Why do NGOs continue to focus their publicity strategies on the mainstream media?

Guest Post by Dr Matthew Powers, University of Washington.

Dr Matt PowersNGOs today have countless publicity options. The explosive growth of digital technologies, in particular, makes it possible for NGOs to bypass the news media and target stakeholders directly.

Yet a growing body of academic research finds that NGOs continue to prioritize coverage in the mainstream media. This preference exists despite well-documented trade-offs involved in media-based advocacy; NGOs targeting the mainstream media may have to change their message to fit news timetables, formats and norms, which can distract from advocacy goals.

What explains the persistence of media-centered publicity strategies at humanitarian and human rights organizations? That is the question I attempt to explain in my recent article in the International Journal of Press/Politics. Drawing on interviews with professionals working at leading organizations, I argue that these groups are incentivized in several ways to maintain their emphasis on mainstream media coverage.

First, within their organizations, NGOs have sizeable public relations departments, often staffed by former journalists who maintain semi-regular contact with current reporters. This leads NGO staffers to see journalists as a natural, if uneasy, ally in the fight for publicity. As one person told me: “They [NGO staffers and journalists] are sharing planes, they’re sharing cars, and they’re sharing food. They’re living together in many cases.”

Digital tools add new possibilities but interview respondents stressed they also add burdens. At one organization, a communication staffer complained that it was nearly impossible to manage the comments on the group’s Facebook page. Moreover, many expressed limited familiarity with using such tools. Interacting with journalists, by contrast, was a regular and routine task.

A second reason why NGOs continue to prioritize media coverage is because their donors value it, both as a platform to learn about NGOs and as a mechanism for measuring impact.

Moreover, while donors are willing to give short-term grants to support digital communications, less funding is available to support the creation of necessary digital infrastructure. A recent survey of the NGO sector finds that large global organizations, like the ones I studied, allocate 1 to 2.5 percent of their budgets to digital technologies and staff. Donor hesitation is listed as the primary reason for the underinvestment.

Finally, NGOs continue to emphasize mainstream media coverage because political officials still value media coverage as a way to learn about advocacy demands. Several organizations have conducted research on the news consumption habits of government officials and policymakers. All found that officials pay close attention to mainstream media. As one person put it: “The New York Times is very influential at the United Nations. So if you really want the United Nations to sit up and pay attention to something, it’s actually very helpful to have it in the New York Times.”

Together, these various factors create what I call “reinforcing path dependencies.” By this term, I call attention to the way in which the enduring emphasis on mainstream media coverage is the result of interactions across a number of sectors. NGOs, journalists, government officials and donors each in their own way contribute to the persistence of media-centered strategies.

It is important to note that NGOs that prioritize media coverage are also involved in a range of digital efforts, from multimedia content creation to social media engagement.

Nonetheless, my research suggests that digital possibilities do not automatically translate into digital realities. Instead, NGO communication strategies are shaped by – and likely will continue to be shaped by – the people and institutions in which they are embedded. Understanding what those are, and what it would take to transform them, thus remains an important task for scholars and practitioners alike.