Nonprofit Branding: Protecting Your Brand From Media Misfires

Tips to protect the brand when your nonprofit is covered by mass media :

• planning the sequence with which you move your information;

• anticipating possible exploitation of your message;

dealing with toxic media coverage – when you are right AND when you are wrong;

adopting a simple policy to help protect your brand (& protect your employment).

These are subtle, tricky issues. They can make or break your brand. Evaluate them. Argue about them. Trump them with better ideas of your own. (Offer your own experiences in the Comments section at the end of this post. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings; we’re in this together.)

MESSAGE SEQUENCE: We’ve discussed the president of a great university who lost his job because he fired the football coach. He did not realize that how information is distributed can cause more benefit – or more damage  – than the story itself.

Learn from the death of his career. Before you go public with your announcement, consider which stakeholders should receive a different form of notification, or receive that information at a different time or from a different source than the general public.

• Who will be pleased with early notification? Equally important: who will be offended if you fail to inform them before the general public?

• Who must be informed by personal contact from your Board Chair or CEO?

• Who needs a more comprehensive explanation than the media will carry?

When presentation is properly sequenced, your news can become a great cultivation tool with allies and supporters. Careless sequence makes key stakeholders feel blindsided by the news. Before your story goes to the general public, think how to best present it to current or prospective major gift prospects, regulators, board members, senior employees, politicians, former employees, other nonprofit leaders and more.

The lesson here: The most powerful predators live at the top of your organization’s foodchain. Enhance impact and minimize risk with a news distribution sequence which gives specific stakeholders early notification, more complete information and more personal delivery of that information than the general public receives.

MESSAGE LASH-BACK: When it breaks in the media, some news about your brand might invite lash-back from political opportunists and advocacy groups. In today’s media environment, do not think for a minute – not one minute – that truth or facts will deter aggression from political and advocacy interests. Give them the opportunity and many will use your incident to advance their own cause, no matter how unfair and no matter how damaging to your brand.

Any nonprofit public service organization can become a target for these people. Think Komen and Planned Parenthood. One announcement. Days of antagonism. Damage to each brand because each was attacked by multiple advocacy and political groups. I am not writing about right and wrong here. Instead, I am emphasizing that some outfits will sacrifice your brand to honor their own agenda. They lurk. They strike. You bleed.

The lesson here: To protect your brand, make NO public announcement until you have thought through the possible ways it can trigger a hostile response from some group that believes, or pretends to believe, it has a stake in the issue that overlaps with yours.

MESSAGE TOXIN – When you are right: Imagine that your brand gets mistreated or unfairly attacked by the media.  The media made a mistake. The facts are wrong, the story is wrong – and your organization is in the right. It has been damaged. You want a correction or a retraction.

No matter how much it hurts, in most cases you will be wise to avoid responding.

Don’t use the offending media to rebut the story it carried. The reason? Most stories in most media only reach a small portion of the public. After being exposed to it an even smaller portion will remember the story. Besides – the media will always have the last word. The story is on the front page or gets a 50 second broadcast treatment; the retraction is on page 24 or gets seven seconds.

Not only must you restrain yourself, you must help staff and board members see the wisdom of chilling out.

However, you can carefully correct the record with the people who are most important to you. Restrict your response to direct constituent communication channels you have established, like email or newsletter. The rules:

• wait a couple weeks when you are commenting on old news, so the media is not tempted to pick up your rebuttal and recycle the story;

• use moderate language – avoid confrontation or accusation;

• do not make your response the rebuttal centerpiece of your communication. That can appear defensive. Instead, let it occupy a subordinate position in your communications landscape so it  does not betray the pain and anger you feel over the story.

The lesson here: When you are in the right, trying to offset that modest damage with a rebuttal will only increase the number of people who are aware of the story …. and increase the number who remember it. Don’t respond to brand damage with acts that increase the damage. As with the practice of medicine, your motto must be “First, do no harm.”

MESSAGE TOXIN – When you are wrong: There are times you MUST respond to a damaging story in the media. I had a great little piece written for this topic. Then current events outpaced me. Take a look at COMING NEXT below….

BASIC BRANDING POLICY: Living off a trust fund? You may not need the advice I am about to give. Is your resume updated and are bridges burning behind you? Then this information is too late to help.

The lesson here:  If you are trying to build a stable career in the incredibly brand-sensitive arena of nonprofit marketing, adopting one simple policy can help protect your brand AND protect your employment. I already wrote a two-part post about this essential policy. It is one click away. Start here!

COMING NEXT: A media flap this weekend (March 17/18) involved some of our friends. Their crisis created an example of how to handle media coverage of your own mistakes. Public Radio’s This American Life broadcast a report that contained errors. Within hours of realizing the problem, host Ira Glass, the TAL Staff and the folks at Public Radio International stepped up to the plate. They used all available media to acknowledge the mistake…. and did so with such class and effectiveness that this incident deserves a blog post of its own.

I am now collecting audience responses to show how important it is to handle your own errors effectively. For nonprofit marketing folks, this is exciting and important stuff! Next week……

4 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: Protecting Your Brand From Media Misfires

  1. As someone who has served as a director/trustee on boards, as a staff member and as a program volunteer for multiple nonprofits, I see much wisdom in the advice offered here. As the author’s business partner and wife, I have watched with pride as John guided organizations large and small through the episodes of crisis media management. This post is good counsel!

  2. This is a fantastic article, thanks for writing and sharing. So many don’t even think the basics through, much less when trouble hits the fan.
    Planning is the only salvation, because they are out there!

  3. Interesting to consider when to follow above (eg let a harmful story die down a bit before commenting) v.s. the concept of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” (two different situations). I recall years ago a religious organization attacked a very small business because the company produced what the organization considered controversial “trading cards.” The organization would have been wise to simply be quiet about their dislike of the cards, as the publicity put the business in the spotlight, and suddenly the cards were selling like hotcakes. The owners were inundated with requests for interviews. That’s a case of the intended bad publicity turning into revenues. Your example is a great one of knowing you mishandled the media and fixing the mistake. I fine the contrasting situations intriguing to parse.

  4. Pingback: How to Protect Your Nonprofit Branding from Media Mishaps - Nonprofit Hub

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