Four Things Every Nonprofit Public Relations Professional Should Know

February 23, 2017 TrendKite Crew

It's a tough time for publicists. Fake News.  Alternative Facts.  A fractured media landscape with new publications popping up every year, while others go out of business.  Add to that the elusive promise of social media, as expectations of viral success are often met by vast silence.

So many newsrooms have been trimmed, there are fewer reporters to pitch. That means expanded competition as more PR pros are pitching fewer journalists, with estimates of six publicists for every reporter. 

Publicity is not for the shy, or the weak. did a survey for 2017 and named “public relations executive” as the 8th most stressful occupation.

But there’s good news if you work for a nonprofit institution such as a foundation, university, society or group dedicated to promoting a social cause or mission. Reporters usually like you. They want your opinions, news and research. In an age when other institutions are under attack, most journalists regard experts at most nonprofits with respect.

Let's use higher education as an example. The same could be true for hospitals. Both are filled with great stories ranging from alumni, students (or patients), professors, classes, research and more. Journalists are more likely to pick up the phone when a publicist calls from a university, hospital or society as compared to a corporation, a PR agency or, even worse, yet another a tech startup led by know-it-all 23-year-olds promising another “life changing” innovation that doesn’t work.

I speak with and visit with more than 200 PR professionals at universities every year during our media events for engineering, medical and business schools ( I also keep up with former clients at nonprofit institutions and universities. The potential for great PR exists at all of them. No matter the size, the type of school, the issues faced by communications professionals are almost exactly the same. 

Everyone is asked to publicize:

  • A range of events, most of them very ordinary.
  • Press releases on gifts, appointments, shrubbery, new centers and other typical announcements that every institution possesses. Most are as common as sand in the Sahara.
  • A small group of demanding professors or staff members who contact you constantly wanting every new class, paper, program or award mentioned at the top of your website and internal publications, and pushed out to the media.
  • Dense, obtuse, and vague academic or industry-specific papers with the conclusions and findings well hidden, and thus of little interest to the news media.
  • Announcements on new staff, awards, and books.
  • Initiatives by administrators to “get with it” and make something happen on social media with expectations that the stories mentioned above would go viral, if only the communications team could operate the magic key like those guys. 

Most of these news items have to be mentioned, or archived, as part of the job. To stay employed, you’ve got to pay attention to the basics above. To get promoted, you need to get full stories.  

Those are only the basics.  To rise above the clutter, here are the best ways to maximize your time, attract the media and be considered a trusted resource, and start hitting some home runs. Every nonprofit l has the capacity to produce a big story in the media. Here are four ways to achieve that.

Pitch the Unusual and the Interesting 

What stories do you read first when you click the New York Times or Wall Street Journal website?  What emails do you open? Which calls do you answer?  Probably the most interesting, urgent, or unusual ideas get your attention.  The same is true for reporters. 

Everyone’s pitching a new center, new faculty, or another professor who wants to give you his or her thoughts about entrepreneurship or leadership. Competition is fierce, so you need to grab their attention in the subject line. Find your most fascinating, non-conventional, contrarian and unique story by talking to your professors, students, and alumni.  It usually happens after discussing something ordinary, when somebody says, “By the way, I don’t know if this will interest anyone, but …..”

While working for Menlo College in Atherton for two years, such a conversation happened during our monthly PR call. At the end of the call, the president remarked the college had attracted almost 70 members of the Saudi Royal Family since the 1950s.  After doing some research, we found more than 100, including a Saudi Prince on campus.  This resulted in a targeted pitch to the San Francisco Chronicle, which turned into this front-page story: “Tiny Menlo College Like Home for Saudi Elite.”  I had lunch earlier this year at The University of San Diego with five charming publicists exchanging ideas. One of them briefly mentioned a new book written by one of her professors about slave owners in India. Many of us didn’t know slavery still existed in that country. What does it mean for their economy, their culture, their entry into world markets?

At Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, we turned a story about a software lab winning a contract to provide technology for military vehicles into a broader interview on how Vanderbilt helps the defense department operate more efficiently and save money. The result? Gizmodo reported “How Vanderbilt’s Secret Software Lab is Saving America.”

Research is the Platinum Standard

Reporters love original, meaningful, powerful exclusive research that explains or solves a problem. Big caveat: the research must be thorough and credible. Because most academic papers are dense and filled with excess verbiage, it’s up to you to turn the prose into real English. Most of the research papers on your desk won’t make the grade. That’s all right. Like mining, you often have to sift through tons of sand and rock before you find a ruby or an emerald.  

Not everyone has the budget, or the infrastructure, to create a PR monster like the UCLA Anderson Forecast with consistent research on the economy. That’s OK. Focus on doing something unique in your academic specialty or geographic region that makes your research special and proprietary. This could include a phone or written survey of customers, donors or friends of a nonprofit with useful, unique conclusions that offers something new and thought provoking.

Pitch, Don't Press Release

Everyone has to write press releases and archive them on the web. Sometimes this results in coverage, but most of the time, it’s ignored. Don’t be passive. Don’t wait for press releases, social media, and your website to generate the majority of your leads. With fewer reporters covering more stories, the odds are not in your favor. The premium strategy is to pitch, not press release. Condense the information from your releases or magazine stories into short personalized pitches for each reporter. There’s a much better chance they will open the email and respond. If they want more information, you can send them the release or the link to your website.

Here’s a bonus tip - meet reporters face to face. Get to the front of the line. Many organizations like the AAAS, AACSB, your local PRSA chapter, and our firm create events to personally meet journalists. Go to them. You may not get a story that evening (spoiler alert: you won’t) but will set yourself up for success. Reporters are more likely to open an email or pick up the phone when contact by  someone they know, especially a helpful, professional PR person from a trusted nonprofit.

There are great stories in every office and campus. You’ve got the treasure. Start digging.



This is a thought leadership piece written by Robert Wynne for TrendKite. Robert is a communications executive with significant experience in public relations, marketing, and event production, with a focus in higher education. He produces three exclusive media events where PR professionals at universities network with the business, technical and medical journalists in New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles ( He is also a contributor to Forbes magazine.

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