If you handle media relations for your nonprofit, it's important to understand the rules that govern professional journalism.
These rules might appear quaint in this age of partisan cable networks and opinion-based websites. But, believe it or not, most reputable news organizations are still working under the idea that journalists should be responsible with the information they gather and the sources they work with.
Ultimately, these rules are designed to protect you -- since they encourage journalists to be fair and unbiased.
And knowing those rules can help your organization get the coverage it deserves, especially if you're dealing with a reporter who is covering a sensitive issue relating to your organization or its mission. Knowing the rules can also help you set the right expectations when you do something as simple as offer complimentary admission to reporters at your annual fundraising dinner.
If you're new to media relations -- or you're an experienced hand that needs a refresher -- I recommend taking some time to review the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, which should provide you with the background you need to understand the rules of the road.
At the very highest level, the rules are simple. Journalists are obligated to:
- seek and report the truth
- be fair to your sources
- act as the public's watchdog
- avoid any conflicts of interest that would jeopardize their ability to report objectively.
But how does this code actually apply to the nonprofit world?
Here's a True/False test that should help you navigate some common situations that crop up for nonprofits that deal with the media:
True or false: We advertise in the newspaper. We deserve positive stories.
False. Most news organizations have a bright line between their advertising departments and their newsrooms -- and for good reason. Journalists aren't supposed to let the fact that advertisers spend money in their pages or on their networks have any sway over the news they report. Your advertisement buys you the opportunity to spread your own message in the space you reserved -- and it needs to be clear to readers or viewers that see it that it is a paid advertisement. But placing an ad guarantees you nothing beyond that.
True or false: I should expect to review a story about my organization before it is published.
False. Responsible news organizations do not hand over the controls to the subjects they are covering. But that doesn't mean you're out of luck if you want to make sure a reporter is getting the facts right. Some reporters will agree to read direct quotes to you for accuracy before publication or review facts and figures. If it is a reported news story, they have no obligation to clear any information they gather with you ahead of time. But reporters who value accuracy will be sure to double check facts with their sources.
True or false: It's acceptable for me to limit photography of my programs, especially if my organization works with children or vulnerable populations.
True. While you might feel pressure to allow a news organization to record or photograph the people you serve, they also have an obligation to protect those who cannot give consent or who are in vulnerable positions. Reputable news organizations will respect your rules. If there are situations where your organization might want to have its programs photographed or recorded by the media, you might consider creating a process for getting consent from children or directly from those who you serve and making it clear to the media organization who has agreed to be photographed.
True of false: We don't have to share our IRS forms with the media.
False. Because your nonprofit's revenues are exempt from taxes and are generated through the generosity of donors, your IRS Form 990s are considered public records. Refusing to provide them could get you in legal trouble. It could also raise red flags with inquiring reporters who are ethically bound to serve as public watchdogs. Many organizations make it very easy for reporters -- and the public -- to access their 990s. Some groups go a step further and publicly release their audited financial statements.
True or false: The story about my nonprofit contains inaccurate information. I should demand a correction.
True. Journalists are supposed to acknowledge mistakes and correct them quickly and prominently. If you see a mistake, you should say something to the reporter or editor responsible for it.
True or false: Our nonprofit was portrayed negatively in a story. We should demand a retraction.
False ... most of the time. If the story is factually true and is an example of a news organization holding you accountable for failing to deliver on your mission or abusing your resources, you're probably out of luck. You need to look no further than the recent investigative pieces on the Wounded Warrior Project to see how the news media handles its role as a watchdog of nonprofits. But if the story is based on false information or shoddy reporting, you have every right to stand up for your organization and demand accountability. Journalists, like doctors, are supposed to 'do no harm'. This means they shouldn't be unfairly targeting those who are acting responsibly.
True or false: I can offer a reporter free admission to our annual dinner.
True -- but don't be surprised if he or she refuses and pays their own way, instead. Some news organizations let reporters enter paid events for free if they are there covering the event. Others will choose to pay the admission fee for their reporters because they don't want their reporters to feel indebted to the organizations they cover. But even if they accept free admission, they should stop short of accepting other freebies -- such as travel costs or meals.
As you can see, there are a number of gray areas. But regardless of how an individual reporter responds in certain situations, it's important to remember that most journalists are trying to work within a set of professional rules.
As you work with them, it's ok to ask questions about how they approach these gray areas.
By showing an interest in how they approach their work and maintain their objectivity, you're sending them a message that you respect what they do and are after the same goals. This, in turn, will help yield respectful and fair coverage of your own work.
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.