Basics of public relations
What is public relations, anyway? How does it fit into a community-build playspace project? PR, in the professional sense, is all about shaping a positive public image for an organization - wooing the media, sending press releases and establishing relationships with reporters. The reasoning behind it is simple: Appearing in feel-good news articles, radio interviews and television shows can be just as effective as (if not more effective than) paid advertisements...and it's free!
Your PR is really about one thing: generating enthusiasm for the playspace. You want parents, teachers, coaches and neighbors to look forward to playing in the sun with happy, giggling kids. You want donors and volunteers to feel involved, appreciated and inspired to start an even greater community project in the future.
Read on for a couple of grassroots approaches to public relations:
Build enthusiasm: Easy ways to get the word out
- At work, post flyers on bulletin boards, coffee machines, microwaves and water coolers. See a sample town meeting flyer here.
- Visit busy shopping areas and place flyers under car windshield wipers.
- Place project flyers on the front counter of all local restaurants.
- Ask the local pizza parlor to place a playspace flyer on top of every pizza box they sell; your local newspaper also might accept advertising inserts.
- Distribute flyers after religious services. Ask religious leaders to make announcements during their meetings, or place ads in their bulletins.
- Establish a relationship with a local grocery, convenience or discount store. Ask the manager to consider printing your artwork on their paper bags, or a brief playspace message on tape receipts.
- Hang signs and flyers in the windows of participating local businesses.
- Start your very own playspace newsletter with a catchy, playful name! Include personal stories of children who need a place to play, photos of the old equipment or empty play lot, and advertisements for upcoming meetings or sponsorship programs. Distribute it to community groups, friends and businesses.
- Does your town have parades? Make a playspace float! Or simply ask the organizers if you can march along the parade route handing out flyers and collecting donations.
- Have a member of your team sit in on every civic meeting in town. Ask if it's possible to say a few words about the project and the upcoming meeting.
- Place an ad inside company newsletters – many corporations will gladly advertise volunteer opportunities for their employees.
- Build a sign for your playspace site that reads "Future Site of Our Playspace. Build Dates: September 18-20. For further information, call Joe Boomer at 555-1234."
- Once you've confirmed dates for your build, hang a banner in the middle of town that counts down the number of days. (Beside it, you could include another countdown until Design Day!) Make sure project information is included as well as the site address.
- Stuff envelopes! Department stores, phone and cable utilities, and other high-volume mailers sometimes allow non-profit groups to provide inserts that accompany monthly statements to customers.
- Pass out information at local fairs or carnivals. Even better, set up a game of your own to show off your playful spirit!
Bridging community interests
What's your community's idea of fun? The best way to get ordinary people talking about your project is to align it with things that they're already talking about – from sports and native culture to celebrity gossip. No matter what your community likes to do, you can find ways to tie in project fundraisers, volunteer recruitment drives or simple promotions. For example:
- Is everyone glued to the TV watching NASCAR, the Super Bowl, or the NBA finals? Talk to restaurant and bar owners about hosting a "watching party" with food and drink specials. Advertise the event and hand out project information during halftime or commercial breaks. Point out that once the playspace is in, spectators can watch "plays" in their very own neighborhood!
- Is your high-school football team or drumline competing for a title? Set up a table at games and events to distribute flyers: Remind people that a playspace will help the next generation excel at sports! You can also give out project t-shirts, hats or buttons to the players and drummers, and ask them to promote the project at school and in media interviews.
- Does your community have an issue that politicians, clergy or union leaders are always arguing about? Talk to local leaders about how a safe neighborhood playspace relates to these issues, and encourage them to get behind the project through speeches and initiatives.
Community interests worksheet
- What are your community's most popular annual events?
- What are people talking about this season or this year?
- What do people do on Saturdays and Sundays?
- What do people do on holidays?
- When people get together, what do they talk about?
- What gets them riled up?
As you reflect on community traditions, you may realize that many of them were put in place by dedicated citizens just like you, who were trying to promote a cause or an idea. So if you're ambitious enough, you can create your own unique event to benefit the playspace. Think of the possibilities!
Attracting media attention: Tricks of the trade
Now let's turn our attention to the major tool of public relations: media. While media coverage may not be the only way to generate enthusiasm in your community, the fact remains that it is the fastest and most effective method for spreading your message. You'll be surprised how many people will become a donor or a volunteer simply because they read about your project in the paper!
Remember that all journalists need stories to tell, and you've got a great one. The trick is simply to frame your story in a way that's fresh and appealing. Your community-build playspace project already has several of the elements that newshounds look for: children's health and safety, the crunch on school and municipal budgets, businesses giving back to communities, and citizens pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. In short, you've got news!
Learn the ropes with our three easy steps:
Step 1: Understanding the media
To do that you need to understand two simple realities: what the media decides to cover, and how they cover it.
What kind of news gets covered?
Basically, there are two types of playspace stories that you can "pitch" to reporters. First, there are unique events such as Design Day, big fundraisers, the build itself, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony. You can also stage "media events" with the sole purpose of bringing out news crews...people do it all the time! One KaBOOM! partner in Vermont put together a "photo op" in which an insurance agency came out and presented a donation check to a group of schoolchildren. The story ran the next day. For events like this, reporters simply show up, conduct short interviews, and write the article.
The second kind of pitch you can make is for a feature story, which covers a broader community issue that relates back to the playspace build – such as playground safety, child obesity, the state of public park space, or school budget cuts. For a reporter this requires a little more digging, as well as an interesting perspective or news "angle." (See more about angles below.) A reporter may spend days or weeks researching a feature story, with its publication delayed until there's space for it.
How do they cover it?
Written words, spoken words and television images offer very different ways of telling news stories - and all three of them can serve your playspace project in different ways. Here are some important features of print, radio and television news, and how to work them to your advantage:
In print journalism, timing is everything. Deadlines loom, dozens (if not hundreds) of stories vie for attention, resources are often limited, and at the end of the day the news has to be packaged into a single, final product.
In this hectic world, it's important that you target the appropriate person within the organization, and always respect his or her schedule. (Newspapers run on daily or weekly deadlines, while magazines often complete articles eight weeks before publication.)
For your purposes, stories in print have two main advantages:
- They can be relatively long (up to several thousand words) and therefore more in-depth. Newspaper and magazine articles allow you to share your project vision while addressing broader community issues like obesity, school budgets and the importance of outdoor spaces. Newspapers typically assign one reporter to cover a particular topic (called a "beat") over long periods of time, which also contributes to more in-depth coverage. An education reporter, for example, is likely to have a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding your project. He or she is also more likely to conduct follow-up reporting, weeks or months down the road. Keep your project on their radar by sending periodic announcements and story ideas.
- Print also publishes opinion pieces and letters from the community. The opinion-editorial ("op-ed") page is essentially a free community message board, and it can be a powerful forum for promoting your project. Send a letter a week, and submit an editorial about the importance of play, the need for revitalized outdoor spaces, or the rise in child obesity - whatever the hot topic happens to be.
Tip: Print reporters are often assigned to cover unfamiliar topics, and they don't have a lot of time to do research. Help them by providing clear background information on the importance of play, cutbacks in recess, children's health issues and other relevant topics. They'll be grateful, and the resulting coverage will be more complete.
If you're talkative and energetic, radio is your medium! With its quick-thinking verbal volleyball, radio is well-suited to arguing your ideas and promoting your events. (Remember that kids can give great interviews!) Most local stations produce little independent news coverage; instead, they simply read the day's newspaper headlines. Without that focus on "breaking news," radio hosts can devote more time to human voices, opinions and entertainment.
They also tend to promote community involvement. Just think how many people you could reach through a "drive-time" morning radio show! Always be aware of each station's audience and adjust your approach accordingly. FM radio, for example, lends itself to loud opinions, funny anecdotes and attention-getting stunts.
Popular music stations also might sponsor your playspace events and fundraisers, providing you with lots of free music and promotion. On the AM dial, news stations and talk shows can explore a playspace project in more depth; ask them if you can appear as a guest when they are discussing children's health, community development, public land use or related issues. Or just listen to the show and call in! In any format, radio reports are brief and to the point; always prepare your statements, stick to the important issues, and stay upbeat. AM and FM stations are also obligated to air free Public Service Announcements (PSAs), although they'll typically air in the wee hours of the morning. Ask your stations about guidelines for submission.
There's only one thing you need to remember in TV: visuals. Television is considered to be the most powerful medium of the three, but you need to have something worth filming. Design Day and your playspace build are your best bets, but old, faulty play equipment can also prompt a story (commission a safety audit to provide a factual background). Keep in mind that TV news coverage changes by the minute - even if a camera crew shows up to film your Design Day, there's no guarantee that it will appear on the evening news.
These are facts, sayings, or short sentences that sum up an organization's campaign or position on a particular issue. (When politicians go on television and repeat the same phrases over and over, they're using talking points.) They should communicate who you are, what you do, why you do it, and who your partners are. Reporters love to hear talking points (aka "sound bites") because they're memorable, easy to record, and they grab people's attention — all while making an important point. They are also a way for you to tie your project into larger issues and nationwide trends. Here are a few examples:
- "Most adults spend their entire lives wishing they were kids again. With the help of [XYZ Sponsor], we're making sure that our children have fun, safe childhoods that stay with them for a lifetime."
- "Did you know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called for the creation of more parks and playgrounds to help fight the epidemic of childhood obesity? Today we've demonstrated that we are a part of that fight, and we care about our children's health."
- "Play is the work of children. We know what happens when adults in this country are unemployed, and the same is true for children.”
Step 2: Crafting your press materials
Reporters and editors are accustomed to receiving their information in a set written format, so stick to the formula. Below is a summary of the different materials you'll need to get your foot in the door.
To promote an event
This is a brief one-page summary of an upcoming event (such as Design Day), serving as a notice and reminder to reporters. Send a media advisory if you want newspapers or TV stations to come to your event and/or include the information in their calendar listing. (It is typically sent directly to TV assignment editors and newspaper photo desks.) Media advisories answer Who, What, When, Where and Why. They can be written in paragraph form, or you can bullet major points for quick reading. Send them twice: one to two weeks out, and again one to two days before an event. For afternoon events, publicists in busy media markets sometimes fax advisories that morning. Read a sample ribbon-cutting ceremony media advisory here.
This is a more in-depth explanation of an event or feature story, written in the same style as an actual news article. Generally no more than two pages in length, it provides the important information that a reporter or newspaper reader would want to know; it also typically includes a quote or two. The key to a successful press release is to present the information objectively, highlighting only what's relevant and keeping the most important facts up top.
If the headline and first few sentences don't grab a reporter's attention, he/she won't keep reading. Reading news articles will help you get a hang of the style. You should send press releases to appropriate newspaper reporters two weeks before an event, and again immediately after (with updated quotes and information). Check out a sample Design Day press release here.
Public Service Announcement (PSA)
This is a short broadcast announcement offering a distinct public-service message. A PSA is aired free of charge by television or radio stations as part of a federal mandate. Since stations receive no pay for these, they are often run during the lowest ad-rate hours - usually overnight. (Find a sample Build Day PSA here – scroll down the page.)
To advocate your position
These letters urge a particular radio producer or op-ed columnist to address a specific issue. You can also recommend playspace-related guests for a talk show. Tell them why the issue is important, and why it would make for a dynamic, thought-provoking broadcast or column. (But never give orders...don't tell them that they "must" cover something!) Time your pitch letter to coincide with a major news article on the subject, and the person will be more likely to bite.
Letter to the editor
Most letters to the editor are in direct response to a recent news story or opinion piece. Some papers have stricter guidelines than others; ask the editorial page editor about submissions. Keep your letter short, level-headed and positive; expressing anger won't help your cause. Include your phone number so that the paper can verify the letter's authorship.(Otherwise they won't print it.) See a sample here.
Newspapers often accept unsolicited opinion pieces from community members. Wait until the issue is particularly hot and you'll increase your chances of being published. You also might want to "pitch" the piece to an editor for tips on shaping your argument. Lay out your opinion in clear, reasonable terms, and focus on bringing potential skeptics to your side. Don't go over 750 words. Because you are expressing a biased opinion, you'll need to disclose to the paper any affiliation you have with groups or people that you mention in the piece.
To provide more information:
This one- or two-page document gives reporters everything they need to know about your project, at a glance. Keep it opinion-free, and include bullet points with hard data that reporters can use, particularly statistics.
This is a complete packet of information that you should give to reporters covering your events. Include your fact sheet, media advisory, press releases, a biography on important speakers, and background information on play and playspaces, including past news articles related to community-build playspaces. (These articles can be up to one year old. Make sure they're from reputable sources!) You can also include photos from past events and letters or drawings from children.
Step 3: Whom to approach
Once you've written your extraordinary press materials, make sure they don't end up in the circular file! Getting your information to the correct person is half the battle. Here are three people you should get to know:
Assignment Editor (AE)
At radio and television stations, this person routes incoming information and proposals to the appropriate editor or reporter. He or she largely decides which local events get coverage, so get on the AE's good side! Media advisories should be sent to his or her attention.
Staff reporters at a newspaper are typically assigned to a certain "beat" or area of coverage, such as crime, education, health, etc. Beat reporters have an in-depth knowledge of their subject area, and they are more likely to follow a particular story over several months. To find out who covers what in your local media, track relevant newspaper stories and radio reports. Most school districts also have a public information office, and they maintain working relationships with the local education reporters; they may be able to guide you in the right direction.
General assignment reporters
These are junior reporters who are not yet covering a particular beat, and they may be assigned to cover individual playspace events. General-assignment reporters often have little time to research new assignments, so you'll get better coverage if you hand out press kits with project background information, relevant statistics and press releases.
Timing and angles
Good publicists know that there's a certain rhythm to media coverage, and a well- timed release can make all the difference. In general, the publicity calendar can be divided into four quarters:
- January - March
The media will be looking ahead to the new year, predicting changes and describing new trends. This is also a great time for optimistic "New Year's resolution" stories on exercising, volunteering and neighborhood clean-up. And don't forget about tax time...pitch a story about charitable, tax-deductible donations!
- April - June
With winter receding and no major events in sight, spring is a good time for general feature stories with a light, fun touch. Stories about outdoor safety are particularly popular as summer approaches.
- July - September
This is your opening! The media's attention is easiest to grab during the lazy days of summer, when big PR firms are on vacation and news stories are scarce. Entertainment and back-to-school pieces do best.
- October - December
As the year comes to a close, news reporters will be focused on serious matters like the state of the economy, politics and policy. This is their busiest season, and playspace stories are less likely to attract coverage. The lifestyle and entertainment media will be touting the upcoming holiday season; be sure to send any holiday-themed releases in plenty of time.
Adapted from Bill Stoller, Publicity Insider
This is media lingo for whatever makes a story fresh, interesting and relevant for readers. For example, a story about children's play wouldn't normally make the front page, but if those children are ex-gang members playing together after months or years of violence, that's news. A news angle often highlights a particular point of view or segment of the community that has been overlooked.
It might also place a local story within the context of regional or national trends. To give your project a newsworthy angle, revisit your project vision. What problems will it solve? Who will benefit? Highlight the human side of your work. Make it relevant to readers' lives. Potential angles for a playspace feature story might be:
- State and local budgets don't provide enough money for children's play, so parents are taking matters into their own hands.
- Physical activity among children is on the decline, and obesity is on the rise; community leaders are taking a positive step to encourage daily exercise.
- The community is building a playspace in order to heal from and commemorate a local tragedy.
- City officials, police, business owners and local citizens often fight over how to run the city, but they are setting aside their differences to build a playspace and put children first.
- The surrounding neighborhood has been fragmented by crime and violence, but a new playspace represents fresh hope for the next generation.
- Children in your neighborhood have never had a safe place to play; without one, their physical, social and mental development is in jeopardy. Their "unemployment" rate is unacceptably high.
- The population of your town is aging, and a new playspace will help attract young families.
- Local businesses are investing in community infrastructure, and not just with their money- they're also lending the "sweat equity" of their employees.