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Reframing stories of the Great Recession

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It’s not news that the Great Recession has taken its toll on nonprofits and those they serve. The mom on food stamps for the first time, the widow who lost her home to foreclosure, the shuttered community counseling center–these are all important stories that put a face on the economic downturn. But how do nonprofits move beyond these personal stories to spur systemic change?

Our free Brown Bag forum happening next week on Tuesday, Reframing Stories of the Great Recession, looks at how agencies can reshape their communications strategies to move to a narrative that engages policy makers in the midst of city and state budget crunches and ongoing belt tightening in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors.

“Demand outweighs the supply because budgets are being slashed across the board. I think this narrative is tired” says Thom Clark, president, Community Media Workshop. “Nonprofits need a media strategy that goes beyond recounting the human impact of an agency’s financial dilemma. The media is hungry for new angles to tell the ongoing recession story. Nonprofits should be at the center of this news frame.”

The panel discussion with some of Chicago’s top journalists and policy makers includes Laura Washington, Woods Fund; Mark Brown, Chicago Sun-Times; Chip Mitchell, WBEZ; Sarah Karp, Catalyst Chicago; Ralph Martire, Center for Tax and Budget Accountability; Amisha Patel, Grassroots Collaborative; Amy Rynell, Heartland Alliance; and the Workshop’s Thom Clark.

When/where: Tuesday, August 24, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Columbia College Chicago, 33 East Congress, Room 219

Visit the Workshop’s website or call us at 312-369-6400 to sign up today.

What nonprofits can learn from LeBron James (guest post by Jennifer Lacey)

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Last Friday, a Google search of  “LeBron James Media” produced 108,000,000 links and 1160 related articles. On there were 10,857 stories posted.

If, during the past two weeks, you lived in the forest with no phone, internet, television or interaction with other human beings, you might have missed the story. Here’s what happened: James dominated the 24-hour news-cycle with his impending free agent decision. When it was all said and done (after a well-publicized hour-long special on ESPN), James’ career decision had been given the attention of a world-changing event rather than the simple business process it began as.

What are the lessons behind the LeBron James PR show?

Steve Buckley, at the Boston Herald, drew on lessons from Vince McMahon of WWE fame, to help explain James’ media mastery.

McMahon, an impresario who turned a regional dog-and-pony pro wrestling circuit into what today is known as World Wrestling Entertainment, has known for years that it’s easy to bypass the meddling media middle men and bring your product/message directly to the public. All you need to do is set up your own network, and then use it as a stage on which to play out all your story lines, plot twists, interviews and “breaking news.”

While nonprofits can’t set up their own media outlets, they can deliver their stories and issues to the public directly through available technology. By using social media applications, nonprofits cut out the “middle man,” taking the heart of an issue to a local (or worldwide) audience.  Rather than waiting for a press conference to be covered, nonprofits, like James, can take control and tell their own stories by tying them to a timely news peg.  Write your press releases with flair. Know your story, conflicts involved, and be transparent. Know who your sources are and be prepared to rise to the occasion when pitching reporters or when they come looking for you.

It’s true that James owns a PR company that’s focused on creating an iconic image of James, and it’s also true that most nonprofits will never have the star power of a famous pro basketball player to entice the media. But, nonprofits can tell their own stories and be clever and creative about using the range of tools now available to talk directly to their audiences.

Lesson: First, control the issue. Don’t allow the issue to control you.

James’ media strategy did have its critics. Phil Rosenthal at the Chicago Tribune wrote the outcome would have been better if James’ communications team had seized control from the start.

If James and company had been on top of this, his Web site would have tracked his whole courtship process. He could have kept an ad-supported video diary, including behind-the-scenes video of meetings with franchises.

Of more importance from a business standpoint, fans would have been invited to register to vote for their team and receive updates through e-mail and Twitter, creating a valuable marketing database.

Just one problem: James has owned the domain since 2002 but hasn’t done much with it until recently. Until Tuesday, James also had not used Twitter to address the public directly. So much for a New Media offensive.

Do any of these missteps sound familiar? Has your organization attempted to use social media tools in the past, only to fail to put the necessary time into the endeavor because of busy schedules? Perhaps constant Twitter, Facebook, and blog updates are just too much to juggle when you’re already swamped trying to provide services to a community or support to your colleagues.

But don’t underestimate the importance of tending these tools. Posting regular online updates about your organization’s journey, creating a digital archive of past articles on your website, or asking clients for input could give you a powerful platform to engage your audience and keep them coming back.  In other words, use your work to create brand recognition.

Lesson: When given an opportunity to connect, don’t hesitate.

LeBron’s decision to wait to give his answer until his ESPN event was also seen as a big public relations failure by some.  Michael Flood McNulty of wrote:

LeBron James created a publicity circus unlike any other Thursday night — this was his choosing, not the media’s so don’t blame the messenger — and he humiliated his hometown fans in the most public way possible…

LeBron James alienated a lot of people tonight. Actually, alienated is the wrong word. He stunned and hurt a lot of people tonight.

What’s one of the first rules of communications? Who’s your audience and how can you reach them? Whether you’re trying to educate a specific group about an issue you’re working on or you’re trying to get people to take action, how you say it and when you say it and the channel you use to convey it are so important.

Lesson: Don’t forget your audience. Be thoughtful of what they need to hear your message.

Message, Audience, Goal

Valerie Denney led a webinar on messaging for the Workshop today.

Listening in and reflecting on Valerie Denney’s webinar this afternoon on “Develop and Sharpen Your Message,” a couple of key messages about nonprofit messaging.

Valerie had a nice mnemonic to remember three key aspects of a strong message, “the three Cs” test:

  • Clear: it should be easy to remember
  • Connect: it should speak to your audience
  • Care: it should be linked to values

Read the rest of this entry »


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