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Challenges Our third research question asked about the primary challenge nonprofit organizations face in communicating key messages to various publics. The theme that emerged from the interview data was “clutter.” When asked about challenges in communicating their key messages, most key informants alluded to the “clutter” as the competition they have to cut through in order to be understood by the media. One nonprofit representative from an organization that seemed to have a very clear mission said its difficulty lies in communicating the seriousness of the disease the organization is trying to eradicate. This organization alluded to the competition for nonprofits, noting that the industry is “pretty cluttered so it’s hard to distinguish…unless someone has a passion for the cause because they're affected in some way, 177 or someone they love is, it's hard to break through the clutter” (personal communication, November 17, 2009).
Some organizations seem to have an easier time than others in cutting through the “clutter” to communicate the organization's mission and key messages to the public. The challenge seems to be dependent on the branding of the organization and the relative clarity of their mission and messages. For instance, one organization that has a name similar to another with a different mission called the confusion among publics and the misinformation in the media a “huge concern.” “So there's a lot of confusion about what we actually do…a lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about our competition.” She noted that this confusion sometimes causes donations to be misdirected to similar or competing organizations, “so that is a huge challenge for us to overcome” (personal communication, October 26, 2009).
Role of the Media RQ4 explored how organizations perceive their relationship with the media and what role they think the media play in communicating the organization’s key messages. Regardless of the feeling toward the media, whether it is frustration, apathy, or satisfaction, informants agree that the media play an important role in facilitating organizations’ communication efforts. Regarding the importance of the media in communicating key messages, organizations seemed to have very different thoughts. Some blamed the media for incorrect or incomplete message transfer from organizations to publics, while others blamed the organizations for not communicating clearly enough. For example, one nonprofit communications professional who used to be a reporter stated: “You're not a clear communicator if you can't express your organization's goals and aims in a way that is coherent enough for somebody to follow them; you can't expect the media to do a good job” (personal communication, October 27, 2009).
Other nonprofits were not so sympathetic to the media. The organization that has problems with people confusing its name with competitors said that the media is very important in communicating their messages, but that “reporting quality has diminished,” which is “frustrating” (personal communication, October 26, 2009). Others noted that while it can be difficult to depend on media for clear and complete communication of their messages, misinformation is not uncommon and it cannot be controlled. Alluding to this lack of control, one communicator noted, “When we do get mentioned, everybody crosses their fingers and hopes it's going to be okay” (personal communication, November 5, 2009).
One key informant said that the news media sometimes get messages wrong, but that is simply part of the process: “Unless it's detrimental to the organization as a whole, I think it’s fine to just let it go. It's yesterday's news” (personal communication, November 3, 2009). Another underscored this sentiment. About the idea of key message integrity, he stated: “Every single media story is going to have some sort of distortion” (personal communication, November 20, 2009). He referred to these discrepancies, which seem to be a natural part of the agenda-building process as, "the nature of the beast." Responses such as these provide some insight into nonprofit communicators' thoughts on working with media to achieve key message integrity.
Regardless of their sentiment toward the media, informants almost uniformly agree that the media play an important role in the successful communication of key messages. One key informant described the media as an important agent in relaying the messages from the organization to the public and raising awareness. “They’re pretty much a third party endorsement of the organization, and I think that the public is, for the most part, influenced by the media” 178 (personal communication, November 13, 2009). This perspective is commensurate with the views of another, who emphasized that legitimacy can be reached by gaining media attention.
Media coverage “gives us a legitimacy that we need…you can spend a million dollars on advertising, but it doesn’t mean anything really, when you’re featured in the media in a few respectable publications it gives a legitimacy, it gives something tangible” (personal communication, November 5, 2009). This need for organizational legitimacy strikes “at the heart of society’s rationalizations of itself and of organizations’ claim on societal resources” (Cheney, Christensen, Conrad, & Lair, 2004) Discussion While limited in scope to exploratory research on select nonprofit organizations, this study revealed some interesting findings related to the concept of key messages. First, we found five general types of key messages that can be evaluated through news coverage: information dissemination; raison d’être; categorical placement; resource management; and social relevance. These five types of key messages may reveal the parts of organizational identity that are most important or inherent to nonprofit organizations. For example, raison d’être messages generally reflect the mission of the organization, i.e., the reason it exists; what it does, and why it serves. Categorical placement messages reflect the organization's key publics, and where the organization sees itself within society and the nonprofit landscape. Information dissemination messages reflect the activities of the organization; these messages reveal how the organizations interact with donors, volunteers and other publics, without which nonprofits would not exist.
Resource management messages reflect the all important financial responsibilities that allow nonprofits to maintain their tax-exempt status. Indeed, many of these messages seem to support previous research on organizational stewardship as vital to the nonprofit public relations and fundraising process (Kelly, 1998, 2001; Waters, 2008, 2009).
Nonprofit public relations practitioners should be encouraged by the findings relevant to the second research question, which showed that most of the key messages evaluated had full or partial message integrity It is interesting that certain categories of nonprofits (e.g., human services) earned more or better message integrity than other categories (e.g., animals). This could be because of the categories or the type of work the organizations do, but it may also be due to the particular organizations included in this study and their reputations, key messages, and/or communications efforts. Future research should examine how different organizational forms vary in their use of key messages and the relative success that they achieve with the integrity of their key messages.
It is also interesting, yet not surprising, that social relevance, raison d’être and information dissemination were the types of key messages most likely to achieve full key message integrity in the news coverage. The fact that categorical placement messages did not as easily achieve full key message integrity seems to reflect much of what the nonprofit professionals said in interviews about cutting through "clutter" and confusion among publics regarding some nonprofits, especially those in the same category or with similar names or missions. Finally, the fact that resource management messages did not achieve full key message integrity as easily as other types may reflect nonprofit organizations' need to be more clear about the reporting component of the organizational stewardship process. Future research should investigate whether certain types of key messages have a higher success rate in news placement.
179 Moving beyond the message data, the interviews provided illuminating insights into nonprofit professionals' perceptions of the agenda-building process and their efforts to communicate key messages via the news media. Several practitioners referred to "clutter" and competition in the nonprofit industry, and the challenges they face in achieving key message integrity among media reports about various nonprofit organizations. Regardless of who is to blame for incorrect or unclear communication of key messages, practitioners recognize the importance of the media for providing legitimacy or third-party endorsement that many nonprofits need. The news media’s editing, vetting, and third-party verification may give the public more confidence in the information contained in news releases. Though many public relations practitioners dislike having their news releases edited by the media, ironically, as Cameron (1994) has noted, it is this very editing that increases the public’s trust. This sentiment further confirms the importance of the agenda-building process and provides legitimacy for the concept of key messages as a vital tool for media relations evaluation and public relations research.
Although this study provides interesting findings from exploratory research, it also has limitations. First, the study was limited to 18 organizations chosen to represent various categories of the nonprofit industry. Second, the news coverage data was limited to one month of coverage from multiple newspapers. Third, the interviews represent only eight of the 18 nonprofit organizations. Nonetheless, this study provides a basis for further exploration of the concept of key messages.
Future research should investigate the concept of key messages with communications professionals working for other industries and types of organizations. For instance, studies on for-profit corporations or government entities could reveal differences among the types of organizations related to key messages. Additionally, more quantitative content analysis of other types of media (television, for instance) and surveys, focus groups, or in-depth interviews with different types of media (as well as communications professionals from the various types of organizations) could yield additional data to help refine the concept of key messages as a useful tool for public relations practitioners and scholars alike.
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