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Key message integrity can be identified when a key message produced by the source, such as an organization, is used verbatim with little or no alternation to the meaning by the media or other intermediaries to the general public. The meaning of the key message is evaluated by whether alterations occur; if alteration does occur, it should not affect the information, meaning, or value of the message conveyed. If the meaning occurs the way the message source wishes it to appear, then the source has accomplished its message goal. Key message integrity can be evaluated from the perspective of the source, intermediary channels, and receiver. Intermediaries include third parties such as the news media, analysts, and scholars. Key message integrity has three components: a message object, its priority, and its evaluation status. The message object itself is an attribute of a larger object, such as a goal or objective for an organization, an issue that the organization is attempting to manage, or a claim that the organization wants to have associated with its image, identity, or reputation. The priority refers to where the key messages fit within the plethora of other communicated messages that may be associated with the organization. Finally, the evaluation status refers to how the key messages appear in communication products such as news media coverage, analyst reports, and other forms of communication with the larger public.
This paper explores how key messages may be critical to public relations practitioners and the organizations they represent. Key messages incorporate attributes, values, and goals communicated through the use of certain keywords or phrases that an organization wishes to be associated with. It is imperative for media relations research to advance toward building a framework for evaluating key message integrity. Taking an exploratory research approach, we explore how key messages are appropriated in the context of 18 nonprofit organizations.
We offer the following exploratory research questions:
RQ1: What are some of the types of key messages that nonprofit organizations create for news dissemination?
RQ3: What is the primary challenge nonprofit organizations face in communicating key messages to news media?
RQ4: What roles do the news media play in communicating nonprofit organizations’ key messages?
Method Case Study Organizations The organizations were chosen using purposive sampling of nonprofits receiving fourstar ratings by Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator is one of the most utilized evaluators of charities using two criteria of financial health: how responsibly it functions day to day as well as how well positioned it is to sustain its programs over time. The nonprofits were selected to represent the different categories of nonprofits evaluated by Charity Navigator: Animals, arts/culture/humanities, education, environment, health, human services, international, and public benefit (Charity Navigator, n.d).
Identification of key messages We reviewed the organizations’ Web sites for messages that could be considered key to the organizations. We reviewed the mission statements, press rooms, annual reports, and speeches by senior level officers that were posted on the Web sites. Reliability was achieved through verbal agreement among the coders.
Then, the identified key messages were compared to the news coverage of each respective organization. News coverage data were obtained using CustomScoop, a leading media monitoring service. The study examined the news coverage of sample nonprofit organizations on the Web sites of major publications between February 1, 2008 and February 29, 2008. The publications were searched in the CustomScoop database, using the organizations’ names as the keyword. A total of 1585 articles were identified for the 18 organizations. Table 1 shows the breakdown of the distribution of news coverage by various nonprofit categories.
--See Table 1
--The articles were coded for article type, prominence and dominance of the organization in the news coverage, tone, and the integrity of key messages. The integrity of key messages was coded as full, partial, or none. Full integrity occurs if a key message was communicated as originally intended by the source or organization, which means that the key words and phrases are retained completely. Partial integrity occurs if part of a key message was communicated but important keywords or phrases were left out. A key message is deemed to have no integrity if the published news report did not match the version from the Web site.
to participate in the study. While only about half of the organizations responded, those that did represent all of the categories in the larger sample except for the international category. Even though most participants agreed for their organizations to be identified by name, two requested anonymity. Therefore, subsequent discussions from the interview data refrain from using the names of the organizations so as to respect the wishes of the two organizations.
The interviews were conducted by telephone and recorded with participants' consent. The informants reported on their respective organization’s key messages, their communication of the messages to the public, and the use and value of measuring and evaluating key messages communicated through the news media. Following the interviews, the researchers transcribed the recordings and analyzed the data. Transcriptions were analyzed using an interpretive, naturalistic perspective, with little emphasis on manipulating texts or empirically differentiating specific units of analysis (Owen, 1984; Putnam, 1983). Rather, the transcripts were examined for themes that emerged, both within and across interview texts.
Thematic analysis is a search for patterns that emerge as important in the description of phenomena (Daly, Kellehear, & Gliksman, 1997). When patterns were recognized in the data, the themes became categories for further analysis (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006). More specifically, the researchers read and re-read transcripts, highlighting key words or phrases, and added notes. Information that appeared to be thematically related was compared and contrasted with other information in the same interview transcript, as well as with information in other interview transcripts (T. Anderson & Felsenfeld, 2003). Themes were recognized when there was significant recurrence and repetition within texts (Owen, 1984).
Findings Key Message Categories.
RQ1 asked about some of the types of key messages that exist. We identified five general categories of key messages: information dissemination; raison d’être; categorical placement;
resource management; and social relevance.
Our first key message type refers to information dissemination. Information dissemination referred to two general types, education (the what) and mobilization (the how).
Educational key messages are those that involve issues that the public may not know about or may simply take for granted. The emphasis here is on teaching and learning new information that may ultimately change the public’s awareness, attitude, or behavior. Key educational messages include the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s focus on the difficulties for those living with multiple sclerosis or Special Olympics’ aim to foster an understanding of intellectual disabilities.
Key messages about mobilization were those having to do with how publics could get involved with the organization, usually dealing with logistical details, such as what, when, where, and how to get involved. Mobilization messages primarily concern events or information required for individuals to take some form of action. For example, the Disabled American Veterans provides details about volunteer opportunities for those wishing to help disabled veterans and the rehabilitation opportunities available for disabled veterans. For the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the focus was on specific exhibits, events, and other opportunities that it offers to the public.
These mobilization messages are similar to Lemert's (1981, 1984) concept of mobilizing information, which is often present innews coverage and enables individuals to act on existing motivations (Hoffman, 2006; Nicodemus, 2004).
175 Our second key message type, raison d’être, deals with the fundamental goals of the organization and how it works or carries out its core operations. This includes constructing a sense of organizational mission and identity, including “who we are” and “what we are about.” An example from the American Cancer Society (ACS) is “the organization works to prevent cancer, save lives, and diminish suffering of those with cancer.” From the Council of State Governments (CSG), an example was their facilitating “collaboration between state governments and their constituents.” Our third key message type, categorical placement, helps an organization to establish itself in a cultural crowd, and then to uniquely distinguish itself within the crowd. Categorization had three different subtypes: boundary setting, positioning, and linking. Boundary setting referred to key message that set limits or parameters, such as helping to define an organization by defining what the it is not (Elsbach & Bhattacharya, 2001), or by setting brackets that eliminate other options. For example, CSG describes how it maintains a “non-partisan” status in order to “encourage political participation from both parties.” Such a description eliminates “partisan” behavior or associations with any particular political party. Similarly, Junior Achievement describes itself as committed to “market-based economics” and entrepreneurship, juxtaposed to socialism for instance.
A second type of categorical placement refers to the positioning against competitors or other similar organizations. This is signified by words such as leading, first, best, largest, only, oldest, etc. For example, the ACS as the “largest source of private, nonprofit cancer research.” The American Symphony Orchestra claims to be the “leading nonprofit orchestra;” the Arthritis Foundation as the “most accurate source of information about arthritis.” A third type of categorical placement occurs when the firm mentions partners to show who they are like (coupling) or who they work with, or distancing (decoupling) to show who they are not like or who they are opposed to. In some cases, the partnering organizations are not named, but simply alluded to in order to demonstrate connectedness through partnerships and alliances.
Our fourth key message type refers to resource management. We identified two types of resource management messages, those having to do with organizational survival and how the firms make money and those having to do with organizational stewardship, such as how the firms spend the money coming in. With organizational survival as a key resource management message theme, firms can describe how they make money or get by; for nonprofits, this is primarily through donations and volunteers. Also related to resource management is the idea of organizational stewardship, making use of the key resources that the organization receives from the larger environment, including its various publics. For example, the Nature Conservancy describes how it uses contributions to achieve their goals worldwide. Susan G. Komen for the Cure describes how they provide scientists with funds for breast cancer research. The American Refugee Committee describes how it addresses the needs of refugees as efficiently as possible.
These types of messages further confirm previous research, which states that stewardship is one of the most important concepts of the nonprofit public relations and fundraising process (Kelly, 1998, 2001; Waters, 2008, 2009).
Our last key message type refers to social relevance by demonstrating the service or value that the organization provides to the larger society. The ACS, for example, teaches that cancer affects everyone, despite age, race, gender, or location. Girls, Inc. desires for girls to live successful, independent, and fulfilling lives. Habitat for Humanity emphasizes that building 176 homes does more than put a roof over someone’s head. In each of these cases, organizations are able to connect to their publics by emphasizing some degree of social relevance by the organization being in existence or carrying out its work.
Key Message Integrity of News Coverage RQ2 examined the variation in the values of key messages. Results from our exploratory study show that 60% (n = 883) of the coded articles had full key message integrity, 39% (n =
573) had partial message integrity, and 2% (n = 28) did not attain key message integrity. Table 2 shows a distribution of key message integrity by nonprofit categories.
--See Table 2
--Results summarized in Table 2 show that the key messages evaluated maintained either full or partial key message integrity more than none at all. It appears that the human services category compared to others fares better at achieving full key message integrity, while the animals category was the least successful in maintaining key message integrity. The results suggest that some nonprofits are more successful than others in maintaining their organizations’ key message integrity in the news media. The presence of key messages and the levels of variation in key message integrity thus demonstrate some usefulness in the concept as a form of public relations evaluation.
RQ2 also explored whether nonprofits are able to successfully disseminate certain types of key message more than others. Table 3 shows that the aforementioned five key message types are more successful in achieving full key message integrity than not, although to varying degrees.
--See Table 3
--Results summarized in Table 3 show that compared to the other key message types, social relevance achieved a higher level of full key message integrity, followed by information dissemination, raison d’être, with categorical placement and resource management trailing behind. It appears that all the key message types inevitably encounter occasions where message integrity was absent. The interview data provided further insight to the media content exploration.