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Learning the Hard Way: Nonprofits' Uphill Journey

Posted At: November 29, 2010 1:40 PM
by Miah Evans

Things aren’t so bad on the job when you have a clear outline of what you’re expected to do each day. Granted, many PR professionals have posed that there isn’t a “typical day” in public relations; however, it can still be determined that the scope of one’s job generally includes writing, research, media pitching and strategic planning. But what happens when you slip into the role of public relations director without ever having written a press release? Many organizations deal with this issue as employees work to combine communications efforts and other job responsibilities.

Working in nonprofit public relations for small organizations can require a lot of unexpected work. Individuals may go in under one job title but end up taking on twice the load.

“Although my official title is director of emergency services, I handle all of our communications efforts and image branding,” said Donna Brown of Russell County Red Cross in Alabama. “I’m currently the only full-time employee. My background is not in communications but I’ve come to learn PR on the job over the years because I have no other choice.”

Often, small nonprofit organizations aren’t able to hire communications specialists because of a lack of funding. When this is the case, employees are forced to transform into roles they didn’t expect. After searching Google for press release formats and sending a few e-mails to the local newspaper, they have made their first official trek into the PR world; public relations begins to take on several different meanings for organizations in these situations.

“For us, successful public relations ensures that we’ve done all we can to let the public know why Red Cross exists,” Brown said. “I want to engage the public by making sure they know all we have to offer. We’re a lot more than just blood donations. As long as I can work with media and the community to spread the message about our overall mission and behind-the-scenes work, I’ve done my [PR] job.”

Successful PR tactics for such small nonprofit agencies are necessary. Since most workers in these environments are already stretched thin with other responsibilities, interns play a crucial role.

“I never expected to have so much responsibility,” said Traci Bennett, summer 2009 intern for The American Diabetes Association in Birmingham, Ala.“I had knowledge from class but I ultimately expected to be guided from a higher PR power. But as it turned out, I was the higher PR power. My involvement with nonprofits definitely showed me that while PR isn’t necessarily the bottom of the totem pole, it’s often the last position filled and whoever is available at the moment is the one who has to get the job done. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had years of experience or none at all. You have to learn.”

Although small nonprofits may not always have the immediate resources to hire full-time PR professionals, the need for strategic communications is still recognized, and employers often seek to hire the well-rounded individual who has a broad range of skills.

“In my experience, when we’re seeking volunteers and/or new employees, we have to make sure they are good writers and speakers first and foremost,” said Denise DuBois, vice chair of Muscogee County, Ala., Red Cross board of directors. “Since fundraising is a major part of my communications efforts with Red Cross, I look for interns who aren’t afraid to go out and ask for donations. We need PR interns or volunteers who can help us write a grant and build a good fundraising campaign at the same time.”

Without knowledgeable interns or PR-savvy employees, small nonprofit organizations are forced to figure out PR through trial and error during day-to-day operations.

It’s easy for some to provide a specific definition of who is or isn’t able to successfully implement public relations. However, it’s also important to remember how difficult it may be for certain organizations to hire individuals specifically tailored to PR; a lot of the work usually rests on the shoulders of one or two people who’ve just begun to get their feet wet.

What do you suggest for individuals learning PR on the job?


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