Public Relations:
A Tool for Chapter-Building

by David Milner


David MilnerFrom the Editor: This article originally appeared in the June, 1991 issue of the Braille Monitor. It has been slightly revised for accuracy.

From the Associate Editor: David Milner is an energetic member of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas. He recently had occasion to talk with several Federationists about the importance of public relations. They asked him to put his ideas on paper so that they could refer to them again. Here is the letter he wrote; its advice is useful for us all:

Austin, Texas
January 12, 1991

Dear Friends:

You have told me that you want to increase your chapter membership and that you could use some ideas on public relations. Three things are necessary for the successful waging of a public relations campaign. They are dedicated people, time, and money. You should begin by finding people to work with you who are dedicated to the principles of our movement. Time is sometimes even more precious than money. And like money, the more time you are willing to put into your PR project, the more benefit your chapter will receive from it.

Now all you need is funding. It does not require a large investment of money to run a successful public relations campaign. However, if you limit your PR budget, you will limit the number of techniques at your disposal. Public relations, as a means of attracting new members, raising funds, or simply informing the public about the organized blind movement, is well worth any reasonable expenditure, and you should have little difficulty justifying chapter support.

Once you have your funding, all of your basics will be in place. Begin by assembling press kits. These can be given to radio and television station news directors, station managers, newspapers, etc. In fact they should be given to all contact people with whom you plan to deal regularly. A reasonably good kit can be assembled by including a selection of the following material in a plain file folder or an NFB document folder, available for $1 from the Materials Center at the National Center for the Blind: (a) a chapter business card if you have one (the NFB folder has slits on one pocket designed to hold a card); (b) our pamphlet, "What Is the National Federation of the Blind"; (c) "Do You Know a Blind Person"; (d) your chapter or state affiliate's public outreach pamphlet--if there is one (or you can prepare one); (e) copies of the latest state and national legislative agendas; (f) copies of the most recent state and national annual reports; (g) copies of the latest state and national NFB resolutions; and (h) a copy of a Kernel Book or the most recent Braille Monitor.

This is a lot of material to read, but it will answer almost any question a contact person has about the Federation. A well-compiled press kit provides a thought-provoking overview of the movement available more or less at a glance. The material in these kits should be updated at least once a year. They can be quite helpful in establishing and maintaining contact between the public relations person and local media representatives.

Other material will be needed from time to time. Get a literature order form and place an order to the Materials Center. Order and read our public relations handbook, The Media and the Message. This public relations primer will advise you in general terms and in specific situations better than I can in one letter. Also get a good supply of materials for handouts. Besides the items mentioned for use in the kit, you can also distribute such literature as If Blindness Comes, Future Reflections, Voice of the Diabetic, and your state newsletter. These are only a few of the publications suitable for distribution.

Your most difficult task could be deciding what to order because there is so much to choose from. You should not order more material than you believe will be used, but certainly order a reasonable amount. In my opinion NFB chapters and members should always have materials on hand to distribute when the occasion demands. Bear in mind that there may not always be time to order PR materials before an event. (It takes at least three weeks from the time the order is received to get material unless you want to pay the cost of overnight shipping.) Be prepared for the unexpected.

You will need a current press list. In Austin we have an organization called American Women in Radio and Television. They have put together a package called "Public Service: An Inside View." This is a complete listing of all radio and television stations, newspapers, and periodicals in the Austin area. This list also details community affairs programs through which a given organization can inform the general public about itself. It might be productive to inquire about a branch of that organization in your area.

Other sources for prepared press lists are the convention bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, the local Republican or Democratic party offices, or the League of Women Voters. I draw your attention to these possible sources of prepared press lists, because compiling one yourself can involve much time and drudgery, and they become outdated almost immediately. But if you must do it yourself, I would suggest starting with your local Yellow Pages directory. If you are going to wage a successful campaign, you must know the territory you wish to conquer.

You now have everything you need to begin. A good start would be to find out what public service announcement (PSA) formats are used by your local radio and television stations and order the right ones from the Materials Center. When they arrive, distribute them in person to your local stations. This is a good opportunity to get to know your contact people. Depending on the size and management style of the station, the person you will deal with may be called the program director, the news director, the manager, or the public affairs or public service director. Whatever the title, almost every station has a person whose job includes dealing with community groups, and an acquaintance with these folks is invaluable. See that they are informed about the National Federation of the Blind. They have the power to keep our PSAs on the air, which is important. If they come to know us and believe in what we stand for, they can do other helpful things as well. Contact people are good friends to have.

Do not forget that your local radio and television stations may run short announcements as a public service. These are useful for advertising chapter meetings, membership drive get-togethers, fund raisers, etc.

Your local cable television operator may offer public-access television service. If this is available, it may be possible for you to produce or appear on local-access television programs.

Once you begin making contacts, you will find that more opportunities reveal themselves. In large measure this is due to the organization's increased visibility. If people have heard of us, they will think to contact us when matters concerning blindness come up. But it is also true that the more you think in terms of public relations, the more opportunities you will spot for yourself. Like so much else in life, successful public relations is a matter of forming good habits.

Be willing and ready to give interviews at any time and appear on all types of community affairs programs whenever possible. Remember that a good media representative for the NFB should be one who is knowledgeable about the movement, its goals, its programs, and its philosophy. He or she should also be reasonably attractive, intelligent, and articulate. In a perfect world the message would have more appeal than the messenger, but the mass media audience has been conditioned to the point where it places more importance on the package than the contents. As a result the person who appears for the Federation on radio or television must have enough personal appeal to make an audience stay tuned and the ability to deliver our message at the same time. Actually I make this individual's job sound more difficult than it really is. It is important, but far from unmanageable.

If you are short of time, personnel, or money (and who isn't?), you might want to narrow your field somewhat and concentrate on a few specific markets. This frugal technique is used by advertising agencies to sell everything from insurance to the latest miracle wrinkle treatment. Let us say, for example, that you wish to attract new members between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. You would concentrate your efforts on the radio and television stations and print media that appeal to that age group, such as your local FM top forty station. Believe me, this technique works well.

Local newspapers and magazines might be persuaded to donate space for local chapter promotion. Also you might consider purchasing advertising in these for the promotion of chapter activities such as fund raisers. One should hesitate before taking this step because it is very difficult to persuade the media to donate time or space once they have been paid for it. But there are times when immediate need overrides the luxury of waiting until donated space is available.

A very effective means of informing the public about the Federation is the handout method. Get whatever permits are needed, and pass out NFB information along with our Braille alphabet cards ($3 a hundred), or tuck pamphlets in with things that your chapter may be selling to raise funds. Doris Henderson, the President of our Dallas Chapter, once told a group of us that Dallas chapter members pass out our pamphlets when they sell candy. In her words, "We wrap each bar up in a `What Is the National Federation of the Blind' pamphlet to keep the candy nice and warm." Discount stores and malls are usually good places for this technique.

Speaking of malls, check with your local ones. Many of them host public events sponsored by their stores. When they do, it might be a good idea to staff a booth at these activities. This is a good way to interact personally with large numbers of the general public. I have participated in these efforts, and they can be a great opportunity and lots of fun besides.

Consider posting NFB information on bulletin boards, such as those found in grocery stores, churches, shopping centers, laundromats, and public buildings and libraries. These bulletin boards are usually free for the use of the community, and you might as well take advantage of them. Doing this takes a certain amount of time and footwork, but it is well worth it. You never know how far our information will travel before it reaches a blind person. On the way it will educate people about blindness and the National Federation of the Blind.

Finally, be ready to capitalize on any and every chance to promote the Movement. Opportunities may present themselves at any time, and visibility is one of the keys to public relations.

Above all, have fun. Yes, ours is serious business, and we have much important work to do on our path to first-class citizenship. But remember to have fun. Public relations can be dull, boring, and tedious if you approach your PR activities with the attitude that they will be dull, boring, and tedious. But if you think about the good that you are about to do, if you think about the people whose lives you are about to enrich through the Federation, you will view all your public relations activities as the fulfilling events that they truly are.

Whether you are promoting your chapter, recruiting new members, or raising funds to finance the organization, you can turn these activities into times of joy. Make a day of it, if you can. Recruit as many of your chapter members, family, and friends as possible. You have the ability to transform a mundane task into a productive team effort which will not only get the current job done but will also create a sense of unity, pride, and purpose in chapter members. Doing PR for the National Federation of the Blind should not be considered a chore, but a chance to help change the meaning of blindness. I find this exciting, and I am sure you will too.