Online’s Digital Communications Revolution

One of the fundamental shifts in the news business in the last 25 years is the explosive growth in online digital communications. Fifteen years ago, a publicist could consider his or her job done once they covered the major news outlets of the daily newspaper and surrounding broadcast resources, including TV and radio. No more.

Today, multiple opportunities to publicize material online make the Internet a prime communications outlet for media-hungry nonprofits. That’s both good news and bad news. The good news is it is much easier to zero in on preferred audiences. The bad news is it takes some searching to find the precise media outlets that are being visited by your target audience.

An Updated Media List is Key to Success

There are several ways to compile a list of digital outlets that are pertinent to an organization. Public relations firms usually turn first to online databases of media outlets to find key editors, reporters and producers.. Subscription databases like Cision (www.cision.com) list the names and sizes of media outlets, who works for them and in what capacity, their beats or areas of interest and how they best like to be contacted. While not cheap, such databases can be organized quickly into spreadsheets, complete with contact information, for individual publicity campaigns.

For cash-strapped nonprofits, it is possible to build a media database from scratch. It is time consuming, but it is possible to go to each publication that covers your nonprofit niche, research the reporters there and compile a list that is unique for your organization.

While most organizations have relationships with a few pertinent reporters, many don’t attempt to create a full-blown database. Reporters tend to move frequently, media outlets also come and go, and it becomes costly to devote the necessary time to keep such information current.

Instead, most organizations simply use specialty lists created by newswires, which are businesses that distribute press materials to reporters. Large newswires, like PRNewswire www.prnewswire.com, go to print, broadcast and online news outlets alike, while some concentrate on digital outlets. Some newswires, like Christian Newswire www.christiannewswire.com, target a specific niche. It is usually easy to find out where they are sending their releases from their websites.

What’s Out There?

Beyond distributing news online, though, is the question of what communications vehicles work best? There are a variety of digital approaches to packaging content for online readers – which is really what a press release does, package content. Those include blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, owned media and online news sites.

1. Blogs

Blogs are a lot like a column in a daily newspaper. They run about 800 to 1,000 words, are written like a story and often supply facts and a conclusion about the blog’s topic. They focus on one topic and tend to be a lively read. Some nonprofits produce their own blogs, which give readers its unique view on key issues. Others simply comment on the blogs of seasoned writers in the field, those who already have an established audience. A word of caution: Writing a blog can be time-consuming, and it is frustrating if no one reads it. If an organization is going to be writing a blog, ask: How will it be distributed? One starting point is through owned media, discussed below. By the way, this column you’re reading is a blog.

2. Twitter

While Twitter can be a news vehicle – it can often trump mainstream news outlets in reporting on breaking news – tweets usually just convey a quick thought or refer readers to a longer story. With only 140 characters to make an impression, Twitter places a premium on pithy writing. Some prolific Twitter writers have thousands of followers, people who automatically receive tweets from those being followed. Getting retweeted by a person who is widely followed is as good or better publicity than many major newspaper stories.

3. Facebook

Does Facebook really need an introduction? The social network site is an endless compendium of chitchat, pet videos and news story links. For nonprofits with limited budgets, though, it is a relatively inexpensive way to gain recognition, especially if your organization has an interesting story – or a small budget to purchase ads.

4. Owned media

Perhaps the easiest audience of all to engage online is the one that is already involved with your organization. Gather up all business cards, LinkedIn addresses and vendor and donor emails, and begin sending them news of your organization. Several digital companies like Constant Contact and Robly provide a platform for maintaining such databases.

5. Online news sites

Ever hear of Patch.com? It is a neighborhood news site by AOL found in a number of major metropolitan areas across the country. It is possible to post local news directly onto the site for local audiences. Neighborhood associations sometimes maintain similar sites, where it is easy to post a story about your organization’s next local event. There are also online news sites, like Religion News Service www.religionnews.com or Politico www.politico.com that have a news staff and function with the same approach as a for-print newspaper.

6. Other social media platforms

There are literally dozens of opportunities for a nonprofit to get some coverage online including LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat and Reddit. Each has its own unique drivers and audiences and the rapid evolution of digital communications ensures that there will be new outlets that rise in popularity within the year.

Online communications is a complex, rapidly changing field where yesterday’s mastery is no guarantee of tomorrow’s success. Most public relations and marketing agencies have social media experts on staff, both to assist with daily publicity but also to keep an eye on the future, to ensure that their clients have the best opportunities coming from emerging communications vehicles.

When a nonprofit begins telling its story online, it is, in effect, becoming its own news organization. As such, it will need to have someone working on digital communications at least part time. Many experienced organizations try to send a worthwhile communication piece out at least once a week. In short, it takes someone who is skilled, plus content about the organization that can be distributed regularly.

Online communications also can mitigate a problem faced by many small nonprofits, which is that they seldom have news that reporters want to put in a large newspaper or on TV. Through digital communications, it is possible to take targeted news, of interest primarily to a small number, and see that they get it. It will help keep their interest alive and provide a foundation for future growth.

Palmer Holt, founder and CEO, is an award-winning communications professional with more than 25 years’ experience in journalism, corporate and agency public relations, marketing and advertising.

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