7 Things NPOs Can Learn From NBC & the Olympics

Photo by Dave Catchpole

Editor’s Note: Glad to host this post by Dan Portnoy. Dan’s the founder of Portnoy Media Group and the author of The Nonprofit Narrative: How Stories Can Save the World.

It’s safe to say that no matter where you are in America you’ve heard about the goofs and gaffes of NBC’s Olympic coverage. The Olympics, in a lot of ways, are just like a campaign. Both have a story arc, primary and secondary audiences, and a definite end date. Here are a few lessons we can learn from NBC that will help you on your next campaign this fall or winter.

Set Expectations With Your Audience

Your audience wants to know what you’re doing. All of the commercials leading up to the Olympics got us excited but they didn’t inform us how the process would work. We were encouraged to go to the NBC Olympics website, but there was no further explanation on how things would work, no blog posts in the weeks leading up to it about tape delays or how the apps would regulate content. So when their coverage started, so did the outrage.

Be Prepared for Competition

This is by far the most surprising piece. It would appear that NBC didn’t factor in that other large sports networks would be broadcasting in real time. ESPN, CBS Sports, CCN, and news tickers everywhere are pushing real time info.

If NBC had put some effort into connecting with their audience in the months ahead of time they could’ve built a far more loyal audience. But the reality is that we live in a real time world and information is everywhere. Asking people to unplug from other news sources isn’t reality but NBC could have still informed their audience of the delays.

You should make a special effort to connect with you audience in the weeks leading up to a campaign. Think about what else is going on in your audiences’ lives and remember that you’re asking for attention in a world of options. How can your organization improve upon the lives of those you’re engaging and those you’re serving?

Multi-Channel Communication is Crucial

We’re social people and we like to share information online, so it comes as no surprise that this was a HUGE factor in how details about the Olympics were going to be shared on social networks. NBC missed a huge opportunity for engaging their crowd online to back up their traditional communications outreach.

In the first few nights of the Olympics, NBC Nightly News broadcasted the winners right before coverage began. They let down their audience by revealing the man behind the curtain before allowing them to be a part of the story! When running your campaigns, think about where and how you’ll be communicating, and cover your bases.

It’s Not About You

I’m positive that NBC felt great about how they would be presenting their coverage. Their technology was double- and triple-checked, satellites were in place and talent was recruited. Millions and millions of dollars exchanged hands but it would appear that there was very little thought about how their audience would respond to their portrayal of the games.

When you’re preparing to launch your campaign, first take a look at how it’ll be received. Does this group need another mailer? Will they receive the information the way you want them to? Grab a quick group of friends and do an informal focus group. Make sure that there’s no possibility for misinterpretations.

Don’t Manufacture Drama

All stories have an arc; otherwise it’s not a story, they’re just facts. However, NBC left out key details during the women’s gymnastics competition to create a better story and add tension to their coverage.

Did it work? Initially, yes. But once the truth or even a corroborating voice told the more complete story, the backlash was terrible. See the posts by Deadline and Huffington Post.


There’s been a huge amount of outrage regarding NBC’s coverage prompting the creation of satirical twitter accounts (@NBCdelayed) and the supposed apology created by Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker. The problem is that NBC isn’t owning up to any of the gaffes. They’ve come out with an apology about the Missy Franklin Today Show Promo Spoilers but they haven’t really engaged on several of the other major coverage issues.

The lack of engagement is giving a signal to the general public that they’re scrambling. If you screw up, it’s actually OK. Mistakes happen. In media coverage/creation it’s a question of when you’ll mess up—not if. Take your lumps and be honest. Tell your audience how you’re going to fix it, and they’ll stick with you as long as it feels heartfelt.

The End is Not the End

This concept is something that TV does very well and NBC is no exception. They’re always telling you “What’s Next”: the next night, the next program, and in the next hour. Constant updates about “the next thing” happening. They tease it, they give it a 15-second promo, and they beat us over the head with it. At the end of the day or broadcast we know about the next evening’s broadcast, the events, and what will be featured.

Your communication can be the same way. Tease events, campaigns, or programming in your emails, blog posts, Twitter feed, and Facebook Page posts. If you feel slightly sick of saying the same thing over and over, you’re in the right place. If your audience complains, pull it back a little. Be respectful but help your audience to know what’s going on, and how they can be the most help.

No matter how your plans are coming along for your big fall fundraising campaign, run your plan through this list, and you’re campaign will be that much better.

6 thoughts on “7 Things NPOs Can Learn From NBC & the Olympics”

  1. Fabulous article– teaching by timely example. nnI especially appreciate your inclusion of “Be Prepared for Competition: Think about what else is going on in your audiencesu2019 lives and remember that youu2019re asking for attention in a world of options. How can your organization improve upon the lives of those youu2019re engaging and those youu2019re serving?” My observation is that organizations can get so caught up in what they are doing and how to do it best that they forget to carefully evaluate their strategy and delivery both compared to and together with the actions of their competitors and their partners, respectively.

    1. I couldn’t have said it better, Jill. We do sometimes get caught up in what’s in front of us, that it’s hard to clear it out of the way to think about the future, a strategy. That was a great reminder. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. From an English viewer.nyour main problem is advertising….nyou need a tv Channel that does not rely on advertising.nnwe have the BBC all paid for by we,the viewers,we pay about u00a3150 a yearn,it is u00a0tv Licence that means,we get top quality tv.nwhen it comes to Sport?we see it all.LIVE.n.and many other advertising channels.also show Sport LIVE..nnin all,I think there were 26 channels showing us every second of the Olympics as it happened.LIVE..nthe excitement was fantastic,we cheered everyone on!nthey loved it!nthere has never been an Olympics like it,ever!nnthey showed the winners also at different times for shift workers.nMaybe,you need channels like the BBC who do not rely on adverts,?nso sorry for you missing the biggest and best Olympic games ever……nThere will be DVDS on sale soonn.Best wishes from Pat.

  3. Interesting observations, but from what I’ve heard NBC got amazing ratings and generated a ton of money from their broadcasts, and isn’t that the most important factor here? Clearly they made some mistakes, but I think we give too much credit to a few tweets and blog entries. The bottom line is the bottom line. One lesson I’d offer up: The people who are happy with your work won’t necessarily tweet about it, but their actions speak just as loud. nnhttp://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/11/business/fi-ct-olympics-ratings-20120811 nnBy the way, comparing to British broadcasting isn’t helpful. Most of their viewers could watch live every evening. NBC had no such option. n

    1. Scott, thanks for you comment. Ratings are important but they are just one factor in their relationship with an audience. Just like donors are one relationship with an organization. The other big relationship is with the group that they serve.u00a0nnAs a viewer I’m not concerned with ratings at all, I’m concerned with the quality of the viewing. Just like the patients at the nonprofit clinic aren’t concerned with the volume of people who frequent the clinic, they just want to receive quality care. Ratings are important, just not the most important, in my opinion.nnNBC moved to the ratings grab too much and hurt their relationship with many of their viewers. They spoiled events and the 8 hour delay (for us on the west coast) was a little much for me.u00a0Fortunately for NBC, when people are upset about things that also brings additional viewers.u00a0nI think the comparison with BBC is fair. It seemed like NBC didn’t dream big enough or lacked vision on what could’ve ben the most interconnected sports competition of the modern age – I’m looking forward to the 2014 Winter Olympics and hoping NBC gets it right then.

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