Getting Started with Membership or Non-Profit Publicity


About This Guide:

We realize that for small non-profits or membership organizations, gaining free or low-cost publicity is key to your organization’s success. But we also recognize that many organizations rely on multi-tasking staff and/or volunteers to launch and maintain these publicity efforts.  That is why we’ve compiled this guide for non-profits and membership staff/volunteers with little or no PR or publicity experience.

Since taking on your organization’s publicity efforts may seem like a daunting challenge, we’re offering some guidance that will help you get started as well as some tips for getting your message out and taking advantage of low- or no-cost online and off-line publicity channels.

This guide was compiled by Lori Halley (Engaging Apricot), with substantial contributions by Mark Buzan, APR of Action Strategies.


What is Publicity?

Publicity is all about getting someone else to tell your story. It is an effective and low-cost way to raise awareness of an issue, a cause, an organization, an event or a campaign.  It might involve having your Board Chairman interviewed as a subject matter expert, raising awareness of a pressing issue or publicizing the details of your upcoming seminar or charity event. Not only do you receive free media exposure, but having your story told by a journalist lends it credibility over other forms of promotion, such as advertising.

The Good News About Non-profit / Association Publicity

The good news for non-profits wanting to gain publicity is that while you may lack resources, you actually do have an advantage over private companies - the media may be more willing to promote your organization or your cause. While the media is used to being inundated with companies trying to sell their story in order to promote products, they may find a well-prepared and pitched story from a non-profit or membership organization a refreshing change. In this media-friendly environment, if you gather the right ingredients, you should be able to gain some helpful media exposure.

The right ingredients for successful publicity include:

  • effective planning
  • a truly newsworthy story or message
  • provided in the right format
  • pitched to the right media contact

There are other residual benefits to gaining publicity – the impact of unbiased media coverage may lead to improved member, supporter or volunteer recruitment and retention.


General PR Tips for Your Non-profit or Membership Organization

As soon as you become involved with a non-profit or membership organization – as a staff person or volunteer – you begin to realize the true significance of an effective public relations plan. Non-profits more than any other kind of organization, must constantly work to communicate with the outside world in a manner that brings them positive press, community involvement, and support new programs as well as their overall mission and objectives.

It all starts with the right amount and type of visibility for your organization. Most businesses have teams of PR specialists working around the clock researching, revising, and using expensive techniques and mastery to cultivate the right network of communication to the intended audience. But membership-based organizations and non-profits don’t have big budgets for advertising and marketing. Instead, every dollar that enters the non-profit ledger from membership fees, donations, grants, and other creative efforts, is allocated to serving its community and meeting its mission.


Tips for PR Planning

So - without a working budget or team of PR specialists, how does a non-profit staffer or volunteer go about planning and following through with an effective PR campaign? 

PR can be a very tricky business to master, especially without the proper talent, experience, or most importantly, funds to see it through correctly. There are so many different ways to get your organization’s name, message, and needs out to your audience. Here are a few PR tips to get your PR program started: 

Publicity Goals:

Start with a list of short/long term goals. By beginning to draft a list of short and long term public relations goals, you can start to conceptualize how to reach those goals.

  • What can you feasibly do, without much cost  for effective PR?
  • Perhaps one of your short term PR goals is to become more visible to community groups.
  • A long term goal would be more general, something like, bolstering a network of customers that reaches past your city limits and into another city or state.

By having solid goals – however large or small – and putting it down into a workable plan, you are taking the first demonstrate step towards your pr success. From here, you just need work and momentum.


Consider your network:

When looking for low-cost resources, the first place to start is your own network of contacts. When trying to brainstorm for talent, experience, etc., make a list of your friends, relatives, personal and professional contacts or consult your rolodex for a network of non-profit PR help. Furthermore, ask your friends, relatives, etc. to ask their network of contacts. The more people you have involved that you know, the more apt you will be able to glean their talents and expertise for your non-profit’s PR and visibility.

Collaborate as a team:

Bring together all staff and volunteers for a brainstorming event. Having two brains is better than one, and the more brains the better. Have them brainstorm about their network and also free-or close to free-ways in which to promote your non-profit’s programs, message, and organization. Make a master list of the best agreed-upon ideas, and work this into the short/long term goal plan that you already created, so that you have your goals as well as the possible ways you’ll reach them: cause and effect.

Draft a specific plan:

Once you have a lengthy and potent list of ways to bolster your PR, i.e. press releases, promotional events, Internet marketing ideas, etc; draft a plan that allocates who is responsible for what, as well as strict time frames for each pr campaign, etc. By drafting a specific plan with who, how, what, and how longs; you have an organized plan to reach your short and long term goals.

Review and analyze:

Before jumping right in, make sure that you review the plan and analyze if it is feasible. Moreover, consider what your back up plan is if one of your PR efforts is not as successful as you had hoped.

Create a list of measureables:

This will probably coincide with your list for short and long term goals, but it is always better to be more specific when you can. Look at your action plan. How will you know that you have attained success with this particular PR method or activity? Set a number or some other standard to reach for in order to ensure that your plan is on the right track and doesn’t need tweaking halfway through. For example, perhaps one of your PR campaigns was a promotional event for the public to attend. Establish a number of attendees to reach for. This way you know how many people you have reached, and if you cultivated the right type of promotional event.

Constantly revise and update your media and community lists:

Remember that your master list of community contacts, non-profit members and participants, grantors, etc., is what you are working to bolster. Add names and contacts as soon as you receive them, and revisit to take out names and contacts that have moved, etc. This way, you have a healthy, updated list of opportunities to work with for all your pr and promotional efforts.


Basic Publicity Tools

The News Release:

As we noted earlier, to get the media’s attention, you need to provide them with the right type of information, in a usable format. This is where the News Release comes in.

The news release or press release is a document that presents a story and makes the case for its “newsworthiness.” You’ve probably heard of the 5 W’s: who, what, when, where and why. Your news release needs to tell your story and cover the 5 W’s in the order that makes your case most effectively.

Is it press-worthy or newsworthy?

The most effective news releases offer the most newsworthy or compelling angle – or hook – at the very beginning –  like the lead paragraph of a news story.  In fact, the first sentence of the news release is the most important one and can be the determining factor in getting your story published. But while the lead sentence or paragraph needs to have impact, it also needs to avoid overt "promotionalism."

The subsequent paragraphs of the news release cover off the other W’s - providing details and background information to support the opening statement and to offer perspective. It’s always good to include quotations (e.g., of your subject matter expert, board member, keynote speaker, etc.) that the journalist can quote verbatim in their article to lend a credible opinion and put a human face on the subject matter.

Backgrounder:

This is like a fact sheet that offers all of the pertinent details about your organization. You may already have a standard “boiler plate” overview of your organization (e.g., mission/mandate etc.) which you can use to create your backgrounder document. The backgrounder would be included in press kits for events, and also sent along with news releases and media advisories to provide additional information on your organization.

Event Publicity Tools:

If you are trying to gain publicity for an event, along with your event news release, you might also want to develop a media advisory and/or media alert.

  • Media Advisory:  this is like an invitation to the media to attend your event.  It should contain the usual who, what, when, where and why, as well as additional details that are only relevant to the media (e.g. availability of speakers for interviews; venue details; set-up, etc.).
  • Media Alert:  this is used to promote an event to the media. It is usually sent out the week of or day before the event as a brief reminder about the event – with all of the relevant details (who, what, when, where, why and contact information).

Getting your Message Out

The method you use to send out your media releases will depend on the scope of your plan as well as your existing media relationships. Here are some tips to consider when determining how and where to circulate your news release:

  • If you have an existing active or up-to-date media email list that you use to regularly and effectively interact with the media – you should continue your successful method – and also consider some of the other options noted below. 
  • If your organization hasn’t done much media relations, you need to identify your media audience – for example:
    • Are you looking for local coverage (newspaper, radio, TV)?
    • Is your event focused on the environment and therefore you’d want to target the environment editors
    • Is it a community event – that might target community newspaper editors; cable stations; political editors, etc.
    • Would your event appeal to Business Reporters or Lifestyle editors, etc.
  • You can use online newswire services to get broad coverage your media release – for example: Free-Press-Release.comPR WebPR NewswirePRLeap, etc. Some of these services are free and others have non-profit rates and some charge from $49 to $149.00 per release.
  • Google News: Merrick Lozano of PRLeap (http://www.prleap.com/) suggests the most important step is getting your press release included in Google News (http://news.google.com/). He offers the following 5 tips if you want your press release to get picked up by Google News:
  1. The press release should be more than 80 words
  2. The headline should be between 2 and 22 words (Ideally 7 words)
  3. The body should have paragraphs of a few sentences each
  4. Bullet points and lists tend to cause a problem when they are preceded by 1-2 sentence paragraphs
  5. If  you need to reference an old date in the body of the press release, make sure the publish date of the press release is at the top
  • You can also consider signing up with HARO - HelpAReporter.com -  a moderated email list where you can sign up and keep an eye open for media queries you’re qualified to comment on or act as a source for reporters looking for industry experts.
  • Don’t forget to post your media release on the “news” section of your website
  • When publicizing an event, you should also send your event news release to other organizations that might be able to publicize your event, including local colleges, universities and other non-profits or networking groups that might include a message in their online news or e-newsletters (also see Event Calendars below).

Taking Advantage of Other Free and/or Low-cost PR Options

Everyone wants free publicity, but how do you achieve this? Here are some tips on how to be creative with a low to non-existent PR budget while maximizing your overall impact in promoting your non-profit’s mission and increasing your profile within your community. Below, is a list of the best ways to get your name and objectives out there, so that you can start bolstering your company’s funding initiatives.

Off-line Publicity Ideas:

  • Fundraiser Events: In your non-profit, everything practically qualifies as a “fundraising event”, but more specifically, plan an event that offers the community something in return for their time and money. Offer a minimal entry fee to make the event more attractive to the public. For example, if you operate an animal rescue agency, offer a walk your dog event, in which people can bring their dogs, pay a nominal fee to support an upcoming worthwhile project, and meanwhile be introduced to all your agency offers.
  • Free Seminars and Learning Programs: Especially if your non-profit is new to the area, offer a free in-house seminar or learning program in which you offer a valuable free lesson on one of your company’s missions. Again, for example, in the case of a non-profit animal rescue agency, you could offer a free train your dog weekend. This way, you get tons of valuable contacts and potential financial supporters visiting your agency. Introductions such as this are priceless when it comes to your non-profit’s short and long term PR.

Online Publicity ideas

Online marketing offers unprecedented reach and efficacy when you are competing for government and private grants; donor funding; acquiring and retaining members; and overall financial support. Even at its most basic and low-cost level, Internet marketing through a variety of methods and mediums will necessarily widen your membership and/or support base, exponentially. Here are the most easy-to-facilitate and no-to-low-cost online strategies to gaining widespread public recognition and support for your non-profit.

  • Online Articles and Press Releases: Even if you are relatively new to the world of the Internet marketing, creating free articles, taking part in forums, and drafting online press releases could be key to getting your name and mission out there.
  • Articles: There are thousands of online article sites in which you can introduce your non-profit’s expertise and mission and provide a link back to your company website for free. For articles, you could consider introducing a short piece on industry advice and programs while providing a link back to your website.
  • Forums: Take part in online forums (e.g., LinkedIn forums): again, this is free, and will help you communicate the importance of your company to not only your local community, but also, the world at large. You can join the discussion and/or add information and link to your organization’s website – creating awareness and driving additional traffic.
  • Online Press Releases: Press release sites come just as varied online. If you have a new program, campaign or event you are introducing, do a quick search for online press release sites, and post a quick description about it-highlighting your organization’s name and contact. For press releases, draft up a quick and informational piece on a new addition to your site or program initiative, and provide a link back to your site. Either way, you are adding new information to a highly trafficked network.
  • Offering Expert Advice: If your organization has a board member or staff person who is subject matter expert, you could consider registering him/her as an expert source at either ProfNet (a PRWeb service) - an online community of thousands of professional communicators or ExpertClick,
  • Maximizing Your Website: Hopefully, you already have a website for your organization. It is absolutely crucial that you keep an eye on it, updating when necessary, gathering user feedback, and keeping track how it ranks for certain generic keywords your potential funder/supporter may use to find you or organizations that offer the same services. This doesn’t mean that you need to invest thousands of dollars in an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) firm for super-elite optimization strategy in making your site top ranked in Internet search. But you should make sure that your website is easy to find, attractive, professional, and easy to use. Also be sure that you offer current news and updates on your organization.  For example:
    • be sure that news releases are posted right away
    • publicize events as well as post-event news & fundraising or awareness-building success
    • highlight noteworthy press coverage and/or organization/board activity or accomplishments 
  • Blogs: Once you have a great website, start your own blog. To the Internet beginner, this may seem an intimidating task; but it is much easier than you would imagine. A blog is a free and effective way to get your organization’s mission and objectives across, while soft-selling potential supporters on how they can help. If you are a Wild Apricot user, you can take advantage of the built-in blog feature.  If your website isn’t powered by Wild Apricot, find many blog network sites or software options. 
  • E-newsletters and Email Marketing: While ensuring that you avoid spamming your prospective funders, members or supporters, a simple e-newsletter is effective in keeping your supporters abreast of current activity and will increase your PR returns immensely. Whether there is a specific program or event to which you are inviting your members or supporters, or a simple thank you for their previous support, you can maintain a constant connection via email.

Integrating Social Media Into Traditional Public Relations

Social media is now recognized as the next wave in marketing. However, many organizations have yet to understand that social media can and should be integrated with traditional marketing and PR strategies. Social networking can be integrated into media relations, events, public relations, fundraising and sponsorship campaigns, advertising, internal communications/ employee-member communications, and many other aspects of outreach.

With the growth of social networking, the press release has evolved. Not only can you use an online press release to try to gain attention, but it can also start conversations and engage your supporters, the media and other influencers through social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. In addition, in some channels, the lowly printed press release and standard backgrounder can be replaced with a “social media release,” which might include video, photos or links to further capture attention.

Points to consider:

  • Rather than “bolting on” different marketing communications tools and strategies, holistic, integrated marketing will achieve more than several disparate marketing initiatives: NO SILOS!
  • Think strategy first, then develop the overall campaign, tools next. The tools come last!
  • Have you done a communications synergy audit lately?
  • The key to successful integration is good communications planning!

Examples & Adaptations of Integrating Social Media with Traditional PR



We hope this Guide has been helpful in framing publicity for those of you who may be new to this concept as well as offering some basic information and starting points for getting your message out.


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Wild Apricot Getting Started with Membership or Non-Profit Publicity by Wild Apricot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.wildapricot.com.

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