Great Lessons in Nonprofit PR

Theresa Pierno
Theresa Pierno

The winners and honorable mentions recognized at this week's PR News Nonprofit PR Awards represented the best communicators working in the nonprofit sector. They showed how they apply their creativity to spreading important and heartfelt messages, often in the face of strict budget and staffing limitations. Every person in the room had a great story to share about overcoming the odds.

One of the most inspiring stories was told by the event's keynote speaker, Theresa Pierno, COO of National Parks Conservation Association. Pierno’s message was also educational, offering tips on how nonprofits can use communications tools to cut through the clutter.

The NPCA mission to protect America’s parks was in jeopardy last year when the government shutdown forced parks to close. Pierno noted that the shutdown provided the NPCA an unprecedented opportunity to bring media attention to the national parks, their employees and the millions of visitors who were impacted. Their actions provide a framework that all nonprofits can follow.

  • Develop the right message. The NPCA used the economic argument that it was extremely shortsighted to close the government because of a budget disagreement that was supposed to save money, while allowing billions of dollars of revenue to go uncollected.
  • Use social media to stay on top of the conversation. Twitter and Facebook became tools to take the pulse of the conversation regarding national parks. But the NPCA also used traditional media channels, going on C-Span, cable news networks and doing numerous print media interviews.
  • Insert your messaging in real time. Knowing when to say something is just as important as how to say it.
  • Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. Pierno’s team knew the shutdown could happen. They prepared themselves ahead of time by running information on their website, identifying spokespeople and preparing their tools in advance of the actual shutdown.
  • Empower your colleagues and execute. This emergency situation was not just a communications effort. It required all hands on deck. The NPCA needed its program people in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country to help, and they wholeheartedly joined the effort.
  • Position yourself as an information center. The NPCA positioned itself as the go-to organization on national park issues during and after the government shutdown. As a result, the media sought them out.

The efforts of Pierno and her team resulted in more funding for the national parks and a budget that funded the Parks Service at pre-sequester budget levels. PR mission accomplished.

Follow Theresa Pierno: @NPCA

Follow Richard Brownell: @RickBrownell