GW Associates Public Media

How Non-Profits can Profit From Strategic Use of the Media

Corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars to sell their products and services to increase market share and improve sales. They understand the necessity of a good communications plan to influence public opinion on issues affecting their business.

General Electric is currently waging a campaign challenging the environmental wisdom of dredging PCBS's from the Hudson River floor. Public opinion in the various communities along the Hudson River which are directly affected will play a significant role, as the EPA is required to take into account public opinion for Superfund projects, along with a variety of other actors in the outcome of the decision whether to dredge or not.

Global warming while now widely accepted as a phenomena affected by man made processes was a hotly contested debate as to whether the phenomena was real or not a number of years ago. Today, large segments of the public and businesses are concerned about how global warming will affect us and the debate has mostly shifted to what we should do to lessen it's effects.

Public Sector

It is in the nonprofit and public sector, where the bottom line is not as clear and resources are more limited that there is less clarity on how the mass media can be utilized to achieve a specific goal. Grassroots organizations often feel frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of interest by mass media and competing interests.

The following quote is taken from an e-mail message I recently received from a group of local citizens opposed to an expansion of a mall in Syracuse, NY "We don't have a voice in the conventional press (.... stands to gain a lot through advertising sales), and since we have no funding, we have no way to reach others except through word of mouth, pen, and the internet."

I found this interesting as I followed this issue in the Syracuse papers. The mall has been written on extensively. I've read quotes from individuals opposed to the mall and from local politicians concerned with the allocation of public tax dollars and the affect on the community as well as comments from supporters. From my perspective it has been a hotly debated issue in the newspapers.

Extensive press coverage can be generated on the local level with postage stamps and a telephone assuming you understand the basics of how to write a press release and "pitch" a news story or feature article. Lack of funding should never be an obstacle to generating news coverage on the local level.

Liberal Versus Conservative

My experience over the last 20 years as a volunteer and now a PR professional is that the biggest obstacle to generating news coverage on an issue or organization's activities is the attitude of the individuals involved. Individuals come up with various reasons why the media doesn't cover their activities. For example, conservatives blame a lack of coverage on the media's liberal bias and liberals blame a lack of coverage on the media's conservative bias.

The President of the Heritage Foundation, described as the nation's largest conservative think tank is quoted in an October, 1999 Washington Post article: "We're still conservative, most journalists are still liberal, and the bias is awful."

On the other hand you have noted liberal media critics like Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman produce a 6o minute video, The Myth of the Liberal Media, that "reveals the manner in which the news media are so subordinated to corporate and conservative interests that their function can only be described as that of "elite propaganda."

Regardless of which side of the political spectrum your on people believe the media is biased against them. In addition, there is also the issue of a lack of understanding how the strategic use of media can help an organization achieve its goals.

Recycling Education Bill

For over two years NYSARRR, (New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling), had worked to craft and lobby for passage of the Recycling Education Bill. NYSARRR is non-profit organization of public and private sector members, people and organizations interested in waste reduction, material reuse and recycling.

Over the last ten years New York State had lost half of half of its recycling coordinators, the catalysts for recycling , since the beginning of mandatory recycling 10 years ago. This threatened all the gains made in New York state over the last decade in moving towards an integrated solid waste management system.

The Recycling Education Bill would provide funding for recycling programs, financing public education including salaries for recycling coordinators.

Strategic Use of Media

With a few months left in the New York legislative session for the year 2000 the bill was still sitting in the Finance Committee in the Senate and ways and means Committee in the Assembly. Unless the bill could be brought to the floor in wasn't going to be considered for this year, if at all.

Given the tight time frame of six to eight weeks left in the session we designed the following strategy. We concentrated our efforts on affecting editorials and placing op-ed pieces in key newspapers. We selected newspapers in geographic areas where key legislators lived who could affect getting the Bill out of committee onto the floor for a vote.

At the same time as we developed our contact list of newspapers, editors, phone, fax and e-mail addresses we worked on drafting our written material. A brief op-ed was written and a packet of material consisting of a cover letter, copy of the bill and some background material on how this bill would insure that the recycling gains made in NY state the last 10 years would be continued and strengthened.

Once the contact lists and written material were finished we "hit the phones." At every newspaper targeted we contacted editorial staff and environmental reporters, if they had one. Personal contact and phone follow-up to insure the material was received and see if they had any questions was the key.


Within a few weeks supportive editorials and articles focusing on the Bill started to appear in key newspapers such as the Albany Times Union, Capital District Business Review, Daily Freeman of the Hudson Valley, Newsday .... Shortly there after we heard that the Governor's office requested the bill for a vote. The Bill passed a few weeks later and was signed.

The press coverage played a pivotal role in getting the Bill voted on. Without the hard ground work of the legislative committee of NYSARRR the preceding two years the bill would not have passed. But the key to getting the Bill out of committee was focusing public attention on it.

Lessons Learned

This is a good example where it is easy to demonstrate that the timely, strategic use of the media brought about a desired result. It is harder to see results , especially in the short run when you are trying to bring about a shift in public opinion or educate the public to bring about changes in behavior such as recycling

However, we all know that paradigm shifts in public attitudes can and do take place. A few decades ago who could have imagined there would be smoke free sections in restaurants or other public areas? Who could imagine there would be billboards advertising the health risks of smoking instead of the joys of smoking?

Often we are our own worst enemy in assuming that the media isn't interested in our issue or that it isn't necessary to communicate with the public. Press coverage can be generated on almost any issue and public attitudes can be changed if an organization makes getting its message out to the public a priority over time.

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