Nonprofit Branding: The University President Did What His Board Asked. So They Fired Him!

Last week’s post contained the following example of a media misfire you can avoid….

Yielding to self-indulgent hubris, the university trustees and state political leaders fired the president because the media reported that he had accomplished a task they wanted him to take. The reason he was terminated? He did not give them advance warning that he was actually taking the steps they were urging upon him. The power-brokers were pissed that the media got the story first. So he lost his job!

There is a sneaky branding issue in this bizarre incident. For good or evil, media coverage can have enormous impact on nonprofit constituencies – especially stakeholders in power positions.

So, let’s explore the issues….

GENERAL MEDIA RISKS: Media coverage is beyond your control. So is public reaction to that coverage. Every story can cause some people to have a weird reaction. Following is a summary of what you face and some tips on minimizing the risk.

1) As we saw in the recent Komen/Planned Parenthood fracas, any news story can be intentionally distorted by advocacy and political groups.

Less obvious is this. The facts and balance of any story can be accidentally misinterpreted by the media reporting it…. and accidentally misinterpreted by the public reading, hearing or seeing that media report.

2) Even without distortion or misinterpretation, reactions to a story will vary by individual and by constituency. Supporters, competitors, regulators, political players, employees, other nonprofit organizations can all have a different response to an accurately presented good news story about your organization.

3) The further you go up your constituent food chain, the greater the risk that news coverage will irritate a self-perceived stakeholder. The president referred to in the title to this post used his authority to fire a football coach. The university’s stakeholders – trustees and state political leaders – wanted the coach terminated. When he was about to take action, the president should have tipped them off. That way, when media coverage ensued, the stakeholders could affirm that they were in the know, thus burnishing their own images as advisors & confidants of the university president. They lost the chance, the president lost his job, and we have a nice anecdote to illustrate what the weather is like at the top of the food chain.

SIMPLE RISK MANAGEMENT: Do not provide information to the media until you have prepared yourself for potential consequences.

• Sit down, preferably with astute advisors, and reflect on the nature of your story.

Is it hard factual news? A human interest story? A story that needs to go public at a certain date? An evergreen piece that can sit on the shelf, ready to fill a news-hole on a slow day? Is it news that simply cannot be withheld from the public, even though you hope nobody sees it, hears of it or reads it.

Different kinds of stories require different interactions with the media. Know the nature of your story and how you want it to be presented. THEN you can begin to analyze the content.

• If you are initiating coverage, identify the information you hope will make the news as well as the information you hope the press will ignore.

• If the press is initiating coverage, when first contacted, say you are too busy to talk, but will get back to the reporter in an hour. Then do the same thing: identify the information you hope will make the news as well as the information you hope the press will ignore.

• Once you know the nature of your story and have identified its most favorable content, you are ready to strategically shape your own interaction with the media. So now you craft phrases that best communicate the information you want the press to report. Then refine those phrases – make them crisp, specific and quotable.

• You are then ready to master the selected content and the phrases that transmit that content. Whether in a press backgrounder, a press release or an interview – try to offer that information and those phrases – ONLY.

When you are responding to press inquiry or are initiating coverage, this approach will help you moderate risk of unintended consequences.

BAD NEWS: When you have bad news to deliver, offer it to the media near deadline on Friday. (Deadlines vary – check first to see what time on Friday.) The media has about a 48-hour news cycle for important stuff – so even if your bad news gets coverage, it is likely to be processed by a shorthanded news staff and offered to a public that pays less attention to the news on weekends. And then, by Monday, it is old news!

COMING NEXT: There are several other areas in which a bit of  advice, based on experience and common sense, can help you protect your brand. They include: the sequence with which you move information through various media and to various constituents; …..assertion of mission as the basic internal branding tool;…..the potential impact of advocacy and political organizations;…..the media policy that can protect your employment.

All of these are branding issues. All of them are fun to write about. The challenge for me is to make them fun to read about. I sure would appreciate it if you  drop me a note ([email protected]) or use the Comments Section of this post to tell me how this blog is doing and what branding and marketing issues you would like it to cover in the future. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings; we’re in this together AND we all want this blog to be as effective a branding/marketing resource as possible.

The Subscriber Special posted on the upper right side is available at this wholesale price until March 20. We will then introduce another branding item available only to subscribers at or near our cost.


One thought on “Nonprofit Branding: The University President Did What His Board Asked. So They Fired Him!

  1. Nice wrap-up in part two! I have seen how the right proactive approach to the media can generate a great image for non-profits and generate donations. The trick really is to manage the information well.

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