Accepting the job as publicity chair for your PTO's next big event can be both challenging and highly rewarding. Doing a good job on publicity will increase attendance and, for fundraisers, help fill your bank account or reach that special financial goal.
Even if you have no experience with public relations or sending out press releases, relax. You can succeed by following a few easy steps. Bear in mind through the process that media outlets rely on volunteers such as you to get the accurate information they need.
Do Your Homework
Before writing a press release, make sure you are contacting the appropriate media outlets. Get together with your predecessor for coffee and ask her what worked and what didn't. Ask whether she has a list of contacts who proved to be reliable. Once you have the list, update it by calling each one and asking whether your information is current.
If there is no list, create your own. Do a little informal research. What publications do you and other PTO members read? What newspapers cover your local area? Are you familiar with radio stations that broadcast news from nonprofit organizations?
Visit your local library and ask the reference librarian for a media guide. Use it to select the newspapers, radio stations, and local TV stations that cover your area and are likely to be interested in your PTO news. Get the phone number of your town's local cable TV station, if it has one, to see whether your news could be included on a community calendar listing. It is likely that a local public radio station will be interested, such as one broadcast from a nearby community college.
While you are at the library, look for current issues of newspapers that serve your area. Search them for contact information; some publish guidelines for submitting press releases. Check the newspaper websites, as well; most daily papers have a local section online. Read it for content and formatting style.
Do Your Legwork
If the information you find in the library is clear, you're ready to compile your list. Your newspaper will most likely provide current contact information, but media guides are published once a year at best so you may find the names of staffers who are long gone. Here's where you check your list and pick up the phone.
Yes, newspaper, radio, and TV staff members are busy—but you won't put them off if you're less than polished. When calling, introduce yourself and get right to the point. Use a written script if it makes you more comfortable; for example, "I'm Betty Smith, and our school is having a fundraiser next month. Can you tell me the best way I can get you our press release?"
Most news outlets today prefer to receive event announcements by email. Busy editors and assistants can copy the text of your email or attached document and paste it right into their own files. Radio and television producers can print your email and give it to the on-air host to read. This makes it more important to submit a good press release that requires minimal revision.
Create a Good Product
Writing a press release is not a complicated process; and remember, it's not an academic thesis or an entry in an essay contest. Keep it short, no more than one page, but make sure the fundamental information is included. Leave out flowery descriptions and paragraphs about how marvelously successful last year's event was or what a grand time your guests will have this year.
Start simply with the time, date, and location, in that order. Use the style that you took note of when you read your newspaper's local section. If the event is from 7 to 9 p.m., say that rather than noting only that it begins at 7 p.m.
Always include the address of your event's location even if it is at your school. You should use a full street address or an intersection. For example, "at the Hiawatha School, 211 Maple Street in Mayberry" or "at the Hiawatha School on Maple Street just south of Cross Avenue, in Mayberry." Include the town, but skip the state and zip code unless you are listing an address where donations can be sent.
Families will want to know how much the event costs, so include information about tickets. Is there a single general admission price? How much does dinner cost for a child or an adult? Are there separate activity costs if it's a fun fair? Is there a raffle or a live or silent auction? Will snacks be available for purchase or provided? If you're having a book sale or used clothing sale, include an estimated range of prices. Also, state how the proceeds will be used. Is the money targeted for a general education fund? Will students be going on a special field trip?
Provide your name and contact information in the top left corner of your press release so the editor can reach you if there are questions. Make a point of returning calls promptly because editors have deadlines; if they don't have the necessary information in time, they may not be able to print your notice. When possible, also include a number for readers to call if they want more details about the event. It need not be your personal telephone number, but rather that of a school secretary or other staff member. Make sure you have the school's permission to include contact information for an employee.
Remember to proofread your release and make sure all the information and phone numbers are correct. Have a friend read it. Make a final call to the committee or the event chair to make sure you have the right information. You will need to know if there is a last-minute change in ticket prices, for instance.
Make Contact Early
Send out your press release three to four weeks in advance. Call a day or two afterward to make sure it was received. If you are sending an email, include clear information in your subject line. For example, "Hiawatha School Nov. 2 Book Sale." A date lets the editor know when the press release should run. This information can also be centered at the top of your press release, below the contact information at the left.
It's Not Over When It's Over
After the event, send a letter to the editor thanking everyone who made the fundraiser a success. You may want to include the names of local businesses that made a donation. Include the amount raised and how the proceeds will be used. You can also take digital photos during the event and send one or two by email to the newspaper, along with a brief recap of the event and identities of people in the photos.
Your experience can help get the word out for other events. Keep clear notes about your contacts list and use it for the next fundraiser. And don't forget to pass it on to the person who succeeds you as publicity chair for your PTO.