Guest Post by Ruth Moon
How do NGOs work to attract news coverage in a shifting and increasingly digitally enabled news landscape? That is the question that motivated my research, published this summer in Journalism, on media relations strategies practiced at World Vision US.
WVUS is the US branch of World Vision (WV), a faith-based humanitarian NGO. It is an important player in the NGO world: With a 2017 revenue of $1 billion, Forbes ranked it the 15th largest charitable organization in the US. In 2008, Foreign Policy named WV one of the most powerful development NGOs in the world.
I found that media relations employees at WVUS employed a set of strategies to elevate particular factors of newsworthiness and reduce barriers to news coverage for campaigns and topics where news coverage would best align with organizational goals. In day to day work, the main strategy revolved around compliance, which involves intentionally adapting to news organization needs. In following this strategy, the NGO emphasizes the newsworthy elements of campaigns or topics that are of interest, even going so far as to create news events that are timely, novel, and near the media markets of interest in order to attract coverage.
The strategy of compliance is often adopted by institutional players that have little power relative to those they are interacting with. As a strategic move, it recognizes the greater power in the other organization while aiming to use the accepted norms and values to still achieve organizational goals, which may be different from or even contradictory to the goals of the more powerful players in the field.
The other strategy that I saw employed at WVUS was the strategy of bargaining. This strategy is an active form of compromise and tends to be undertaken when an organization with less power has something to offer that the more powerful players in the field perceive to be intrinsically valuable. In the case of WVUS interacting with journalists, the valuable offering was an expenses-paid press junket to observe WV project implementation in different countries around the world. In the most high-profile example, WVUS organized a trip to South Sudan, a country where the organization was active working with refugees and displaced people. The trip capitalized on journalists’ interest in the relatively new state and captured journalist attendees from high-profile news outlets in WVUS’ target media market.
Following others who study humanitarian news practices, I found that the strategies that give most power to the NGO have become more prominent and possible in recent years, thanks to changes in the field of journalism that have shrunk travel budgets and increased reliance on non-news organizations. The tide hasn’t shifted entirely in favor of NGOs — they also face more competition for news holes and the majority of their work involves manufacturing news events across a range of categories in an effort to maintain coverage. However, even when they focused on capturing news coverage in a low-power context, the actors I observed incorporated strategy into their work, always focusing on what would be most likely to accomplish organizational goals.