Media Relations for Small Non-profit Organizations
by Barbara Averill
Some Things to Consider
Four Basic Guidelines
One of the primary ways a non-profit
organization tells its story to its key audiences is
• The first skill to develop is to recognize the
through the press. You may not have a major
difference between news and advertising. Do that
television station in your area, but chances are you
by reading, listening and watching the local media
have a local newspaper, a local radio station, and
to see how they treat news so that you can conform
perhaps a local-access cable television station. Before
to their choices and styles. News is something
long, you also will be using the Internet, whether you
unusual or important and/or affects a large number
post your news on someone else’s World Wide Web
of people in a significant way. It must be timely.
Minnesota Historical Society
For example: Don’t announce your relocation after
This is the
you are settled in. Feature stories also should be
timely. If you keep on top of what’s in the news
section, of the
you might be able to tie today’s headlines to
first page of a
something in your collections. If your part of the
state is bracing for a flood, what do you have in
your collections that tell the stories of past floods?
It is sent to
When the Legislature wrangles with school funding
names on the
issues, can you find the records of a country school
list that have
that operated on a small salary for a teacher, some
slates and a pile of firewood? When June dairy days
most likely to
roll around, can you write a short piece on your
collection of cream separators, or cowbells? Or
offer to let the local paper photograph these pieces
such an event.
site or develop your own.
Media relations is only one part of a public
• Second, learn to write good news releases. Put the
relations plan, but it can be your most valuable and
news in the first paragraph; don’t hide it under a
efficient tool. Once you know how to get your
paragraph about your organization (that goes last).
message not only accepted, but valued, as important
Be brief, be clear, and be accurate. Neatness counts.
news by your local media, you’ve made a big step
Proofread three times, not just for typographical
toward the success of your program.
errors, but for content. Make sure your release has
Publicity is not only low cost but has high return.
the “who, what, when, where, why and how”
Placing a news story about your event or your
within the text. Every name must be spelled
organization gives your message credibility and
correctly. Using a quote from a credible source is
recognition, whether broadcast or printed.
great, but make sure it is lively.
Good editors and news directors, however,
Double space your copy. Indicate the end with a
appreciate timely, well-written and well-organized
“-30-” mark or the symbols ###. If your release
news releases and will use them appropriately. They
goes over one page in length use “more” at the
also like story tips that they can follow up on their
bottom to indicate to typesetters that they should
own time. But don’t ask for blatant advertising to be
look for the rest of the release. But don’t write
treated as news. News professionals are very adept at
more than two pages. Newspaper space is valuable.
recognizing real news and culling out thinly disguised
Broadcasters will cut your news release to fit a very
ads. They know their audiences, and they know their
small time frame. You might want to write shorter
continuation as a business depends upon advertising sales.
releases for local radio stations. If they take Public
Service Announcements, or PSAs, the rule of thumb
Minnesota History Interpreter • May 1997
Continued on page 3
Continued from page 2
is that a minute is filled with 150 words maximum,
to hold your event or make an announcement. This
and no PSA should be more than a minute.
information could be on a form designed to capture
Be sure to put the name of the person editors can
the essential “who, what, when, where, why and
call for more information at the top.
how” information from the project manager. It
• Third, learn media deadlines so your releases reach
should also have a phone number that will be
the right place at the right time. No one appreciates
published in the release as a number the public can
working at the last minute, and sometimes there just
call for more information. Information about outside
isn’t room for late news.
funding sources and sponsors also is appropriate.
• Fourth, get to know your local press so that when
Although your local editor might rewrite your
you have a good story idea, they will listen and
release, if the information is printed, your release has
done its job. Organizations that receive public
funding have a duty to let the public know what they
Organizing Your Media Relations Work
are doing and how to access their programs. That
makes media relations one of the most important
If media relations sounds like a big job, it is. But
roles of your organization. Take the time to do it
it can be organized into a job that can be handled by a
right and it will return good will, attendance at
volunteer. The key is timely information flow within
events, recognition for your organization and a
the organization. Your publicity chairperson must
chance to promote the appreciation of history
have information early so he or she isn’t rushed into
through the media.
providing the press with a hastily written release or
one that is nearly too late to print.
Before becoming Media Relations Manager for
Part of the planning for any event, new acquisition
the Minnesota Historical Society in 1993, Barbara
or any major project should include a plan for
Averill worked in public relations at the University of
publicity. Designate someone to provide accurate
Wisconsin-River Falls. Before that, she was a
information to the publicity chairperson by a specific
newspaper reporter for 18 years.
deadline—at least one month prior to when you plan
Definitions of Some Basic Terms
There have been numerous definitions of public relations, but my favorite comes from Frank
Wylie, a former president of the Public Relations Society of America. “Senior-level public relations
people are likely to spend 10 percent of their time with techniques, 40 percent with administration,
and 50 percent with analysis and judgment. At entry level it’s 50 percent techniques, 5 percent
judgment and 45 percent running like hell.”
Most small organizations do not have senior-level public relations professionals working on their
team, so that leaves the job to someone with many other duties, such as a museum manager, or to a
volunteer, who might be anywhere on the scale from entry-level to pro.
PR is both an art and a science—essentially it means being aware of your audiences (your “publics”)
and planning policies and actions that serve the interest of both the organization and the public.
Advertising is space purchased or time purchased to deliver a message prepared by the
Publicity is information supplied to a news medium without cost. The decision to use it and its
final form are controlled by the medium.
Media relations involves understanding the needs of the media you wish to deal with and
meeting those needs. It includes meeting deadlines, making your news releases newsworthy and
easy to use, and maintaining good relationships with reporters, editors and news directors.
3 Minnesota History Interpreter • May 1997