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Lessons Learned as a Non-Profit Communicator

Guest post by Community Media Workshop board member Gary Arnold

Years ago, I moved into the communications role at Access Living, a non-profit service and advocacy organization for people with disabilities, with no prior communications experience.

Stories I’ve heard from my peers tell me I am not alone. Out of necessity, non-profits often assign communications jobs to employees who typically don’t have a communications background.

Like many of my peers, I turned to the Community Media Workshop for support, which helps bridge the gap between communications novices and the skill set necessary to pitch an organization’s story.

I still remember my first class at the Workshop.

To break the ice, Thom went around the room, asking each of us our media goal. Each of us gave roughly the same answer, “to promote and raise the visibility of our organization.”

Thom looked at us with a patient grin, then delivered my first lesson in public relations. He taught us that communications goals should not be as broad as an organization.

Communications is about delivering a specific message that resonates with broad audience. The best way to deliver that message is through a story with which everyone can relate.

While that first lesson proves timeless, public relations has evolved.

With mainstream media operating on fewer resources, the chances of the Chicago Tribune or Channel 11 publishing a story pitched by a non-profit communicator, no matter how specific and compelling the message, are slimmer today than they were a few years ago.

But while selling your story to a daily paper may be more difficult, non-profit communicators have plenty of tools to tell stories. With blogs, websites, social media, and expanded internet journalism, there are still plenty of outlets to pitch a story, and plenty of portals to self-publish a story.

Of course, a Chicago Sun-Times article that cites your organization will please your executive director and board chair more than a blog post on your organization’s website; but the value of publishing outside of mainstream media, then promoting and sharing content, should not be underestimated.

Just last week, I was reminded of social media’s value. I was following the Twitter stream of National ADAPT, a grassroots direct action group that employs civil disobedience to push disability rights. ADAPT was in Washington, DC for three days of protests against the White House; the US Department of Housing and Urban Development; and the Department of Labor for what ADAPT understood to be their failure to follow through on their commitments to the independence of people with disabilities.

ADAPT’s live tweets gave a play by play of the day’s action, but there were no visuals. I could re-tweet the messages, but if I wanted to post on Facebook, the picture-less messages would have little impact.

A few people tweeted directly to ADAPT, asking for pictures. Almost immediately, ADAPT sent pictures of hundreds of protesters marching and rolling in wheelchairs throughout the streets of Washington. The photos were posted on Facebook, generating a response many, many times greater than the impact made by a link to a press release posted earlier in the day.

It doesn’t take a communications professional to post on social media. But the experience last week underscores how media has changed in the past decade.

We may have lost some of the benefits of traditional media, but it’s hard to deny the excitement of instantaneous communication and innovative outreach offered by new media.

Follow Gary Arnold @gary8970

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Category: Guests, Nonprofit Communications (aka Navelgazing)

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