A media partnership can pay dividends in the end

Building relationships with journalists and newspapers can help campaigns, but some charities worry about negative fall-out. Susannah Birkwood reports

A sponsored Guardian article
A sponsored Guardian article

It's nothing new for charities to provide transport, accommodation and other facilities to journalists in order to secure coverage for their causes or campaigns. Oxfam and Save the Children, for example, helped the broadcaster Michael Buerk to reach and report from the Ethiopian famine of 1984, and the campaigning body Greenpeace has taken reporters on its ships free of charge to witness the actions it takes against whaling or the dumping of waste at sea.

That process has not slowed in recent times, partly because shrinking editorial budgets continue to make it hard for news organisations to cover all their expenses, particularly for stories that involve extensive foreign travel. Every year, for example, Christian Aid flies journalists out to visit its development projects; and the children's charity Plan UK paid for a journalist to visit its community development projects in Peru and Mali last year.

But charities have also begun to devise new arrangements they hope will gain positive coverage for their activities. Christian Aid sponsored The Guardian in 2011 to produce a series of articles and films about the problems addressed by its Poverty Over campaign. Many charities use their communications budgets to make their own films about their campaigns and offer them to broadcasters, as well as using them on their websites and at events.

An unusual cost-free partnership was secured by the blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan last year with Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Daily Mirror and the Daily Record in Scotland. Motivated by the work that one of its reporters did for the charity before he died of leukaemia in 2008, the group undertook to publish at least six stories about Anthony Nolan and its work in national titles and 200 in local ones.

"The partnership opened the door for us to build lasting relationships with different journalists at the key titles," says Richard Davidson, director of communications and marketing at Anthony Nolan. "They got to know us and our cause; we got to know what they liked and what their editorial agenda was."

The publisher retained editorial control in this partnership, which is usually one of the key questions when charities subsidise journalists: should they demand a say in the content in return for their financial contributions? Charities usually rely instead on the likelihood that journalists will be enthusiastic about the cause, sympathetic about anything they uncover that might be embarrassing to the charity and hesitant to criticise a project when they've had their expenses paid.

Charlie Beckett, the director of the media think tank Polis, says the best course of action for charities worried about negative fall-out is to give journalists their freedom, even if does result in coverage that is not exclusively positive. "Giving access and supporting journalists to do their jobs will benefit you in the long term, even if a few warts come out in the short term," he says. "If your organisation is doing great work, you should allow the journalist to create the kind of news narrative that people want to read."

As an example of relationships becoming difficult, Beckett cites the Katine project, when The Guardian partnered with - but was not subsidised by - a health development charity called Amref Health Africa for a development initiative in a group of Ugandan villages. According to a blog written by one of the journalists involved, strains emerged when the costs of building a school were queried, as were Amref's reports.

"Amref found it genuinely hard to be open with The Guardian," Beckett says. "And the paper found it hard to switch off its traditionally aggressive journalistic approach to things."

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