brief and compelling. If you have a press release to share, include it below your signature.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org email address where you can direct press inquiries.
Link to your Media Kit (more below).
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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About the Playbook
The Tech Nonprofit Playbook distills best-in-class advice from the leaders whose work has transformed the social impact space. We wrote this guide with you in mind — the world needs you now more than ever.
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