by Donna W. Hill
From the Editor: The following article was written by Donna Hill, an active member of the NFB of Pennsylvania. As you will see, she follows her own advice. Every affiliate should be lucky enough to have a member who makes sure that the media are well aware of the good work being done by Federationists. We can all take a page from her book. This is what she says:
The Federation is brimming with outstanding stories. Inspiring or infuriating, heart-warming or heart-wrenching, triumphant or exposing injustice, they call out to be told. They are our greatest asset--motivating, nourishing, and healing us as we take up the challenge of changing what it means to be blind.
But the opportunity is virtually untapped for these stories to assist us beyond the Federation to the world of sighted and not-yet-blind Americans, whose perspectives and prejudices are at the heart of the injustice and lost opportunities we face. Although the NFB's director of public relations continually seeks press coverage for major initiatives, programs, and issues, many newsworthy stories--often specific to local markets--remain untold.
Getting such stories to the public has been my passion since 2007 when Dennis Sumlin, president of the NFB Performing Arts Division, appointed me head of media relations. Soon thereafter Jim Antonacci, president of the NFB of Pennsylvania, enlisted my help, and last summer I also began working with the Writers' Division.
I came to this volunteer work with some media experience under my belt. When I was pursuing my career as a singer-songwriter in the '80s and '90s, I did my own PR. I regularly landed newspaper, radio, and TV stories throughout the Philadelphia area. Though it was always a treat to be interviewed, I was particularly thrilled by what happened when the Inquirer did not have time to send someone out on the story. They printed my press release verbatim--talk about controlling your message! Imagine the possibilities and opportunities if every affiliate and every division had an ongoing media relations initiative. I'm asking you to join me, and, with assistance from the Writers' Division, I've created a resource to help you.
If you've never prepared a press release, you may find the idea a bit scary. Volunteers don't need degrees in communication or previous experience to make a difference. You don’t even need to write much, since press releases are supposed to be short. Even better, they consist of a lot of boiler plate that can be used time and time again. Years ago blind people had more hurdles to overcome to get press coverage. Nowadays screen readers enable us to create, edit, proofread, and circulate documents. In the electronic age it’s common for the media to accept press releases and story ideas by email. Snail mail is rarely if ever necessary.
Here's a snapshot of what happened last summer when I volunteered to try to get publicity for the winners of the Writers’ Division’s 2011 Youth Writing Contest, an annual event promoting Braille literacy. I made things happen and learned some wonderful things about our next generation of blind kids without ever leaving my office. First I contacted the families to see if the parents were interested in participating. I then arranged phone interviews, during which I used a headset so I could type as they talked. Afterwards I wrote a brief story, including information about the NFB and the Braille literacy crisis.
Each press release contained a tidbit about the student. For instance, nine-year-old Nicky Lentz of Philadelphia enjoys using his white cane to walk solo to Starbuck's for tea. Ethan Fung (10, San Francisco) is fluent in several dialects of Chinese and enjoys speaking to the older Chinese women in his neighborhood. Ten-year-old Lindsay Adair (at the time of Friendswood, Texas,) wants to be a baker, author, and cat breeder. Lindsay, daughter of NOPBC President Laura Bostick, won first place in the elementary short story category. Nicholas took third place in the same category, and Ethan won second place in elementary poetry.
Once I completed the first press release, I had a template to write the others. The parents gave me the names of their local papers, and I used Google to find the email addresses for submitting story ideas. Of the seven families who participated in the publicity campaign, five received press coverage. Articles appeared in local papers in California, Georgia, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The first was published within a week of sending the press release; the last coming months later. Two papers, lacking the resources to do their own story, published the text of my press release. That just never gets old.
The buzz was not limited to newspapers. Some families distributed my press releases to other organizations. Lindsay made the cover of her local community newsletter. Ethan was featured in a segment on a San Francisco Chinese-language TV station.
The new resource is something I wish I'd had years ago when I started trying to transfer the skills I'd developed promoting my music to promoting Federation issues. I mentioned my desire to share what I’ve learned on the division's email list and was soon btting around ideas with division president Robert Leslie Newman, Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter (editor of our quarterly journal, Slate and Style), and other members. Robert suggested I prepare something that we could post online.
It's done. The Writers' Division Website now hosts the "Guide to Writing Press Releases," a free, step-by-step tutorial designed to help volunteer publicists spot stories, write press releases, and understand the press. It features samples of successful press releases, a downloadable press release template, and instructions for creating a personalized template that will make the job easier when future stories arise. Check it out at <http://www.nfb-writers-division.net/education_station/press_release_guide.cfm>. We're here to help. Let us know if you have any questions, and please share your successes.