Nonprofit Branding: Coverage By Mass Media Can Screw Up Your Nonprofit Brand.

Last week’s post described how Herbert Hoover’s brand went into the toilet. An unsuspecting and stressed public embraced an outright lie fed to it by a political opportunist who was running for the vice presidency. Even today our 31st President is known as the boob who put the nation into an economic free-fall. The Great Depression IS President Hoover’s brand!

This  ironic fiasco has several lessons for brand-conscious nonprofits:

Your brand always faces peril in the competitive nonprofit marketplace of ideas and reputations. There are ways you can protect the brand from inadvertent damage.  Let’s discuss…

Assume some common nonprofit actions that might receive print or broadcast media coverage:

  • You are about to move to new offices.
  • Or fire your CEO.
  • Or accept the huge transformative gift.
  • Or acknowledge openings caused by board or staff turnover.
  • Or engage another NPO in an alliance or merger.

I have been involved with every one of these examples. Some backfired because I was too inexperienced or too obtuse to anticipate the risk. The fact we must always remember, and that I learned the hard way, is that even affirmative  media coverage can cause unexpected reaction from allies and adversaries.

Media Risk

Media coverage will never produce 100% affirmative results. At best, it will delight the stalwarts and generate a bit of negative fodder for that rumor mill where a few bleak souls congregate. At worst, coverage will invite constituent backlash in view of the general public.

Above I posed some examples of everyday topics covered by the media. This is how that media coverage can, in some quarters, grow nasty weeds.

• New offices? Great! But….the move can trigger speculation that ego outpaced mission, resulting in relocation to a Palace of Hubris. To preempt that claim, your announcement must emphasize a mission-related purpose for the move, such as more efficient operation or ability to serve additional populations.

• You finally fired that clown? Careful now….even the nonprofit leader who deserves to be fired will have built a support system within your constituency. Without effective communications, those supporters can become restless and generate brand-damaging speculation or even outright rebellion. Don’t waken the sleeping adversary.

• Those transformative gifts have a way of re-energizing a nonprofit. They also can cause speculation that in exchange for the gift an organization compromised mission, weakened the board and swapped independence for cash. As a general rule, the larger the gift the more carefully you must treat communications about its acceptance and use. (I have a couple of stunning anecdotes about this phenomenon. They will show up in future posts and you will be relating them to your colleagues. Promise!)

• Sure, it’s healthy and sometimes necessary to replace staff and board members. But board and staff turnover does create smoke. That smoke leads to suspicion that there is a fire. The usual assumption is that turnover is evidence of covert organizational conflict and disarray.

• Mergers and alliances are often seen as sell-outs by some stakeholders. Their loyalty to the past can become rejection of the future. It can also be astute wariness about the possible outcomes. Be aware of the multiple ways this announcement can play out.

Context: Remember that every bit of media coverage can produce a weird reaction by some people….and some media coverage can produce a weird reaction by a lot of people. To protect your brand you must carefully think about the communications context before making any public statement. There are very specific ways to do this. I will explain them, with examples, in next week’s post.

It’s time for another oddball anecdote, preceded by this fundamental principle about your brand:

PRINCIPLE: media coverage causes public notice and discussion which, in turn, creates affirmative results COMBINED WITH a risk to your nonprofit brand. The amount of risk will vary  by sub-set of your constituency. You can be sure it grows exponentially as you move up the food-chain to your most important stakeholders.

Here is an anecdote to illustrate the above (one of dozens!): The Chairman of the Board of Trustees of one of America’s great universities took me into his confidence. He explained that the president fired the football coach and his Board of Trustees will soon terminate the university president!

I was surprised. The president was popular and competent. Why would the board replace him? The Board Chair explained the Trustees were about to can  the president, but NOT because he fired the football coach.The Trustees were OK with that. They understood the coach had to go. They had expected it at any moment.

So, what was the problem?

The president was about to lose his own job because fired the coach without first informing the Board of Trustees, the governor, the majority leader of the senate and the chair of the senate education committee!

Those key stakeholders were glad to have the coach fired. No problem there. But they were embarrassed when the press asked for their reactions a few hours after his termination. They had to admit to the press, and therefore – to the public – that they had been left out of the loop by the president of their premier state university. He had fired the coach without first telling them he was about to pull the trigger!

The action that was fully within presidential authority. It was an action they endorsed. Nevertheless, these stakeholders felt the president owed them prior notice so they could enhance their own images as advisors & confidants of the president.

That failure would soon cost the president his own job.

When the president’s impending doom was entrusted to me I had already learned that one key to brand protection and sustained employment is to never surprise your board or key stakeholders. But that day I learned two new and completely useless things: 1) in some southern states, football and the protocols of hierarchy take on an Alice In Wonderland importance whose power can overwhelm more important values. AND, 2) since the board chair only mentioned the governor and senate……. the house must have been in the hands of the other party.

As I hope you realize, this anecdote is the set-up for next week’s post.We’ll pick up this thread…and more. (For a preview, see the Coming Next citation below.)


Coming Next: In the next two posts we discuss the strategy by which public communications are expressed affirmatively but conceived strategically and defensively to minimize unexpected blow-back….. how to protect the brand by asserting mission stability….how to properly  deliver bad news to the public….how to properly develop collateral materials for print, web or broadcast marketing.


2 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: Coverage By Mass Media Can Screw Up Your Nonprofit Brand.

  1. Pingback: NONPROFIT BRANDING: the university president did as his board asked. So they fired him! | Nonprofit Branding Blog

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