Building relationships between charities and TV production companies

Don't just say no if you are given the opportunity to make a TV show, writes Jude Habib

Jude Habib
Jude Habib

Picture the scene. You’re the chief executive of a small local charity and you’ve just received a call from a researcher at a TV production company. She’s working on a TV series for one of the main TV channels and wants to discuss how your charity could be involved by putting forward case studies and potential participants. What would you say? 

At a recent discussion on Successful Campaigning in an Adverse Climate at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School, more than 100 charity leaders discussed how charities working on some of the most under-reported and misrepresented subjects were campaigning to raise awareness, including generating media coverage.  

It was here that I heard a chief executive explain that she’d received a call from a TV company and, on hearing the title of the programme, presuming that this would not further the cause of the charity or the people it supports, immediately said no. But was she right? When asked, more than 70 per cent of the room said that they would have given a similar response.   

It wasn’t that the chief executive was trying to be unhelpful or difficult – she was only putting first what she felt were the best interests of her charity. But was she denying the people she supports a chance to have a voice? I think this is a real challenge within the charity sector and one that has to be tackled.

There are many reasons that charities choose not to get involved in TV programmes. The title of the programme itself, a lack of time and resources, a lack of understanding of and experience in working with TV companies, negative stories in the press and a lack of editorial control. As a result, fears of damage to a charity’s reputation and brand leads to many charities being unsure about putting forward the people they support because they are vulnerable.

But at the same time as protecting them, could they be marginalising them even further? 

I often receive calls from friends who are producers and directors of TV documentaries and they ask me why they often get a negative response from those running charities without a chance for either side to have a useful and detailed conversation about the possible advantage to the recipients of the charity. This denies the service user the chance to even know about the opportunity. 

So if you get ‘that’ call – here are some things for you to think about when working with production companies.

Don’t be put off by the production title The title is a headline that will draw people to the subject matter, so it shouldn’t be a stumbling block. 

Don’t say no immediately Listen to the phone call, ask questions about the approach, angle, content, whether it’s a definite commission or part of a pitch to a network. Say you’ll think about how your charity might get involved and promise to get back to them within a set timeframe. Get the TV researcher to follow up the phone call in writing outlining exactly what they are looking for.

Do your own research Not all TV production companies share an ideal work ethic. But it is easy to find more information about the production company. So take a look at its track record. What other programmes has it produced? Who else does it work with? Has it worked with vulnerable individuals and how has it supported these people. Most companies have ‘duty of care’ protocols for all of their contributors, so ask about that. Some companies have set up foundations to deal with the issues that might arise from a broadcast when the audience wants to support in some way.

Seek advice from other charities Many charities have been involved in TV projects, so call around your peers and ask for their advice. What checks do you need to put in place? What are the pitfalls? Most importantly, what were the benefits to the charity being connected to the programme. Speak to the staff who worked directly on the programme. The mental health charity Mind, for example, has been involved in many TV projects recently and has a wealth of experience, as has the charity Changing Faces. 

Don’t wait to do this Don’t forget that you’ll be one of many charities the research team will be approaching, so it is in your interests to respond quickly. It is often easier to change things from the inside than from the outside.

Put your best member of staff on the case And if you are successful and your charity does have the opportunity to be involved, allocate one member of staff to be the eyes and ears of the charity and to be the liaison for both the production company and participants. Laura Sleight, former press officer at the Blue Cross, blogged about her experience of the charity being involved in Undercover Boss.

And be aware that commitment to a TV programme might take a lot of time and resources, so make sure you have someone who is able to give their time and a service user that is happy to fully commit.

Don’t treat production companies as the enemy These are people who can help put forward other ideas and might be people you wish to work with in the future. Consider it as a mutually beneficial interchange, even if you decide that particular project isn’t right for you at that time.

And even if the project doesn’t suit you as an organisation, there might be service users who will find the experience gratifying and rewarding, so consider letting them know about the opportunity, even if it is with words of warning attached.

Stand your ground If you have made the commitment and your service users are involved, don’t be afraid to stand up for your clients if you feel things aren’t going exactly as planned. Once the TV company has started filming with your charity, they don’t want to find someone else to use, so you are in a position of power to make sure that your clients and charity are being represented fairly.

Be proactive TV programmes can really raise awareness for a cause, challenge stereotypes and perceptions among the wider public, give the people we support a much-needed voice and raise funds. So why wait for TV production companies to come to us? Why don’t we go to them? We’ve got stories and ideas at our fingertips, so why don’t we just pick up the phone and approach them with our programme ideas.

I’d love to hear your experiences, both good and bad, of working with production companies and how as a sector we can share best practice. 

Jude Habib is hosting the Social Media Exchange on 27 January

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