Opinion: Hot issue - Are charities good enough at using the media?

New research by the Voluntary Action Media Unit found that the relationship between the sector and the media was fraught with misunderstanding and that more careful targeting of the media would produce better results.

YES - Joe Korner, director of communications, Stroke Association

Based on my own experience, I would say that the relationship between the media and charity press officers is pretty good. Both understand what is required and that it is a relationship that has mutual benefits if handled properly.

It is important that the voluntary sector takes care to target the appropriate media for the stories it is trying to promote. Tense relationships are almost certain to develop if there is a lack of professionalism. However, it is also necessary for the media to deal sensitively with the voluntary sector.

For instance, journalists occasionally fail to turn up for prearranged interviews at the homes of people who have volunteered to talk about what are often deeply distressing personal experiences. This causes more distress and makes the public, who generally distrust journalists, even more wary.

However, I am glad to say that in my experience these instances of journalists letting down case studies are few and far between.

There is always room to improve understanding and relationships between the sector and the media. Charities need to overcome the frustration they often feel when journalists fail to recognise the power of their stories.

NO - Caroline Diehl, chief executive, Media Trust

Like all organisations, charities have to understand what the media wants and invest time and resources in communications. Research by the Voluntary Action Media Unit reinforces our recent Home Office-funded exemplar research: the largest charities are investing heavily in communications skills, but smaller ones struggle to find the resources.

The Media Trust's Community Newswire, which sends out charities' news on the Press Association wires, shows the interest journalists have in such stories. More than 1,700 organisations have sent in their press releases over the past year, and there has been extensive pick-up by national and regional media. It works because skilled intermediaries help to rewrite the stories in a helpful format and style.

Charities cannot improve their media skills until they build better relationships with media professionals. Many charities are supported by a volunteer media mentor through the Media Trust's matching scheme, and the media are showing a real interest in giving time to the charity sector.

Today, success is measured by public image and perception as much as by actual performance - and charities, whatever their size, cannot afford to get it wrong.

YES - Marjorie Wallace, chief executive, Sane

When I met Sun editor Rebekah Wade for lunch at News International HQ, I was surprised at her enthusiasm not only to redress any potential damage from the paper's "Bonkers Bruno" headline, but to learn more about mental illness and, indeed, to train as a call-taker. As a result, although The Sun still carries some hurtful headlines, its editor is now more sympathetic to the suffering of people with mental illness and their families.

It is possible to persuade and inform provided you are prepared to respect the needs and deadlines of journalists and producers, be available at anti-social hours, send midnight messages out on the wires and invest personal time in what could become a deleted item. The media world is shifting and ephemeral, so you may have serial disappointment, but you have to ride this and keep your enthusiasm fresh for each new story, with clear messages, vivid images and strong case studies supported by up-to-date information.

Some of our most successful campaigns have been with newspapers; we have also written or advised on dramas, documentaries and soaps.

I know there is nothing to meet the power for good of a better-informed and well-disposed media. It should be friend, not foe.

NO - Mike Peake, features director, FHM magazine

Given our readership (three million men in their 20s), you might think that FHM would be a first stop for charity PRs looking to place a story.

But that isn't the case.

In my five years running FHM's features desk, I've had maybe a dozen such calls, and rarely - if ever - has it felt like any homework has been done. It's usually, say, "We've done this report" or "Could you do something on our annual appeal".

Sorry, but have you ever actually seen the magazine?

FHM is huge, and we do socially aware stuff. In the past year we had a man in Chernobyl, ran a five-page piece about the plight of illegal immigrants in Calais and recently commissioned a feature on Liberia's child soldiers.

We also ran a feature called 100 Great Adventures, in which our writers tracked down not just snowy jollies for adrenaline junkies, but more benevolent stuff such as building playgrounds for kids in Africa. It was inspiring stuff.

I think that's what's missing from the calls by charity PRs: there's a feeling of "we're a charity so you should be nice to us", rather than "we've got an amazing story that we've tailor-made for you". That's the way forward.

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