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From peace-building work to media work in 5 easy steps

Person reading a newspaper
Media is a critical tool for activist work Photo: / AFSC

The week before Thanksgiving, we traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting to share how we turn findings from our work on peace-building communications into media hits. While we are lucky to work with a whole communications team to make this happen, below are five easy steps that any professional communicator can take to turn her organization's work - whether that's peace-building work, research work, or a little bit of both - into earned media.

Step 1: Set a goal. Regardless of what kind of peace-building work your organization does, it's helpful to set a goal before starting any communications work - including media work. Are you trying to get your name out there as a public scholar? Are you trying to influence a particular public conversation or audience? Are you interested in being called by politicians or journalists as an expert on a given topic? Just like an organization's goals change over time, your goals for your media work might change over time too. Don't start with "What should I say?" - that comes later. Instead, set a goal first.

Step 2: Determine your audience. Once you’ve set your goal, the next step is to figure out who you need to reach in order to meet your goal. For example, are you trying to change public dialogue to help advance your organization's issues? Then you will want to reach influential people writing or speaking on that issue. You will also want to reach large numbers of potentially sympathetic readers who may not be mobilized on this issue yet. Whatever your goal, think about the people who can help you get to where you want to go.

Step 3: Figure out what you can say to move your audience. Now that you know who you are talking to and why, it's time to decide how you want to frame your message, and then what you are actually going to say. To determine your frame, try to figure out where your audience is coming from and then start from there. Once you have an idea about where your audience is coming from, that is, what frame will work for them, then you’ll want to develop messages that advance your goal within the frame you think will work for that specific audience. For example, if your goal is to change a public conversation, and your audience is a set of influencers on that issue, spend some time tracking their public writings to see where they are "at" (e.g., what frames they already use). From there, build messages that persuade them to listen to your organization or take on your perspective on that issue. 

Step 4: Determine where you can reach your audiences. So you’ve got a goal, a few audiences, and things to say to each audience. Whew! Now we’re finally getting to the “media” part of media work. The next step is to figure out the best way to get your message out there to reach your audiences and more importantly, your goal. In today’s media environment there are SO MANY WAYS to get your message out there, so how do you pick? You pick based on your audience: What are they already reading? Where are they already going online? Some places need you to pitch one of their writers or producers who will then write the piece themselves, like your local newspaper. Others enable you to submit your own content, like Medium. And some are a mix – you can pitch an op-ed to an editor, for example, to submit content that you write. Where you choose to spend your time depends on who you want to reach, which again depends on your goal.

Step 5: Did it work? Often in media work, more is better. “All publicity is good publicity,” right? That may be true, but we all struggle with limited time and resources. Media work is often secondary to other nonprofit goals, like program work or fundraising. So we want to make sure we’re getting the best returns for our efforts. Here’s where spending a few minutes to evaluate your media work can be really helpful, because you can learn from your media successes and failures to help you spend your time most effectively. It starts by asking a few simple questions as you try out different plans. Ask yourself: Is your message getting through? If so, why do you think it worked? If not, why not? And importantly, do you need to change your goals, audience, or anything else about your media work? Just as in any learning curve, it’s important to step back and evaluate whenever you can, to learn from both your successes and failures.

Easy, right?


Like anything else, this takes practice. Just like most nonprofits don't land a major foundation grant or see huge successes during the first year that they are open, most don't get featured in the New York Times or on NPR their very first time doing media work. Focusing on those marquee outlets - and only those outlets - is a little bit like trying to get a Ford Foundation grant - and only a Ford - during your first year of fundraising. But with time and practice - and especially through learning as you go - nonprofits have the opportunity to use the media to help achieve important goals.

Have a question about communications planning? Interested in learning more? Leave us a note on Facebook or in the comments.

About the Author

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Communications research | Analytics | Social inequality. Beth leads AFSC’s messaging and opinion research, which she uses to develop evidence-based communications guidance for advocates and citizens to ‘change the narrative’ on war and violence. Prior to AFSC, Beth’s research and professional work focused on health inequality in the Americas.