Capitalizing on Public Relations Opportunities
By Rebecca Nagy,
Immediate Past President, National Society of Genetic Counselors

When actress Angelina Jolie announced last May that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy after learning that she carried a mutation of a gene that greatly increased her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, many journalists contacted the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) for comments. This resulted in a PR bonanza for our nonprofit organization, which works to promote the professional interests of genetic counselors.

Our success in educating the public about genetic counseling and the important role of our professionals in today's healthcare system was no accident. Our board had earlier made a strategic decision to invest in a robust public relations program. Here are the steps that led to NSGC becoming “PR ready.”

Setting the Stage

Back in 2005, our board decided to make significant changes in our governance structure. We recognized that we needed to become more agile, responsive and take a more proactive role to better represent the interests of our members. We streamlined our governance structure and agreed on a fresh approach to take more control of our organization's destiny.

Our next step was to develop a strategic plan, focusing on the key things that our board wanted to accomplish in the next three to five years. High on that priority list was our advocacy mission – advancing the professional interests of our members. In keeping with that goal, our board agreed to commit significant organizational resources to a national public relations program.

After engaging an experienced PR firm as a long-term partner, we invited key members of their team to meet with our board members and gain a better understanding of our organization's goals and objectives. We also listened to their advice about how to maximize our PR investment.

Following those conversations, we decided to launch a sustained media outreach effort designed to generate high-impact stories in high-end publications. Our goal was to position our board members as expert sources for stories related to genetic counseling. We developed and agreed upon key messages our board members would use when interviewed.

While our president and president-elect were chosen to be the primary spokespersons, we also created a lineup of media-ready experts that included our committee and special interest group chairs. That was an important proactive step, since genetics is such a wide field. For example, I am qualified to comment on genetic issues related to cancer, but another board member is far better suited to answer questions related to prenatal genetic screening.

Another step in our PR strategy was to identify the top five media topics related to genetic counseling and be sure we had at least one member of our expert panel who could address each topic.

Achieving Results

As we moved forward, our board was also concerned about accountability. How could we measure the return on our PR investments? We asked our PR firm to provide tracking information on key metrics, such as the number of placements, number of readers reached and NSGC's visibility on Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media. Our board appreciated this measurement and analysis, transparency and accountability – especially since the reports clearly showed the return on our investment. Based on this success, our board increased our budget for PR for several years in a row.

There were intangible benefits as well. For example, many of our board members developed a deeper sense of our mission and learned how to engage the media more effectively in interview situations.

All this sustained preparation paid big dividends when the Jolie story broke early in the morning of May 14, 2013. Our president, board members and PR team immediately recognized it as a golden opportunity for genetic counselors to take the lead in the national conversation. We distributed our talking points on the topic of breast cancer testing and made our board members and expert panelists available to handle a torrent of interview requests.

Through this unprecedented wave of publicity, NSGC was able to raise the visibility of genetic counselors among both patients and primary care providers who play a pivotal role in making recommendations regarding counseling. Most importantly, the Jolie coverage showed that breast cancer genetic screening and counseling has the potential to save lives – a key message for patients around the world.

Lessons Learned

Reflecting on our experience, there are several important lessons for nonprofit board leaders. First, "good PR" doesn't just happen. It takes careful planning and preparation to generate the news stories and feature articles that advance an organization's mission and supports its professional members.

As part of that planning, it is important to look ahead to identify and prepare for contributing to stories on hot topics so the appropriate people can respond quickly when stories break. As we all know, the news cycle is getting shorter and shorter, and if you are not prepared to talk when a journalist calls, someone else will provide the expert commentary.

It is also vital for board members to understand their varying roles in the PR process, which may change from providing strategic direction to being available to respond to media inquiries. Learning how to provide good sound bites for print, TV or digital media is an important skill.

Finally, it is important to find a PR resource that will be a good fit for your board, and develop a long-term relationship with its team. A good partner will take the time to understand the people, policies and goals of your organization, and can help your board recognize and capitalize on the next great PR opportunity.

Rebecca Nagy, MS CGC, is a certified genetic counselor and clinical associate professor of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. She cares for patients and families with inherited cancer syndromes and has specific expertise in the genetics of endocrine neoplasias. She is also the immediate past president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors.

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