I’m the director of marketing and fundraising for a group that matches senior citizen volunteers with at-risk children who need mentors. We’ve got a great story to tell–elderly people as helpers and contributors rather than social dependents; children who accomplish unexpectedly great things with the extra support and wisdom they get from the volunteers. It’s all good! But when we go out to get press attention for our programs, nothing happens. The Board keeps telling me to be more aggressive–"Don’t just send out press releases, take reporters to lunch!"–but I don’t really have time to be cultivating reporters as well as donor prospects. Is there any other way I can get the press coverage the Board feels we deserve?
Signed, Starved for Attention
Let’s start with some basics: what you and your Board think is a "good story" is not a good story from the standpoint of a reporter. This isn’t because reporters are all curmudgeons who resent good news; it’s because their job is to describe something out of the ordinary, and what you’re describing is your daily activities. Those activities may be absolutely fabulous but there’s no reason to cover them today instead of tomorrow or a year from Shavuous; and without such a reason–called a "news hook"–a year from Shavuous is exactly when they’ll get press attention.
In other words, virtue alone won’t attract coverage; it takes virtue plus specificity. Pitch stories about one volunteer and one kid who will celebrate together next month when the kid begins college; or about one volunteer who’s mentored half a dozen kids, the oldest of whom just graduated with honors from high school and the youngest of whom just won the Westinghouse Science Fair. Notice: these are stories not about programs but about individual people and they refer to a particular occasion or occurrence (however artificial–you can always find an anniversary if you’re looking for one) that is just about to take place or has just taken place. In fact, your rule of thumb should be that if you can’t use the word "just" in a pitch you shouldn’t send it at all.
Your Board is right about one thing: you won’t get very far with press releases. But the most effective way of being aggressive is to pitch these individual stories to individual reporters, editors and outlets. (Don’t bother asking reporters to lunch–most of them will decline because they’re too busy or because they see an inappropriate quid-pro-quo in accepting a lunch from someone and then covering that person or his organization.) Instead, write the reporter or her editor a letter or e-mail whose first paragraph is the one you’d like to see in her story: "Next week, when Jenny Johnson delivers the valedictorian’s address at Random High School in Grovers’ Corners, she won’t just be thanking her mother and her teachers. She’ll be giving credit to volunteer Betsy Johnson of the Elder-Youth Network, who has mentored Jenny and a dozen students like her in the course of the past ten years." (This is not a great first graf but you get the idea.) The second paragraph of the pitch should begin, "I hope you’ll be interested in doing a story about Jenny and her ‘honorary grandmother,’ as well as the organization that brought them together." Remember: specific before general, people before groups.
Then send your pitch to a particular reporter or editor at a particular newspaper or magazine. Your greatest likelihood of success is with the publications in the home towns of the volunteer and her protege. Thus, the pitch will read, "Parkville resident Betsy Anderson . . . . Jenny Johnson of the Englewood neighborhood," and you’ll send it to the Parkville Weekly Tattler and the Daily Southtown, which covers Englewood. Perhaps the second most important lesson to learn about press coverage is that it’s easier to get from local papers (that is, small-town, suburban and neighborhood) than from the big metropolitan dailies.
Wait til you have something big before pitching to a big paper–a
kid who wins a National Merit Scholarship or a mentor recognized by the
U.S. Government with a Thousand Points of Light award. Then call the
paper and ask for the name of the education editor, and send the pitch
to her; or check the Sunday coverage of charity events and send the
pitch to the person whose byline appears there.
Apropos: your Board members probably think your benefit events
are newsworthy. Unless they consist of having proteges scalp mentors
at high noon in the town square, they’re not. Don’t waste your time
pitching them, even to local rags, unless you can submit your own
high-quality pictures of the mayor’s wife dancing with your Board
The third lesson is: getting the story in the paper is only the beginning. You have no way of controlling how many people see the article when it’s published, but you can make sure that everybody relevant to you sees it in the weeks and months afterwards. Make the article work overtime for you: get permission from the paper to reprint it (just call and say you’re a nonprofit and ask what credit line they’d like: it’s usually something simple like, "Used by permission") and then make photocopies and send them with every fundraising appeal, newsletter or grant proposal that goes out. People read things more carefully if they’re in newsprint, and mostly they don’t care which newspaper put it there. Use your articles over and over until they’re stale, or until you get a new one.
Finally, bear in mind that reporters and editors have column inches to fill. If you give them a reason to fill those inches with you, they’ll be glad to do so–but the wonderfulness of your operation in general isn’t such a reason, and the more you demonstrate your understanding of that fact the happier your partnership with the press will be.