Analysis: Charities under fire - How can they spike the guns?

Public relations experts comment on the best way to combat the negative media coverage and the erosion of trust in the sector. By Daniel Farey-Jones

A steady build-up of negative national media coverage of charities in recent years, which started with senior pay and campaigning, has reached a crescendo in the past few months over fundraising methods and the very public implosion of Kids Company.

The sector could be forgiven for feeling that the playground bully noticed a bunch of inoffensive kids over in the corner and decided to give them the full treatment, while the prefects, aka the government, either join in or stay quiet.

This has inevitably prompted at least some of the kids to ask how they can push back and seek to make sure that the coverage, particularly that of the tabloids, is balanced, factually accurate and based on a better understanding of the charity world.

Last October, CharityComms and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations launched the Understanding Charities Group to try to reshape the media's attitude and improve journalists' understanding of charity work. But then came the case of Olive Cooke, bringing to mind a famous quote by the boxer Mike Tyson that "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth".

The options now, in some combination, appear to be to address the failings, blame the media, blame someone else, fight back harder or keep your head down and hope that things blow over.

Some complain the sector was too slow to respond when the story broke of Olive Cooke, the Bristol woman whose suicide was at first wrongly attributed to excessive requests for donations to charity – the inquest found she had long battles with depression, insomnia and breast cancer. Could it be that this vacuum drew in the rush of media accusations that resulted in the forthcoming government-commissioned review of the self-regulation of fundraising?

'We can't blame the media'

But two seasoned observers believe there is more to it than that. "Olive Cooke was a tragic example of how a story can unpredictably blow up from what were previously undercurrents of disquiet," says John Williams, vice-chair of the Association of Chairs, a former deputy chair of ChildLine and a former Charity Commission board member.

Williams also had a long career in corporate public relations as one of the founders of the PR agency Fishburn Hedges. To illustrate the media's unpredictability, he tells how he thought for several years that corporate tax avoidance would be a major issue: it wasn't, until the media went into a frenzy over it in 2012.

John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, argues that the culpability of the voluntary sector goes deeper than slow media handling. "We, as a sector, knew what the public were saying about fundraising and we should have been ahead of this," he says. "We can't blame the media – we should blame ourselves.

"Isn't it disappointing that we then didn't respond when it hit the media and the government had to intervene? The Prime Minister thanking the Daily Mail for exposing the behaviour of charities – it just makes you cringe."

Low's assertion that the public were concerned about fundraising is backed by one well-respected PR industry survey of well-educated, high-income people who follow current affairs. It shows their trust in NGOs fell dramatically between early 2014 and early 2015. After years of being far more trusted than business, government and the media, the sector has now started to lag behind (see the chart "Informed public's trust for sectors 'to do what is right'").

Williams is not surprised. "There's been a long-term trend of loss of trust in institutions, and I think this has just come late to the charity sector," he says. "It's no longer treated like the Queen Mother."

Trevor Morris, professor of public relations at Richmond University, warned in an interview with Third Sector in 2014 that people were starting to perceive charities as not so different from business and government. He says now: "When charities market themselves more aggressively than some businesses, you're going to get issues.

"I think public trust is definitely being worn away further by recent events, and anecdotally I've found people are more inclined to publicly criticise charities. This makes them more vulnerable to the political elements who want to rein some of them in."

'The storm will die down'

Williams warns the sector must get on the front foot: "To disappear into a bunker would be wrong. The storm will die down, but it will not go away. The sector is not in crisis, but the risk is it loses its nerve in campaigning and in negotiating contracts and loses belief in what it does."

Low thinks it will take several years to recover from the fundraising issue because "it is deep-seated and has gone unaddressed for too long". He says the starting point is the review of the self-regulation of fundraising, led by Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

"This must not be a whitewash and it must deal with the problem," Low says. "Then those who can should pick up and run with the solutions. We have to demonstrate we're getting our house in order – we've got to see complaints coming through and behaviour changing."

Morris draws a parallel with the advertising industry's success in establishing and promoting the Advertising Standards Authority in reaction to political pressure in the 1970s. "Whether or not the public knows the advertising industry is self-regulated or not, they think it is regulated and reasonably fair," he says.

It is only on fundraising that interviewees agree that the sector should present a united front to the media. When it comes to other areas of criticism, they saying "playing politics" is best left to individual charities. Pay, they say, is knotty because it enters the philosophical battleground between those who are surprised charity staff are paid at all and those who argue charities work better if they are more professional.

Barney Mynott, head of public affairs at Navca, does not think the sector needs to band together to justify pay, but says it is an issue on which "a relatively small number of organisations are capable of defending what they do".

Williams, the former corporate PR man, discounts the idea of quick fixes from the corporate playbook. To his mind, running a generic PR campaign would be using too broad a brush for such a diverse sector. How about copying the PR tactics of umbrella bodies in other industries that have been under fire, such as banking and energy? Williams is worried that it's too tempting just to hide behind such bodies. Instead, he encourages individual charity chairs to be more visible in the media and defend their chief executives. "The sector needs better-known spokespeople to speak on its behalf," Williams adds. "I would like to see leaders of big charities speak out more, and we should think twice before we criticise each other."

Learning to tell a collective story

Low believes there is an opportunity for charities collectively to tell the story better of what they do, but also cautions against teaming up on pay. A sector-wide initiative, he suggests, won't achieve much if the media tires of the subject, as he claims happened with a previous effort on executive expenses.

Simon Francis, a director at the PR agency Claremont and deputy chair of the non-profit group in the Public Relations Consultants Association, says the media always looks for new angles and warns that charities might next be accused of exploiting unpaid interns, as has happened in the PR industry. He says the PRCA non-profit group and the PR Guild are talking with CharityComms to look into how they might be able to help the charity sector deal with the media.

The desire and willingness to win over the media seems strong, but there is little sign of a concerted action plan or a silver bullet. Convincing action on fundraising would seem the best prospect for starting to turn the tide of opinion.

FUNDRAISING: Tripartite regulation has attracted criticism

Growing disquiet among politicians and public about charity fundraising, face-to-face in particular, prompted parliament to insert a clause in the Charities Act 2006 allowing the government to introduce statutory regulation.

But rather than activate this power, the government chose to allocate £4m in 2007 to a self-regulatory system – a complex tripartite arrangement involving a new Fundraising Standards Board, the Institute of Fundraising and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, which focuses on street and doorstep.

FRSB analysis of complaints has indicated public concern about enclosures in mail packs, too-frequent mailings, telephone and door-to-door fundraising and the treatment of the elderly and vulnerable. The IoF's Code of Fundraising Practice, against which the FRSB judges complaints not resolved by charities themselves, has evolved to take account of some of these concerns.

But the system has attracted criticism, and a degree of tension has always existed between the FRSB and the IoF in particular. In his 2013 review of the 2006 act, the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson said the organisations should simplify the "confused self-regulatory landscape".

To help them do this, the government gave £20,000 for a review of the system. The resulting report by the professional services firm PwC last year recommended changes such as a joint online portal to make the system clearer to the public. Some of these changes were beginning to happen when the national press seized on the Olive Cooke case in May.

When the elderly poppy seller (pictured, left) died after jumping into the Avon Gorge in Bristol, some papers linked her death to excessive requests for money by charities. A series of undercover investigations, mostly in the Daily Mail, accused telephone fundraising agencies in particular of malpractice.

The inquest found that illness and depression had caused Cooke to commit suicide, but her death brought to the surface latent public discontent about fundraising.

The government's response was to insert new clauses in the charities bill now going through parliament to require charities' contracts with fundraising agencies to state how the vulnerable will be protected, and to make larger charities say in annual reports how they conduct fundraising activities.

It has also asked Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, to conduct a review of the self-regulation of fundraising by the end of September. Susannah Birkwood

EXECUTIVE PAY: Newspaper stories led to recommendations

Recent media criticism of charity pay began in August 2013 when The Daily Telegraph printed an article that said 30 senior staff at the 14 charities in the Disasters Emergency Committee were each being paid more than £100,000.

Some were being paid more than the Prime Minister's £142,500, it said. William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, told the paper it was for trustees to decide on executive pay, but "disproportionate salaries risk bringing organisations and the wider charitable world into disrepute".

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations responded to the concern by setting up an inquiry into senior pay that recommended charities with annual incomes above £500,000 should publish full details of highest-paid staff.

It said the figures should be accompanied by a statement from trustees to justify them and explain how they helped the charity meet its objectives. All of this should be available within two clicks of a charity's home page, the report said. One survey early this year found that only four of the biggest 100 charities were following the "two-clicks" recommendation.

Debate about pay links to professionalisation of charities, some of which have incomes equivalent to large corporations. Charity executives are paid far less than executives in private sector businesses with similar incomes, according to the latest Third Sector pay survey in March. Stephen Cook

CAMPAIGNING: Under greater scrutiny since 2010 election

Campaigning by charities has come under increasing scrutiny from politicians, the Charity Commission and the Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-leaning think tank, since the change of government in 2010.

The Public Administration Select Committee of MPs recommended in 2013 that charities' annual reports should declare spending on campaigning. The government supported that in principle, and the Charity Commission consulted on it last year.

After an adverse response from sector umbrella groups, the commission postponed the proposal, saying it "would help to improve transparency by showing how charities carry out their purposes".

Complex case law on campaigning by charities is supplemented by CC9, guidance from the commission that was relaxed in 2008. Support for political parties is banned, but campaigning for political change in line with charitable objects is permitted. Some politicians feel the guidance is too permissive, and some lawyers think it is out of line with the law.

Campaigning was made more complicated by last year's lobbying act, which imposed new definitions and spending limits during election periods. The commission says it will review its case work on campaigning in the election, and may or may not recommend changes: "If we do consider revisions should be made to CC9, we will say so publicly and consult widely." Campaigning appears to be next on the agenda. Stephen Cook

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