How to cope with difficult questions from the media

Susannah Birkwood finds out what people learnt from an Understanding Charities Group media training day

Why does your charity outsource its fundraising function to profit-making agencies? Why does your chief executive earn more than the Prime Minister? Why do you spend more on administration costs than on helping vulnerable people?

These are some of the questions charity professionals were challenged to consider at a media training day hosted by nfpSynergy and the Understanding Charities Group in August. Called Tackling Difficult Issues, the day was held to help the approximately 40 attendees improve the way they defended themselves on subjects that have generated heightened interest among journalists, donors and volunteers since the death of Olive Cooke in May.

So what did they learn? One trainer and two participants spoke to Third Sector after the event.

Chris Jameson, co-founder of the media training company Inside Edge, said he'd told delegates that if their charity was found to be engaging in fundraising malpractice, their best option was to face up to this and not to shy away from journalists' questions. "That sort of evasion will guarantee spokespeople a hard time on air," he said.

We should tell people that, without admin, nurses wouldn't get paid and donations wouldn't get banked

Lucy Caldicott, chief executive, Diversity Role Models

According to Jameson, if a charity were under fire for its cold-calling practices, for example, its spokesperson should not brush away the subject by pointing out how rare cases of malpractice had been. They should instead acknowledge the fact that the malpractice occurred and had serious consequences.

Jameson said he was impressed by a delegate who gave the following response when faced with a question about her charity's use of call centres: "When we do use outsourced call centres, we train the callers ourselves, we spend a whole day with them and give them all the information they need. We also sometimes listen in to calls, and every call is recorded."

He said this response was effective because it was specific and tangible and not simply a "reworked and wishy-washy mission statement or marketing strapline".

Lucy Caldicott, chief executive of the anti-bullying charity Diversity Role Models, attended the training day and said it helped her to reflect on how to respond to questions about chief executive pay. She said she believed that if a chief executive's salary was benchmarked against staff salaries, charities should highlight this, and they should also emphasise any particularly demanding responsibilities of the chief, such as representing the organisation to the media.

But she said that charities should avoid citing employees' satisfaction with the chief executive's salary as a justification. "Not only is it very hard to find out what any organisation's employees really think about their managers' pay, it's also a little bit irrelevant to highlight what staff think in a media interview because the focus in such a context should be on the public and the charity's supporters," she said.

On the subject of administration costs, she said charities should point out how they would struggle to function effectively without spending on essentials such as accounts systems and banking services. "We should tell people that, without admin, nurses wouldn't get paid and donations wouldn't get banked," she said.

Shree Rajani, communications campaign manager at Arthritis Research UK, said the most important thing she learned was not to criticise other charities or how they are run, even if she might not agree with their practices. "This was an overwhelming 'no'," she said. "We can and should talk about our own procedures and fundraising practices, but we are not in a position to comment on those of others."

Caldicott agreed, saying that when she was fundraising director at the children's cancer charity Clic Sargent, she resisted attempts by colleagues to publicise the fact that the charity did not engage in street fundraising – one of the more unpopular fundraising methods among the public – because she did not believe this strategy would help anyone. "I hope charities do not resort to attacking each other," she said.

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