Children's Voice July/August 2009

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Managing Media Opportunities: Making the most of time in the national spotlight

By Heather Morgan

Though the Bonnie Brae Knights took their drum line seriously, they hadn't yet shown the world all they could accomplish. Bonnie Brae's CEO Bill Powers thought this was their year, so he nominated his Knights to march in the inaugural parade for President Barack Obama, held last January in Washington, DC.

The Knights, a drum line comprised of 12 young men in Bonnie Brae's residential treatment center, didn't just have skills; they also had determination. After unsuccessfully trying to live in traditional foster homes, these boys found their second chance at the New Jersey nonprofit organization and CWLA member agency, designed to provide a therapeutic learning environment for male adolescents in foster care to receive the guidance, structure, stability, and encouragement they need to become responsible young men. And Bonnie Brae's drum line was truly important to the Knights-through their music, they could show just how far they'd come and how determined they were to succeed. Aligning that with the interest the youth conveyed in the election seemed to be the right fit. "Our kids really got into the election; we have a lot of African-American kids, and they were interested in the campaign," Powers says. "I knew they'd be jazzed to play for the inauguration."

In past years, the parade committee received 500 or 600 applications from groups vying for the 49 parade spots. This year, it received more than 1,400.

The Knights stood out. Powers received a call on a Sunday night last December, saying his Bonnie Brae Knights would march in the parade, representing the state of New Jersey, as well as every youth in the nation's child welfare system. Powers knew it was great news, but he didn't realize just how big it was until he showed up for work the following day.

New York radio station WCBS AM had staked out Bonnie Brae's parking lot starting at 5 a.m. the next morning. Within hours, affiliates of ABC, CBS, PBS, NBC, and Telemundo were at the agency breaking the story. Reporters from local, regional, and national print and broadcast outlets continuously called seeking interviews with Powers and the Knights. While the media attention was overwhelming, Powers welcomed the opportunity to spread the agency's positive message.

With little time to prepare, he and his leadership team quickly convened to establish their priorities and keymessages. They established two priorities. Since only 12 Bonnie Brae residents were marching Knights, Powers's team wanted to be sure the other 84 weren't left out, and they also wanted to educate the public on the residential treatment offered at Bonnie Brae.

Establishing such priorities is critical, especially to ensure the focus remains on the agency's positive aspects, explains Susan Ennis, principal of Central Florida-based EnSpire Communication Consultants. Even when time is limited, Ennis recommends pulling together a bit of background information so reporters can incorporate agency highlights into the story; often, this enhances the angle sought by the media. In Powers's case, reporters were fascinated that the young men in the Bonnie Brae Knights overcame such intense obstacles-75% of Bonnie Brae's residents are victims of abuse or neglect or have behavioral health issues and have experienced an average of six or more prior placements-to play in the parade.

Though Bonnie Brae didn't have much time to prepare for the influx of attention, it had even less time to prepare for the barrage of media eager to develop a story. "We were going from the seat of our pants," Powers says. "We really had to operate on the fly."

While it worked well for Powers, Ennis advises her clients to buy a little time by asking media about their deadlines, who they'd like to interview, if it's possible to see questions in advance, and if they're interested in on- or off-camera interviews. While company spokespersons should already be trained to work with the media, reporters are many times also interested in speaking with clients. Take time to prepare interviewees for what to expect, and remind reporters that protecting your clients is your top priority. Fortunately for Bonnie Brae, Powers says, the television crews realized he and his team were novices and went out of their way to help. After an informal press conference, Powers and his team coordinated personal interviews to accommodate the audiences of various outlets; hometown papers, for example, wanted to speak with clients from the neighborhoods they covered.

Throughout the media mayhem, Bonnie Brae's upfront waiver request for incoming residents proved invaluable. Upon admittance to the program, Powers explains, clients' guardians are asked to sign a release allowing the clients to participate in publicity and outreach efforts.

Prior to individual interviews, Powers and his staff took the youth aside to explain the public interest in the Knights' selection and provided questions reporters may ask about their reactions. While the story's timeliness and urgency prevented Bonnie Brae from fully preparing, Powers explains, the impromptu interviews resulted in genuine stories coming straight from the hearts of the young men. "It probably helped that we didn't have more time to prepare," he says. "The kids came across as overjoyed, which they were."

Though Ennis agrees the authenticity of client interviews can increase a story's newsworthiness, she adds that "it's not inappropriate to remind media representatives that a client's confidentiality cannot be breached," particularly if you don't have a signed release on file. It's also a good idea to set some boundaries, keeping in mind that while every question asked warrants a response, sometimes it is not necessary to answer the reporter's exact question.

Making the Most of Media Coverage

With phones ringing constantly, it can be too easy for anyone on staff to talk with reporters on the other line. Ennis, however, encourages organizations to identify their spokesperson-preferably trained to work with the media in advance-and remind employees and clients to direct all media inquiries to the designated spokesperson rather than respond themselves. Bonnie Brae leaders determined right away all media would go through Powers.

Centralizing media calls to the CEO helped maintain a sense of order within Bonnie Brae, particularly as it maintained day-to-day activities. Additionally, while a central spokesperson gives the organization one voice, it helps the agency provide consistent messaging. An agency spokesperson can remain cognizant that most media have an angle and stay focused on predetermined message points. The experience forced Bonnie Brae to put its talking points on paper-an important step to ensure consistent messaging amidst various media agendas. For Powers, this was his opportunity to educate the public through the media about what Bonnie Brae's strength-based program does every day, while also expressing the joy felt throughout the agency because of the Knights' selection to participate in the inaugural parade.

Powers believes there's a common misconception about the media: While many people think the media is only interested in reporting crises ("if it bleeds, it leads") he says that's simply not true. Bonnie Brae received very positive press from the entire range of local and national media, including ABC World News Tonight. In a newscast dominated by the declining stock market and tragedies inflicted on polar bears, the Bonnie Brae Knights were featured as the good news of the hour. "With the right timing and the right story, you can definitely get the right angle," Powers says.

Ennis takes this idea one step further. When a positive story triggers national attention, it bolsters the morale of employees and gives the clients hope. "The story illustrates the agency's success, making board members more committed and giving donors a sense of pride," she says.

While Bonnie Brae was gearing up for the parade, the campus of Washington, DC, agency Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Inc., also a CWLA member, was in a media frenzy the day preceding the inauguration. As the beneficiary of then President-Elect Obama's Service Day with Martin Luther King III, Sasha Bruce welcomed the positive energy and reporting triggered through the high-profile visit and service. Founded and still led by CEO Deborah Shore, the agency caters to youth who are struggling with or on the verge of homelessness, and strives to prepare at-risk teens for bright futures through a variety of programs, classes, and counseling opportunities. Shore welcomed the chance to spread this message to the nation through the Service Day. Reporters wanted to capture the feel-good story of volunteerism, which allowed Sasha Bruce to garner positive coverage worldwide. "The media came to us," Shore explains. Though arrangements were made with absolute secrecy, the few hours then President-Elect Obama spent at Sasha Bruce triggered enormous global coverage. "We were on the front page of 40 papers the next day."

While the context of the event attracted the positive coverage, Shore's agency worked hard to take advantage of the resulting attention. Thanks to improvements the organization made on its website over the past couple of years, Sasha Bruce quickly posted coverage online; within hours of placement, Shore's team posted radio clips, print coverage, and live links. Keeping the site current was critical; it received more than 40,000 hits, largely because of the Service Day publicity. While the President-Elect was on campus, she adds, the news even looped on CNN and MSNBC.

Like Powers, Shore realized this was the opportunity of a lifetime to inform the public about her organization. Service Day generated just one day-albeit a large day-of media coverage. "It was a one-day hit, but it was so much more than that for us," Shore says. Through the exponential increase of visits to Sasha Bruce's website, the organization's newsletter and volunteer requests grew tremendously. "From a media standpoint, it was wonderful beginning to end," Shore explains. She thinks that because the media provided such positive visibility for Sasha Bruce, the coverage will likely impact the organization in ways yet to be seen.

While the media didn't develop a full-blown story about the services and needs of Sasha Bruce, Shore says, it was an optimal way to be noticed. "If this organization is good enough for the President, then it's probably a pretty remarkable organization," she says, summarizing the perceptions she believes viewers and readers had.

While Shore was being interviewed, she was acutely aware of the media's impact on her clients. "I was most impressed at how transformed the young people were by [President Obama's] visit. The media wanted to talk to me, but the young people wanted to talk to them and talk about the experience," she says. "It's essential to our work to help young people contribute to the world. It helped transform their sense of having a place."

And the transformation has continued, she says. Prior to leaving Sasha Bruce, President Obama delivered an inspirational speech about the importance of service and joining together to contribute to a better world. Collectively, the speech, service, and intense media coverage has made a lasting impact on Sasha Bruce's clients. Since then, they've held a series of meetings on how to answer the call to service, and the meetings have piqued the interest of 40 youth eager to volunteer. "There's so much spirit about how to make a difference," she adds.

Improving from Within

Powers shares that the increased attention Bonnie Brae received through the media also pushed his agency to improve its internal management, particularly its communication and coordination. To create full cohesiveness among residents and staff, the organization purchased Bonnie Brae Knights shirts for everyone on campus. Prior to this, Powers says, the residents weren't proud of their association with the program; since it caters to the most at-risk youth in the community, the young men understandably didn't want others to know of their involvement. But as news spread of the role Bonnie Brae would play in the inauguration, the youth wore their shirts with pride.

Prior to sending the 12 Knights to Washington, DC, Bonnie Brae hosted a send-off party, opening the campus to the public and inviting locals to learn more about the agency. Hundreds of people showed up, including several media outlets, which offered Bonnie Brae yet another opportunity to showcase the good in its work.

Though it can be easy to get caught up in media opportunities, Ennis encourages agencies to take a page from Bonnie Brae's book and look at the big picture. She advises spokespeople to keep priorities focused on the agency's core mission. Perhaps the media attention can influence legislation or raise awareness for programs in need of funding; the media may be able to help get an agency's messages in front of the right people.

"Whenever you have a story that invokes emotion and illustrates a positive outcome, it's important to retell the story in as many ways as possible," Ennis explains. "Some people will be touched by reading the story in a newsletter while others will find a short video sent through e-mail compelling."

The Results

Taking advantage of the media blitz that resulted from the Knights' selection proved to be one of Powers's best decisions for Bonnie Brae. From the ongoing publicity, Bonnie Brae received more than 400 donations-90% of which were from first-time donors. Without a single appeal, Bonnie Brae raised more than $50,000-in addition to in-kind donations- which helps keep the music program alive.

"We want to convert them from band supporters to Bonnie Brae supporters," Powers says, adding that fame is fleeting. Since the agency struck a chord with new donors through the Knights, Bonnie Brae hopes to cultivate first-timers by connecting them with the agency's music program. In addition to inviting donors to campus for a concert, Bonnie Brae created memory books for contributors to experience the young men's moment in the spotlight. There are also talks of hosting special events to get the community back on campus.

"People are more apt to donate money to a cause for which they have some emotional attachment," Ennis says. "Most donors feel better about continuing to provide funding when they see evidence of positive outcomes."

Shore follows a similar line of thinking. After the Service Day and positive press that followed, Sasha Bruce continued to spread the word by sending photos and messages to the public. Regular updates to its website provided better communication with constituents, recruited volunteers, and informed the public about the organization's needs and successes.

According to Ennis, one of the best ways to keep post-event enthusiasm alive is to continue spreading the message through newsletters, speaking engagements, online efforts, and various social media platforms, such as Facebook. Learn how constituents-both current and prospective-prefer to receive their news and information, and then maximize the reach by utilizing their preferred methods. Some stories have the potential for stretching beyond the "15 minutes of fame," Ennis adds, by finding a different angle that appeals to a new publication or news agency, or leveraging a local media connection.

Both Sasha Bruce and Bonnie Brae took full advantage of the great opportunities provided through the multitude of media inquiries and resulting coverage. While the initial media stories helped boost the morale among clients and staff and furthered the connection with current and prospective donors and volunteers, it was the organizations' continued effort that allowed them to keep the momentum going. From keeping websites updated and enhancing outreach efforts to maintaining personal contact with interested parties and instilling pride in the youth they serve, the organizations have worked hard to reap the rewards initially generated through the increased visibility made possible through positive media messages. And whether it's through the initial stories, a follow-up campus tour, or an updated link on the website, the rewards-donations, volunteers, visibility, and pride-are all to help the clients, all to prepare youth for brighter futures.

Heather Morgan is a Communications Specialist at the Children's Home Society of Florida, a CWLA member agency.

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