Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Little Charity That Could: National Inclusion Project

Back from the National Inclusion Project's ninth annual Champions Gala, held for the first and probably last time ever in Washington, D.C. Beautiful venues - the J.W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue, adjacent to the National Theatre - probably came at too high a price for the organization and its base of supporters, which continues to consist almost entirely of project co-founder Clay Aiken's fans.

The 2012 event benefited from the added star power of Arsenio Hall, Debbie Gibson, and Ruben Studdard, all of whom did their duty tweeting to their own followers to support this event. I was a little surprised, though, that there was, to my knowledge, no local coverage.

As is the case whenever one is involved with an earnest organization like this, one thinks it is the most important thing in the world and that its work should inspire, impress, and engage everyone. But the thing is, charities like this are a dime a dozen in D.C., and it's next to impossible to get attention. You do your best to tell the story (and the stories of the honorees were all inspiring and impressive), but if there is no audience, there is no communication.

I spoke informally with one of the NIP's leaders, and learned that the PR work for this event was coordinated by a third party, whose efforts to engage the local media were less than productive. Despite the organization's efforts to stand on its own merits (originally called the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, it renamed itself National Inclusion Project to clarify its mission and rely less on Clay Aiken's spotlight), the local media suits saw celebrity dollar signs and offered only some kind of expensive promotional package.

Excuse me, but WTF?

I don't work in public relations, but I do work in a small, earnest organization that, like NIP, hopes to better the world. We know how hard it is to get attention, but we have our own communications director who puts a lot of work into message building and outreach. He shapes the story to the audience he is addressing. Press releases are not one-size fits all anymore. And it is important that the organization be the one to tell the story itself, not job it out.

(The National Inclusion Project's story, by the way, is a timely one. All of its honorees last night shared the same basic message that inclusion conquers the social segregation that produces bullying. The theme of "Let's ALL Play" overcomes the fear of differences.)

I have learned a lot from watching the National Inclusion Project grow from the mind of a college student working on an independent project to complete his degree in special education. The Project's biggest strength is the partnerships it has built. In my opinion, that partnership ought to have included the media in a more personal and direct way. Put a TV anchor on the program, or even emcee; tell the same stories that inspired the supporters in the first place. Those kinds of stories are extremely appealing at the end of an evening news broadcast.

Maybe I'm naive (or old fashioned). But as an editor for a nonprofit organization's magazine, I simply don't believe in paid content. We don't buy stories, and we certainly don't sell them. Either transaction is a disservice to our readers, who are our members and supporters. I believe there are still members of the for-profit media that share this principle. Those are partnerships worth cultivating.

Edited to clarify: My "WTF" was about the package deal that this consortium of local stations wanted to offer to give NIP coverage. It's not a criticism of NIP or its PR efforts. They didn't take that stinky deal, nor should they. I simply don't want to live in a media environment where the feature stories on the news are paid content. 

Yet, just look at today's local listings on the TV schedule: hours and hours of "paid programming." Sigh.

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