“Don’t get tired of your own news”….and other lessons

The Capital Area Food Bank has been working to better the nutrition content of its inventory for several years, through efforts including the development of a tracker to assess the salt, sugar, and fiber of food we distribute, and an emphasis on providing fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables (which currently comprise a full third of what we distribute). But in the spring of 2015, as piles of sheet cake accumulated in our warehouse, the CAFB recognized a need for changes. We began to engage grocery retailers in conversation about formally moving to stop accepting full pallets/cases of sheet cakes, leftover holiday candy, and soda. When we decided upon a September 1, 2016 policy implementing the above change, a letter was sent to retailers framing the issue and inviting conversation about it.

In a marketing and communications shop like ours, with limitless opportunities for awareness raising, it’s no small feat to set aside time to look back at the job already done. But the success our CAFB team encountered this fall in spreading the word about the food bank’s work to improve its inventory struck us as a special case. So my colleagues and I recently asked ourselves questions about what worked, what didn’t, and what we could learn from the experience. For example, we considered:

·      Why did press care about our commitment to eliminate these unhealthy items from the food bank’s inventory? What got their attention?

·      Which outlets and influencers were the most impactful in causing word to spread?

·      Which efforts by our digital, graphic design, press and communications team members had the biggest bang for their buck?

·      What was the effect--for our organization, other non-profits, and the broader community involved in food access and nutrition work--of people learning about this particular news from the CAFB?

 The hardworking CAFB Marketing & Communications Team! I'm grateful to have shared these learnings with Ihamna, Allison, Bianca, Hilary and Mark.

The hardworking CAFB Marketing & Communications Team! I'm grateful to have shared these learnings with Ihamna, Allison, Bianca, Hilary and Mark.

Here’s what I found most interesting about our experience pitching this initiative to press:

1.     Journalists these days like to spread good news. Those we worked with found angles that made our announcement even more exciting to the reader. For example, Julia Belluz of Vox brought in Feeding America’s Dr. Hillary Seligman to introduce the national “hunger-obesity” paradox to her coverage of our news, broadening the relevance to more readers.

2.     We must not tire of our own news. It’s easy to be in the weeds and feel that “everyone must have heard the news by now”, but it pays to approach our announcement with new eyes every day. In the fractured media landscape of 2016, where people cobble together their news from so many sources, I’m constantly surprised by how many more relevant outlets we have yet to pitch and how many organizations or corporate partners we haven’t yet reached with the news to ensure they’re following along; the possibilities only end when we move on internally.

This is what I think worked for our marketing team:

1. Having client testimonials at the ready—neither the USA Today article nor the Civil Eats article would have flown if not for our relationships with neighbors served by the food bank who were willing to share their personal story.

2. Having someone on the team dedicated to following the social media conversation, and continuing to tweet and repost as articles come out, drives story momentum.  Aside from the news outlets themselves, a few social media influencers I was stoked to see re-sharing our news included the Crossfit Community on facebook (to over 2 million followers—go figure!),  plus Emily Olson and Naomi Starkman on twitter (friends from my San Francisco days, who have grown their followings to an impressive 66k and 30k respectively).

What didn’t work (or, how we turned lemons into lemonade):

1. Turning a media risk into an opportunity: Two events in July prompted our media strategy to change. First, a story in USA Today on our September 1 announcement employed the use of the term “junk”, which we worried could have negative connotations. But we opted to use it in the language of our press release about the policy some weeks later, and it seems to have provided a hook for further news media. The key takeaway here is that taking a calculated risk (in this case, using a “negative term” in combination with an overall positive message) can be beneficial when seeking to grab attention.

Similarly, a story in the Guardian, drawing on information from an appearance by our CEO Nancy E. Roman at Food Tank’s D.C. Summit, incorrectly reported that the food bank had “banned” sugary and starchy donations including bread. Moving quickly to position, own, and drive the story, we held a press conference on the new policy within 24 hours. We were rewarded by taking these two steps forward on a timeline introduced by external players, departing from our original plan.

2. It turns out that press conferences may be going out of style. When we called the above mentioned press conference, not one of the 20-30 journalists I outreached to showed up in person. So we innovated and recorded several clips of Nancy and Giant Food President Gordon Reid speaking about the new policy, which we released via a digital release in addition to a traditional press release. The digital release functioned as a meaty link I could send to the many news outlets that couldn’t attend the release—follow up outreach with this link led to the Vox, Civil Eats, DCist and Washington Post stories that would follow.

Finally, these were the “wins” for food bank stakeholders—most importantly, the neighbors we serve—to come from this communications campaign:

1.     It increased our ability to target nutritious food donations from other retail donors. Our use of media coverage as an opportunity to speak about effective retail partnerships for wellness has not only strengthened our partnerships with Giant and Shoppers (giving them positive coverage), but it has also been important to the food bank’s positioning as an organization that is committed to working with, not against, its other food donors. 

2.     Several Feeding America food banks have reached out to learn more about what the CAFB is doing and how they might replicate it after reading these articles.

3.     Other food access non-profits across the country have reached out about partnering for the first time. And Nancy has been asked by Partnership for a Healthier America to speak on a panel at their annual Summit, positioning our work in front of leaders of America’s largest food corporations in May.

Did all of this talk about PR success make you want to read the articles yourself? Here’s a roundup of our press—please share your favorite with a friend!


• VOX – This food bank doesn’t want your junk food. Good.
• Washington Post – Want to donate junk food? The region’s largest food bank will reject it.
• Civil Eats – Why This Food Bank is Turning Away Junk Food

• healthline – The American Capital’s Largest Food Bank Says No to Junk Food
• DCist – At The Capital Area Food Bank, Produce Is Paramount
• Food & Wine – Why One Food Bank Is Saying No to Junk Food
• The Hill – Our nation’s top killer? The iconic American diet
• USA Today – D.C. food bank taking the junk out of clients’ diets
• Washinton Hispanic – CAFB se deshace de comida poco saludable