Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Does PR Work for Non-Profits?

Communicating for non-profits is tough, indeed – every bit as hard as selling a refrigerator or an enterprise software application. United Way in every community is the citizen-led means of distributing our collective donations to people who need it most.

I was the volunteer chairman for communications for the Cincinnati Area of United Way for over a decade. I loved the challenge of working with local business leaders and assisting people who needed a helping hand to get up and on their feet.

My main observation might surprise you – PR generated name recognition but did not connect the brand name to a consistent value proposition.

When asked in surveys what United Way was, a common response was that United Way was a division of the National Football League … this because the NFL for years donated TV commercials to show how their players worked with United Way in their local communities to help the needy.

Since UW had no budget authority for advertising, it relied entirely upon publicity and special events. And the PR professionals on staff were (and are) excellent. They produced reams and reams and reams of publicity across all news media. This successfully placed the words “United Way” into a high level of unaided awareness across the city. But, very few “ordinary people” could tell you what United Way did.

My conclusion. Unproven, but one that I think is right. All the reams of stories were about positive news and readers were looking for negative news. They skimmed the UW articles without reading what UW actually did. The name registered, but not the deeds.


Without advertising to supplement this terrific years-long publicity performance, it was difficult to get a repetitive value message into the public eye. Repetition is essential in driving value proposition messaging. If publicity is the only tool to work with, then a strategy must be put in place to drive frequency of a value prop.

This is not easy when editors, reporters and announcers are in charge of delivering our messages … but we must become very good at guiding such messaging through the media strategically.

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