Outreach is an important first step that allows you to enlist the media in supporting the goals of your organization, such as to demonstrate the success of your work, to ensure the public understands what you do, and to change public perceptions and behavior about refugee assistance when necessary. If your long-term goals include establishing your organization as a leader in refugee rights advocacy, you must strive to be perceived as a reliable resource which can provide expertise to the media regarding refugee rights issues.
This page outlines the best practices in non-profit public relations and media outreach strategy. It will provide practical advice on how to establish relationships with journalists, and how to pitch your story to journalists. The subpages of the section will address other ways to engage with the media, including writing an op-ed, letter to the editor, and a press release.
Establishing relationships with journalists
All best practices for nonprofit communications strategy cite establishing consistent, mutually beneficial relationships with journalists as an essential prerequisite for increased press coverage. As a small, relatively young organization, journalists are not likely to reach out to you when in need of expertise on refugees until you have established rapport with that journalist. This section will outline the initial steps to contacting and building a relationship with journalists.
Creating a workable database
The first step to creating a media outreach strategy is to compile a database of journalists who write on topics pertaining to your field. These journalists should come from a variety of local, regional, national, and international news sources. To find these journalists:
- Create a Google Alert tagged to words such as “refugee,” “displaced people,” “UNHCR,” that will allow you to efficiently browse the most current news stories pertaining to our work. Read these articles and if you feel you can contribute expertise to the story, add the journalist’s information to your media list.
- Research publications you would like to be published in. Identify large media platforms as well as more feasible niche publications and local reporters. Look for journalists at those publications who cover your areas of interests such as refugees, human rights, or the geographic area that you work in. Add the journalist’s information to your media list.
- Look at the “press coverage” tabs on web pages of other nonprofits working in refugee assistance to see which journalists are covering their work. Add pertinent journalists to our media list. If you work closely with any of these organizations, ask them to introduce you to these journalists.
Your final media list should have 40 writers. This list should detail the publication the journalist works for and its circulation, their email, their social media contact information including Twitter handle and/or blog address, a brief description of their topic area, and links to recent articles that could connect to your organization.
Any journalists who have already reached out to you or expressed interest in our organization should be added to your media list and contacted immediately.
Initiating and cultivating relationships with journalists
Once you have solidified a list of reporters covering your field, the next step is to establish contact with these journalists. There are four main routes to doing this: social media, email, phone calls, and personal meetings.
Most PR professionals suggest engaging journalists on social media such as Twitter or blogs before attempting an email or phone call. Journalists receive mass amounts of email daily, and PR experts and journalists alike suggest that an initial contact on social media is the best tool to get on their radar and present your organization as an expert in the field.
Begin by following selected writers under your Twitter account to become familiar with their content and learn how they prefer to use Twitter or their blog: Are they actively conversing with others? Do they speak to PR professionals? Do they ask for news tips? Learning how a journalist uses social media will be a good indication of whether or not it is worth trying to start a conversation vs. simply sending them an email or phone call.
This should be done primarily through an organizational handle to maintain consistency and brand recognition, however individuals may post from personal accounts to expedite response time. If writing from a personal account, tag your organization’s handle in the tweet and include it in your Twitter bio.
It is also suggested that you engage with journalists by responding to their blog posts or online articles with intelligent commentary, informed critique, or your contact information to act as a potential resource for future material. When crafting these responses, you should use coherent messaging through consistent hashtags and taglines.
You will need to compose a list of about 10 to 20 journalists active on social media to engage with via Twitter and article/ blog comments. You should begin by briefly responding to 2 or 3 journalists, depending on your results. Record all outreach and responses, including posting dates and social media metrics (number of likes, favorites, retweets), directly on your social media list.
To expedite response time, if a member of staff identifies an article or post they wish to respond to, they could be encouraged to independently respond to it immediately. This response can be done directly through a personal account but should reference your organization in some capacity and follow any guidelines or policies on taking a public stance on an issue. Most responses should only be a few sentences or paragraphs and should be completed within the same day or following day. This process can also be utilized for writing Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor. Notify your communications staff or focal point of these posts so journalist engagement can be documented and traced.
To be clear, story pitching should never occur over social media, only journalist engagement.
Email is the most widely accepted and conventional way of contacting and establishing a relationship with a journalist. All story pitching should be done via email if there is no pre-existing relationship with the journalist, rather than by phone.
Journalists overwhelmingly prefer brief, personalized emails to generic notifications of press releases. When drafting an email to a journalist, read the last five articles they have written to understand their writing style and personality. It may also be helpful to look up the journalist on Google and social media to identify their area of interests or personal background to reference in your email.
When composing an email to a journalist, make the email brief. Emails should be no longer than 2 to 3 short paragraphs and should either present a lead for a newsworthy story or an offer to provide expertise on a particular subject in the current news. If the email presents a story, make sure it relates to a current national or international news story. If it offers expertise, present a bio that describes how your particular spokesperson or “expert” would be a helpful resource for the journalist and provide their contact information.
Document the date a journalist is emailed, the date the email is responded to, and any follow up steps required or additional information directly on the media list.
A journalist should only be called if they specifically request a phone call or we already have an established relationship with that journalist. This will usually occur only after social media or email engagement. A phone call can be useful to briefly ask a journalist what days they work, when their deadline is, the best day to supply a story, and what type of stories or resources they would like to receive from us. A phone call is also a good follow up step to say thank you for contacting us.
Document the dates of all calls with journalists and any follow up steps directly on the media list.
It can also be beneficial to arrange a meeting with a journalist over coffee or lunch. This will only occur if you have already engaged that journalist via email or social media. In a personal meeting, it is most advantageous to pitch them a ready made story and/or present yourselves as a helpful resource to the journalist when writing about refugees.
Pitching to journalists
When crafting a pitch to a journalist, you must constantly connect your message to current news. To do this you need to monitor the media daily to look for stories about refugee rights in order to contact those journalists directly and offer your services as a reference on these issues. This can be done through a Google Alert tagged to keywords relating to refugee rights.
Your media pitches cannot be focused only on your organization and the work you do. Rather, they must communicate a compelling, newsworthy story that connects to current events. To do this, you need to highlight a potential action plan or unusual solution to a current crisis issue, such as focusing on refugee work rights rather than “warehousing” in the Syria case, for example. You can also approach a pitch as a way to provide expert commentary or perspective on a subject.
When pitching a report release, it is ineffective to send an entire report to a journalist as an attachment. They simply do not have the time or expertise to read them. Drafting a press release regarding the report is often time consuming and unlikely to be read in full by a journalist. Rather, summarize the report into a few essential take-aways in bullet point or short paragraph format that the reporter can easily reference as data for future stories or follow up on if they are interested seeing the whole report. If there is a compelling human story related to the report, inform the journalist of this in the pitch and allow them to contact you for further information. If you do, however, decide to issue press releases, you may refer to the Press Release page of the section.
When dealing with a crisis issue, staff should consider if a media response is the appropriate reaction. Media outreach is just one of many tools for changing policy and public opinion about refugee rights. It is important to consider the audience and desired outcome of media outreach before spending time pitching a story to a journalist; perhaps direct advocacy to a particular government official could be a more efficient and effective form of advocacy to further your goals. If it is determined that media engagement is an important and feasible way to promote your cause, consider writing a story, Op-Ed, or Letter to the Editor for a regional publication.
It is important to remember to distinguish your organization’s rights-based message and solutions from other nonprofits working in refugee assistance. Always include how your approach to the issue covered in the story, crisis, or report is unique, in order to create and reinforce a distinct niche within the field.
When pitching, only pitch a story to a single media source at a time. It is also suggested to pitch early in the day, before 9 AM, and to avoid pitching on Friday.