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.