Most nights I watch the NBC Nightly News and last night I saw two stories with interesting nonprofit marketing angles. They provide two great examples of how to create story hooks that are so enticing that the media simply can’t pass them up.
Lesson #1: If your point isn’t quite compelling enough, it’s OK to elevate a secondary point that is.
The first story was the massive beef recall, the largest in American history, that was based directly on an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States. I used to freelance for the HSUS, so I’m familiar with many of their undercover investigations over the years. They always reveal truly disgusting behavior by human beings against animals — this time forcing sick cows to their feet with electric shocks and bulldozers, since the animals are supposed to be healthy enough to walk on their own to slaughter. As disturbing as this story is, I don’t believe it would have been near the top of the broadcast without this secondary hook: much of the meat went into the National School Lunch Program.
Americans who might otherwise turn a blind eye to exactly how low we humans will go as we turn cows into steaks suddenly get interested when it’s little kids, many of them poor, being served hamburgers made from cows too sick to stand. The HSUS very wisely turned this into more than a story about tortured cows. It became a story about what the federal government is feeding kids at school, and they got massive exposure as a result.
In fact, the HSUS contacted school officials directly in 36 states on January 31 warning them about the beef, well before the USDA forced the recall this week. It’s a great case study in public advocacy — directly connecting animal rights and human health — and also great message development. If you are a big meat eater, you may not care how a bunch of sick cows are treated, but it’s hard to ignore children being fed beef that’s much more likely to carry mad cow disease and other contamination.
Lesson #2: A simple, real, personal story drives home a point better than statistics.
Toward the end of the broadcast, we learned about how U.S. government aid is supporting a foster home and school in Uganda that takes in children whose parents have died of AIDS. Many of the children are HIV positive as well, and our aid pays for their anti-viral drugs. It’s a heart-warming story, but the hook that opened and closed the story really drove home the point.
The founder of the foster home had been asked by a prostitute several years earlier for some poison. The prostitute was dying of AIDS and rather than orphan her two small daughters, who would have surely been forced into prostitution themselves, she wanted to kill herself and them.
Instead this woman took the two girls home with her and started the foster home. Today the two girls are healthy young woman, with a bright future ahead of them, because of the generosity of not only this one woman, but also the U.S. government. The story opened and closed with the foster home founder talking specifically about the two girls.
No matter what issue you are discussing, you are much more likely to capture the media’s interest if you can put an actual human face on the story. A so-so story about U.S. aid to Africa becomes riveting when you introduce the painful past and hopeful future of these two real girls.
If you aren’t getting the kind of media coverage you’d like, apply these two lessons to your media pitches and maybe one evening Brian Williams will be talking about your good work.