Striving To Be A Source

March 15, 2010       Carrie Martin      

"There’s more. Get out your notebook." If you’re a movie buff, you will recognize this quote from the 1976 movie,  All the President’s Men, in which Deep Throat, arguably the most famous secret source in history, provides Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, with crucial information that leads to the unraveling of the Watergate scandal. The term “source” isn’t just reserved for clandestine informants meeting in dimly lit parking garages. It can and should apply to nonprofit communicators, who work with the press every day, effectively managing organizational reputation. This is accomplished not by divulging insider secrets, but by providing factual, accurate and timely information to reporters.

Most media relations professionals have the responsibility of either gaining visibility for, or mitigating the impact of, a crisis upon a trusted brand. In today’s click-and-send world of blast emails and multimedia press releases, reporters must equate the sheer volume of pitches they receive every day to air-dropped pamphleteering over a war zone. Throw into the mix a dizzying array of new ways to communicate, including Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, and journalists now have to cull through an even greater stream of clutter to get at the heart of what’s real news. Hosts of NPR’s Weekend Edition recently posted some tips of how they use Twitter in the newsroom, citing that it has “proven to be a critical tool for getting first-hand information,” but that the key is to verify that the Tweets are authentic.

Nonprofit communicators should also use social networking sites as a tool to communicate with reporters but not as a crutch. Successful media relations depend on establishing relationships with reporters outside the confines of technology, striving to become a source, not just a purveyor of organizational propaganda. Far too many nonprofit communicators pitch everything they have access to and the emphasis is on quantity not quality. This is often driven by the fact that in the nonprofit arena there is a high demand for positive news coverage.  A great news article in a respected publication helps chief executives and fundraisers establish relevance with donors and other stakeholders. But the pressure for good coverage should not always drive media outreach.

This kind of haphazard pitching erodes personal credibility with the media and limits overall effectiveness. Nonprofit communicators must consider the newsworthiness of a potential story, gauge a reporter’s likely interest, and probably most important, become familiar with the content of the news outlet you’re pitching. Before you pick up the phone, or press send on an email, you should always be ready to answer one crucial question from journalists: “Why should my readers/viewers/listeners care?” If you stumble over an answer and confess to ignorance, the conversation will be over before you’ve had a chance to say goodbye. So whether you’re pitching a positive story about your organization or reacting to a potentially negative situation, successful media relations depends on two-way communication. This is especially true during a crisis. Negative press about financial mismanagement, fraudulent activity or poor organizational performance, can erode people’s trust and confidence in a brand, and severely impact the level of donor dollars that come in the door.

Media relations professionals have the sometimes unenviable position of being on the front lines of a crisis. Some people might react to being in this “hot seat” by ceasing communication or at least making it more difficult for reporters to get information. For example, when the federal Form 990s come out every year, journalists often pose questions related to executive salaries, compensation and severance, which can make some nonprofit executives squirm. In situations like this, organizational culture might drive a highly ineffective “if we don’t talk about this maybe it will go away” media strategy. The reality is that compared with for-profit companies, charities have a much greater responsibility to be transparent. Some people might believe that “controlling the message” means turning down requests for interviews in the hopes that the fuel will be eliminated from a media fire. But in the nonprofit world, ignoring the media or simply cutting off the flow of information is the surest way to diminish trust and make a bad news story worse.

Even in a crisis, or rather especially in a crisis, media relations professionals must still strive to be a “source” to journalists. This includes returning calls, providing information, and making nonprofit executives available for interviews when appropriate. This will in most cases result in a story being told in a more complete and informed way. In fact, sometimes trust is best established in a crisis and the silver lining is opportunity. Journalists will know they can depend on you for information. When you eventually approach them with a “good news” story, the reporter will remember how hard you worked to get them information and access, and will return the favor by, at a minimum, returning your phone call.  

Carrie A. Martin is the vice president of communications and marketing for the American Lung Association national headquarters in Washington, D.C.