Is Your Association TV-Ready?

By: Mark Athitakis

A TV appearance can give your association instant visibility. But if the show doesn't appeal to the kind of viewers you actually want to attract, your 15 minutes of fame will likely be 15 minutes wasted. Here are some tips on what to think about before going on camera.

September 26, 2008, was a pretty good day for Maggie Horton. It seemed like a pretty good day for the Green Restaurant Association too.

Maggie is a character on the long-running daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives, and that day she received a letter from GRA about the restaurant she was opening. "This is the best news!" she exclaimed to her husband. "We are going to be working with a member of the Green Restaurant Association—pending certification, of course. Isn't that fabulous?"

Online Extra: Green Restaurant Association in Days of Our Lives

Watch the Green Restaurant Association get mentioned in Days of Our Lives.

For the next minute or so Maggie sang the praises of the GRA, explaining the benefits of membership and certification; the camera even cut to Maggie's laptop as she mentioned the address of the association's website. "If we're on their restaurant guide, it'll bring in new customers!"

It was no accident that the Boston-based GRA earned a mention on the show, though the association didn't actively pursue it. "The producers googled info on greening restaurants, and because we're the experts in that arena, they found our site and called us," says Colleen E. Oteri, GRA's communications manager, who adds that the organization helped the show's producers craft the dialogue for the scene.

Days of Our Lives provided a windfall of attention for the organization—at the time the show attracted approximately two million viewers every weekday. But the experience is largely an object lesson on why working with television requires more strategy than blind luck. Oteri says GRA's appearance resulted in a "huge spike" in visits to its website, but no new restaurants signed up for its program as a result. The reason for that is simple. "Most restaurant owners don't watch Days of Our Lives," she says.

When it comes to television, success isn't just a matter of grabbing hold of a lot of eyeballs. It also means thinking through where your audience is, what it needs to hear, and how it prefers to hear it.

The Morning Message

Of course, there are circumstances where morning TV programs can be the optimal way to reach a large audience. Network morning shows, for instance, tend to attract a predominantly female viewership, prompting advertisers to target their mom-friendly wares there. And because, according to a 2009 PubTrack Consumer survey, three fourths of children's book buyers are women, the American Library Association regularly looks to morning television when it comes to promoting the winners of its annual prizes for children's books. Every year ALA approaches producers of the Today Show to pitch a segment on the new winners of its most prominent prizes, such the Newbery and Caldecott Medals.

"Pitching the awards is always challenging because our team never knows who award winners are until less than 24 hours prior to the award announcements," says ALA Media Relations Manager Macey Morales. "Placements with the Today Show are never guaranteed, but our team has been successful securing coverage based on the prestige of the awards and the high quality they represent." 

Online Extra: Roll That Footage

Watch the American Library Association's segement on the Today Show.

Check out videos from Aluminum Association's TV appearances:

Aluminum Association Tour Highlight Reel
Aluminum Association on CBS Atlanta

And watch American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' direct-response ad here.

Having the right market in mind matters, though a bit of celebrity wattage doesn't hurt either; last year bestselling novelist Neil Gaiman was the Newbery winner chatting with Al Roker. That kind of public outreach is valuable not just to potential book buyers but also to the Chicago-based association's core membership of librarians. "We know the membership points to [the awards] as evidence of how important a librarian's recommendation is to somebody who is reading for education and enjoyment," says John Chrastka, ALA's director for membership development.

For ALA, the expense of getting an appearance on the Today Show is largely a matter of the staff time required to pitch the awards to producers and to arrange an appearance. A more targeted message can require more money and effort, a strategy the Washington, DC-based Aluminum Association has pursued in the past year. Like ALA, the Aluminum Association looks to morning programs to promote its message. But instead of aiming for a single segment on a program with a large viewership, it heads out on a tour of morning programs around the country.

According to Stephen Gardner, the association's vice president of communications, the organization wanted to stress aluminum's sustainability and had identified three general categories to focus on for individual "tours": cars, building construction, and cans. All three had a strong home-consumer element to them, so targeting morning programs made sense. What wouldn't have worked, though, was bringing a staffer from the Aluminum Association to speak on camera. "When you call and you talk to morning-show booking people," says Gardner, "it helps with the sale of the piece if you can present a spokesperson that they're either A, familiar with, or B, impressed by their ability to be on television. One thing that morning shows hate is to have somebody come on who's a corporate spokesperson who just doesn't do television all the time. They look a little like deer in headlights."

So instead the association connected with a New York firm, PLUS Media, to come up with a media strategy that emphasized appropriate and well-known spokespersons. For the morning-show campaign stressing home construction, the association hired Evan Farmer, host of the cable home-improvement show While You Were Out; for the automobile campaign, it hired Trisha Hessinger, an automotive expert and pace-car driver with plenty of on-air experience. One benefit of working with TV-savvy professionals is that they're quick studies on the talking points. "We sit down with the spokespeople, we educated them about the product, get them up to speed about what's true and what's not about the product, and send them out on the tour," says Gardner.

The New Reality

Think your association or its mission would be a perfect fit for a reality-TV program? Jo Sullivan, ASPCA's former executive vice president for external affairs,offers four must-dos before the cameras roll:

1. Lawyer up. Your regular counsel is probably a pro when it comes to association and nonprofit law, but that person "is not necessarily going to have the skill set to negotiate a contract from an entertainment perspective," she says. Find a lawyer with an entertainment specialty.

2. Know your people. Production companies pitch to networks based on a show's potential audience, so have some hard numbers ready about who'll be interested in watching your mission in action on a week-in, week-out basis. Says Sullivan, "They'll ask you, 'Why should anyone care?'"

3. Get training. If your staff will be part of the program, invest in some media training for them so they're comfortable in front of the cameras. Show producers want articulate, intelligent people.

4. Retool your website. If the show features a group of people, consider creating a separate website that offers individual biographies and more information about the show. Connect that site to the organization's main site; if you're soliciting donations, make the ask apparent.

Training, acquiring props, and other preparations usually take a matter of days; because much of the effort was outsourced, it wasn't a drain on staff time. And Gardner believes the ROI is clear. The first TV tour, he says, cost $39,000 and reached 25 million viewers. "It's pretty easy to do the math on that," he says. "We consider that to be extremely cost effective."

Getting Real

Avoiding strain on staff can be a reason not to dive into television. That was one reason why in 2008 the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ended its eight-year relationship with the Animal Planet program Animal Precinct, a reality show that followed ASPCA's law-enforcement officers in New York. "It wasn't that it was getting less successful," says Jo Sullivan, ASPCA's former executive vice president for external affairs. "We just weren't able to make effective cases and arrests because everything was documented for television. We didn't feel we were serving our community of animals as well because we were too busy making a TV show."

Counter to the reputation that reality shows have of being quick and easy ways to get attention, Sullivan says that it took some time for Animal Precinct to prove itself as a solid benefit to ASPCA—for instance, to receive an acceptably high number of people calling to make donations after watching the show. The biggest benefit of the reality show, Sullivan says, was in priming viewers' attention for ASPCA's direct-response television (DRTV) efforts: TV ads that explained the organization's mission and explicitly asked for a donation. The organization enjoyed a 42 percent growth in income between 2008 and 2009, she says, much of that thanks to recurring monthly donations solicited through direct-response ads.

That's not to say Sullivan wouldn't consider another opportunity to work with a reality program, so long as the effort considered staff resources and worked well with direct response. "DRTV is always going to be a channel for us," she says. "But I think it would be great if we had something out there that educated and informed viewers that wasn't a specific ask. It's always nice to have that education hook as part of your mix for marketing."

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]