Protecting Your Nonprofit in Media Interactions

Don't let a reporter twist your side of the story.

While good media coverage is great for establishing your nonprofit’s credibility with funders, prospective donors, and the public at large, bad media coverage can do permanent damage. Of course, when a reporter calls, you’re probably going to want to talk with him or her – a total shutdown on media interactions won’t do your nonprofit any good either. Keep the following cautions in mind, however, and prepare accordingly:

  • You may spend a lot of time for little reward. Some reporters haven’t done much homework before picking up the phone, and you may spend a long time just getting them up to speed. An even worse situation occurs if you get talked into writing large portions of text for a print journalist who never actually bothers to mention your organization’s name. Also be wary of freelance journalists who are shopping an article to publications without a firm commitment. Either way, you can spend many hours with no payoff.
  • The article or piece may be careless, wrong, or unflattering. Print journalists are famous for talking to you by phone, scribbling down some notes, then mushing it all together and putting quotation marks around something that you don’t remember saying – and perhaps would never have said. In any personal interviews, try to speak slowly and carefully, avoid sarcasm or parodies that could be quoted out of context, and never, ever, say anything “off the record” if you don’t want to see it in print. Better yet is if you can ask the journalist to get your signoff on any quotes from you to be used.
  • You won’t be sent a copy of the article or show. People commonly ask journalists for copies or tapes of the final piece, but unless you’re famous or the journalist owes you a favor, you’ll likely find that both the journalist and the media outlet are too busy to provide anything more than a link to the relevant page of their website – if that. Try to find out when the piece will be run, and then follow the news yourself.
  • You may be surprised at whose side the journalist was really on. Especially if your organization does controversial work, you can be sure that some of the reporters who call will be taking the other side. And if they do, they may try to bait you with innocent-sounding questions like, “Wouldn’t you like to tell your side of the story,” or “I’m very interested in why you believe such and such.” With good planning and care about who you agree to speak with, you should be able to develop relationships with a select list of media professionals who are accessible, interested in your work, and can be counted on not to misuse your time and trust.

Track and save any favorable media coverage. You can send these pieces out with mailings, reprint them in your newsletters (after getting permission of course, to avoid copyright violations), mention and link to them on your website or social media page, and attach copies to grant proposals.

For more information on working with the media, see Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits (Nolo).

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