Public Relations Strategies for Volunteers

As a volunteer Public Affairs Officer it is my responsibility to make sure the word gets out about our unit activities. Having been out of the loop for a couple of years, with exception of Public Information Officer during missions, I needed to create a groundwork and outline for my unit’s public relations strategies for 2013.

Public relations have changed a bit in the past few years, with social media taking a stronger hold on distribution. A few years ago I had used several avenues for PA, primarily website, newsletter and MySpace. This worked out well, as most of our membership received our message, with the cadet membership primarily being on MySpace. Jump ahead just three-years, and now Facebook is the popular venue, although Twitter is moving forward as the better contender.

The social media networks do allow greater coverage, and instantaneous news distribution, although sometimes the news gets lost in the array of other information presented on the screen. Some social media interfaces can be inundated with advertising, games, friend posts, social groups and more, which leads to the challenge…how do you get your news up front?

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People can filter messages in some social media sites, although most people do not. Even with filtering, a very busy social media site might have so much data posted that your message becomes ‘old news’ fairly quickly. Email allows this to be alleviated, as most people check their accounts at least once per day, your message has a distinctive ‘subject’ and shows who the sender was. Filtering email also allows folders to be used when a message is received and the folder reflects this with ‘unread message’ count.

Email may always be a great tool for distributing media releases, although it is somewhat limited when it comes to photos or media streams. Here are some pro’s and con’s:

  • Ability to download and read anytime without an internet connection.
  • Easy sharing with others via forwarding.
  • Ability to save message for archival purposes, allowing reference at a later date.
  • Limited when sending large files.
  • Some attachments or links blocked by corporate networks.
  • Can be marked as SPAM by some carriers if using a non-standard mail client.

Although there are other potential reasons, these stand out as most revealing when submitting media releases. There is a limitation though that can get in the way, attachments. If you do send documents or photos, they should be formatted or re-sized to allow optimized delivery. Always make sure the story being sent is in text format in the body of the message, most will not open an attachment or view an image that is attached on a mobile device and some are unable to view HTML formatted messages on mobile devices.

I won’t say that email is the better avenue than others, as there are websites to consider. A good marketing or relations plan should include a primary website which has any information a person needs about your organization in one place. This may seem like a needle in the haystack when compared to the millions of websites out there, but it is still (in my opinion) the best method for engaging the public. Websites allow some pretty neat features, such as:

  • Unique domain name which is generally remembered by the visitor and easily bookmarked using any online platform.
  • Creative content control, allowing you to control the layout, publications, information and data retention.
  • Deeper insight into your organization using bios, about us, archives, location maps, event calendars, etc.
  • Ability to offer feeds from other sites, helping users find more useful information.
  • Ownership of your content.

These are just a few reasons why big business still uses a website, and have not dissolved them in exchange for only social media.

You say you can’t run a website, don’t know where to start or don’t have the funds? Try blogging! It’s not hard to get a free blogging site, there are a few decent companies out there which offer them. You generally select a unique sub domain name which ends with the blogging companies primary name; example would be example.wordpress.com. Blogging has become a more accepted format, allowing faster publication than a traditional content management system (CMS). CMS’s are still popular, but for the CAP PAO a blog is a much easier tool to run than a full-blown CMS. CMS’s are primarily for websites with hundreds of pages, which are not updated . A blog can be updated with the most recent news automagically posted on the main page in a matter of seconds. This helps cut down web development time by allowing a simple word processor type interface for writing yours news, and automated back-ends to push it on the front page. There is also the beauty of apps for your Android, Apple or other mobile device.

Android, Apple, apps? Yes! These allow for on-the-fly blog posting and photo sending via their network connected backbone. Blog posts also can be submitted via email for most popular blogging providers. This allows an instantaneous publication of the story, possibly in real-time as it develops. An added bonus is there is no other news or social media clutter in the way of your message, it’s right there in front of the user when they visit your site.

Blogging sites also offer RSS or XML feeds. These can be used by other websites to publish short excerpts of your news on their site, with a link back to the full article. There are also ‘readers’ which can download the feeds to your desktop or mobile device. These readers come in many flavors, but all do the same basic thing…parse news feeds which you subscribed to and present the news directly to you. Some RSS or XML feeds only publish a link back to their site, but I have found that using the ‘teaser’ feature for syndication allows readers to at least get an idea of what the release is about. Although a snappy title does go a long way.

Should I get rid of social media? Definitely not! Social media sites still play a key role in getting your message across. When visitors are on the social media site they may search for keywords, or your organization directly. You want to make sure your ‘official’ page is found. Various providers offer different services, but there should always be a place to link back to your main website, if not included in the ‘status update’. Some social media platforms do have added tools to create pages, links, etc., but these should only offer highlights or insights into your organization. You should always reference back to your main website so you do not have to worry about updating multiple other platforms when news changes.

A big plus to social media is the ability to tie your website directly into a social media site in real-time. There are many add-ons for blogs and websites which allow you to push a link, short synopsis and image off to a social media platform. This allows a teaser to be published which may entice someone to come back to your main website to read the entire article. That is of course if your message doesn’t get buried with other information flowing across the user’s screen.

I want to make a special comment about Twitter. This platform has recently been gaining more acceptance in today’s busy digital world. As I mentioned earlier, messages can be buried or covered up by other news, comments, photos, etc., on a social media platform, although Twitter is somewhat unique. Tweets only contain 140 characters, this is like a short memo written on a post-it note, with possibly a link back to the main website to read the entire article. A quick short sentence is easily digested when swamped with other long-winded posts (like this one). If you have a catchy title, phrase or sentence, you will catch the reader’s attention and they may want to see more. Consider it like the worm on the hook, they bite and you reel them in.

I have covered a bit, and hope this helps some out there with decisions about why they should consider website and social media within their public relations strategy, even if they are a volunteer. I will be putting up a follow-up post in the coming weeks about analytics, and how they can help your PA strategy. Also be on the lookout for the public relations campaign I created for our unit, it can be adapted to your unit or may offer some insight into what you may want to do this year for your PA campaign.

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