Get in bed with the devil: Why not-for-profits need PR

NFPs don't engage in PR because of resources and a desire not to bite the hand that feeds them. On both counts, that’s a mistake, argues Good Talent Media's Tony Nicholls.

Let’s be frank. There is an undeniable sense in the public imagination that PR is for corporations, spivs, and political shonks. As a profession, PR is up there (or is it down?) with lawyers and real estate agents in terms of public esteem.

But the fact is that PR works and works particularly well for organisations that don’t need much of a leg up. The question is why aren’t not-for-profits (NFPs) – many of which are getting around with their arse hanging out of the back of their trousers in terms of funding and budgets – utilising PR in the same way as, say, the Minerals Council of Australia?

PR is the art of persuasion when it’s all boiled down. NFPs should be initiating and setting the terms of public debate. They should be engaged in the cut and thrust of political life. And they should be asking governments to help fund important projects. In short, NFPs should be using PR, knowing it works so successfully for multinationals and large corporations.

When we say PR, we mean the full gamut: Getting stories up through traditional media to initiate and shape public debate, using social media to continue that debate, using digital to target and refine it, engaging in alliance building, and using all of those tools to shape government policy and funding through political lobbying.

For NFPs – and industry peak bodies – political lobbying should be a cornerstone of their funding strategy, given how vulnerable NFPs are to policy shifts, political moves, and funding arrangements.

No PR, no influence

The two most common objections to NFPs engaging in PR are resources (money and staff), and a desire not to be seen to be biting the hand that feeds them. On both counts, that’s a mistake.

It’s not uncommon for NFPs to have an admin assistant doing the social media, or researchers doing the comms work. While resource shortages often lead to multi-tasking, any comms work aimed at the public and funders needs to be done by professionals.

Writing a media release thick in detail, jargon, sludge words, a buried lead, no news pegs, equivocal language, no case-study, and no call-to-action is going to make it hard to get media pick up.

And then, of course, there’s the question of having a strong media list and relationships. Winging it is a false economy. Using episodic PR is more efficient.

The fear of biting the hand that feeds them prevents many NFPs from entering the public arena as a contestant for policy ideas or funding commitments. But the reality is that if you aren’t seen to have any allies, any profile, or any political connections, you are tender prey.

Quietude is not only poor branding, it can be fatal.

What NFPs need to realise is that, in public life, the squeaky wheel gets the grease – an ageless truism that is only getting more pronounced in the digital age.

An NFP that has a public profile, a tribe of social media supporters, and industry allies, and is building political relationships and running targeted digital campaigns, is much safer than the NFP that waits cap-in-hand, hoping for the best.

And, let’s be honest, if the government of the day doesn’t like the core work you’re doing, it’s going to gut you anyway and you only make that job easier when you have no profile.

Use your weapons

Most NFPs have access to amazing case-studies to illustrate the importance of their work but, for the reasons outlined above and others, often fail to get those stories and their key messages out in the media.

In terms of latent public support, their stories hold enormous currency, but it’s a currency that tends to stay in the bank. They squander this precious capital.

PR can help NFPs get their stories up, but getting in the media is only the beginning. The aim should be to build the organisation’s profile, articulate importance, its point of difference, and to start using that brand leverage to secure its funding and policy commitments.

Tony Nicholls is the principal of Good Talent Media


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