Over the next several weeks, many public television licensees will have the opportunity to announce the results of their participation in the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, either as a seller of spectrum, as part of a channel-sharing agreement, or as a result of moving from a high-V or low-V channel. Proceeds from these transactions could result in millions of dollars of revenue for these stations.
Of course, such a windfall would be good news for any organization. But it could also create unintended consequences should donors fail to understand how the funds fit into a station’s long-term financial sustainability.
WITF, a joint licensee in Central Pennsylvania, grappled with this very prospect as they approached their own participation in the spectrum auction. In response, they assembled a board committee and a staff team that included president Kathleen Pavelko and senior VPs Ron Hetrick (chief financial officer) and Ron Kain (chief technology officer). Former board chair Tim Reeves, who also happens to be principal at Allen & Gerritsen, a nationally-renowned public relations firm, was tapped to devise a communication plan, should proceeds from the auction be received.
Earlier this month, WITF and its channel-sharing partner were permitted to announce their successful participation in the auction, and WITF put its plan into action. The response from donors and stakeholders was overwhelmingly positive. It’s too soon to know if the sale will have a long-term effect on giving, but the WITF team is optimistic. They feel their painstaking preparation paid off.
Here are the four principles that laid the groundwork for their success:
Public media’s greatest responsibility is to the audience. When faced with the possibility of new activity or investment, it’s essential to understand what the audience values and what it wants.
Connecting with the audience during the auction process can be tricky; stations were legally required to comply with the FCC’s “Quiet Period” until notified otherwise. (The Quiet Period was lifted for broadcasters on Monday, February 6.) WITF’s channel-share negotiation and participation in the auction took more than two years, and during almost all of that time the station didn’t know if it would receive proceeds as part of its channel-share agreement.
But Pavelko and her team knew they needed to find a way to involve the audience. “We had to confirm for ourselves if our priorities for these hypothetical funds were indeed how our audience wanted us to use them,” she explained.
Of course, little excuse is needed for any station to conduct an audience survey or environmental scan. But, in that moment, the WITF board of directors was in the midst of a new strategic plan. It required them to gather information from members and stakeholders and offered the perfect cover to learn about what its audience valued and wanted more of.
“Timing is uncertain. Preparation is not.” - WITF Communication Plan
Most stations haven't decided when they will go public with their auction news, but the FCC’s Public Notice is expected in early to mid April, when all results will be made public. That means stations have some time left for planning.
Establish your working group. Identify who among the staff and board are responsible for creating your plan, what requires sign-off, and by whom.
Get plans approved for use of funds. Make clear the connection back to the audience.
Explore every possible objection or displeasure from each stakeholder (and don’t forget staff). Make a plan to preempt or address these concerns.
Finalize a communication plan, press release, FAQ, etc. Write a “D-Day” timeline, even if you don’t know the date of announcement.
Don’t let your documents sit in a vacuum. Identify who is responsible for each area of execution. Outline contingencies, if necessary.
“We have one chance at a first impression. Make it tell.” - WITF Communication Plan
Any strategist will tell you that being first allows you to control the message. The WITF team’s biggest worry was how proceeds from the spectrum auction might affect donor behavior. Their communication strategy focused on the idea that achieving the aspirations articulated by their community would require ongoing commitment from stakeholders.
The key was to create the lofty-but-essential understanding that this event strengthened the case for continued support.
In the first phase of the public roll-out, the communications team made 40 personal phone calls to key individuals like major donors, former board members, and significant underwriters.
The second phase included an all-staff meeting and 10,000+ emails to donors, underwriters, and volunteers. The press release was the final phase of a four-hour roll-out marathon.
The press release focused on the following key points:
“We need your support now more than ever. While these new resources are welcome, they are insufficient to achieve the new goals that our community has asked for.”
These proceeds are “a stabilizing amount, not a transformational amount.”
“Continued operation and expansion of our service will require diversification and expansion of all of the revenue streams we depend on.”
4. Find inspiration in relevant case studies.
Well-endowed colleges and universities don’t suffer from diminished annual giving. There’s no reason any nonprofit must operate at the razor’s edge of sustainability. In fact, large influxes of money can lead nonprofits to transformational success.
WITF sought inspiration in other nonprofits that integrated influxes of cash in highly successful ways.
“We discovered that Americans for the Arts used a $100 million contribution from a Lilly family member to revise their mission,” Pavelko recalls. “They began to focus on advocacy and steward those funds in service of arts organizations nationwide.” The team’s research also uncovered an asset sale at Grinnell College in Iowa that allowed the institution to be one of the few in the country to meet full student need for financial aid.
These outside examples allowed WITF to think significantly and clearly about what their station could accomplish in its next phase of growth - growth made possible by a new stream of income, but which would be impossible without the essential continued support of valued donors.