Nonprofits spend countless hours — and considerable money — to stage gala dinners, peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns, and other events that aim to draw attention to their work and rally their supporters to give to their organizations. Quite often, they also expect these events to generate media coverage.
And, quite often, they are disappointed when their events get ignored by newspapers, TV stations, and online outlets.
During my nearly two decades in journalism, I received countless pitches from charities small and large inviting me to cover their events. In almost every case, the pitches were earnest and the causes seemed worthy. But, in almost every case, I had to say no.
Sometimes, my reasons for turning down the pitch were simple logistics — I was either covering something else or couldn’t make the event because it conflicted with something else happening in my life.
But usually, I would turn down the request because the pitch didn’t sell the event as something that was worth my time. While the events were big deals to the organizations that were staging them, they simply didn’t have a juicy enough angle for me to feel confident that I would walk away with a story that was strong enough to make the pages of my newspaper.
To get the attention of reporters, your event needs to provide them with enough of a news hook to justify taking time away from pursuing other stories to be there. They need to be assured that, if they choose to attend, they will come away with a strong story.
Sadly, most communications pros who are promoting events don’t take the time to find strong story angles before they make their pitch to the media. They take the easy step of sending a news release announcing their event — and they are disappointed when those pitches are ignored.
The good news is that reporters actually like to cover charity events that come with a ready-made news hook. The stories themselves are easy to report — and they provide an opportunity to report on some “good news”. But with so many charity events on the calendar, you need to take the time to sell them on why yours will help them tell an interesting and newsworthy story.
How do you do that?
Here are five approaches that are likely to help you find success:
1. Support (or debunk) a trend
One way to get the media to cover your event is to position it in the context of a larger trend, preferably a trend that hasn’t been covered by the news outlet you’re pitching.
Best Buddies Pennsylvania‘s annual fundraising walk was recently featured in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, not because the paper routinely covers charity walks, but because the growth of Best Buddies’ event mirrored a larger trend in peer-to-peer fundraising — namely that it was among a growing number of smaller, less-established events that had been showing success locally.
Smart communicators will often talk to the people who are planning the event to learn more about what’s happening in the broader field and will research other events and trends to see if they can find connections.
By taking this step — and then showing reporters how your event will help them write an interesting trend story — you have a better chance of getting them to pay attention.
2. Connect it to a current news topic
Is your environmental nonprofit hosting its annual dinner on the eve of a major climate change summit? Is your soup kitchen hosting a fundraising event at the same time that Congress is considering changes to the way food stamps are administered?
One way to get the media interested in your event is to find a connection between its mission and something that’s happening in the news. It provides reporters with a ready-made hook and questions to ask your leadership and attendees — and it gives you the extra benefit of helping raise awareness about an issue that connects closely with your work.
Last fall, I spoke at an annual gathering of charity leaders in Erie, Pa. While I was there, I ran into an old reporter friend who had decided to cover the event because it gave him the opportunity to talk to nonprofit leaders whose organizations were affected by a delay in approving Pennsylvania’s state budget.
The reporter decided to cover the event because he knew he would have a chance to talk directly to attendees in between sessions. The event helped him get a diverse array of opinions and put a local face on a statewide story.
3. Provide insider access to a speaker or awards recipient
During my days as a local newspaper reporter, I always loved the opportunity to get an opportunity to interview a newsworthy speaker — particularly if it was someone from out of town who might be able to provide some unique insights about something that was happening in the community I was covering or on a larger trend or topic.
If your event is bringing in an outside speaker or guest, attempt to make arrangements with that person to be available for interviews with select media members — and find out what topics he or she is willing (and unwilling) to discuss. Often, you can select some time either before the event begins or after his or her speech for short interviews.
Not only will this help you get coverage for your event, it could help bolster your relationship with the reporters who are offered the opportunity to interview your speaker. The reporter might be more likely to pick up the phone and call you in the future for comment on a story — and to reply to your next pitch.
4. Find a human-interest story
Chances are, your fundraising walk or ride isn’t going to get the attention of a reporter on its own. After all, there are likely multiple fundraising events happening in your community every weekend.
But you know what does appeal to reporters? Stories of perseverance, of overcoming obstacles, of people doing extraordinary things in the face of adversity.
Many nonprofit events involve people who have amazing stories who are supporting an organization because of a deep personal connection to the cause. Rather than simply putting out announcements about your event, take the time to find out more about the people who are participating and make them the center of your pitch. Your fundraising team likely knows these stories already and would love to help you shine the spotlight of an amazing volunteer or a supporter who is walking in honor of a family member.
It takes a bit of extra work to find these stories and to position them to reporters, but your chances of success are much higher if you can find a compelling person to be the face of your event.
5. Invite a preview
Because many nonprofit-led events occur on nights and weekends — at times when most news organizations run with a skeleton crew — getting a reporter to actually come out to those events can be a stretch.
But you don’t need them to come to the actual event to claim victory with your pitch. Often, you can gain more value by getting coverage ahead of the event. In addition to inviting reporters to attend your event, give them the option of writing a preview — and use one of the other tactics outlined above to help provide the hook.
While none of these approaches are foolproof, your pitches stand a greater chance at success if they do more than provide an invitation.
You need a hook.
Take the time to find one, and you’ll be rewarded with more coverage for your next event.
Peter Panepento is principal at Panepento Strategies, a full-service content, digital, and social strategy firm for nonprofits and socially-minded companies. He was formerly an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a senior vice president at The Council on Foundations. He also serves as Nonprofit Marketing Guide’s adviser on public relations.