Read all about it: working the media

There's more to getting your charity's message in the media than having a good story. Andy Ricketts reports.

Newspaper coverage: DrugScope hit the headlines with a story about the increase in home-grown cannabis
Newspaper coverage: DrugScope hit the headlines with a story about the increase in home-grown cannabis

Charities often struggle to influence the national news agenda. Even though they launch dozens of new campaigns and appeals each week, few hit the headlines. But two voluntary organisations grabbed the spotlight last week.

First, a Mencap report that claimed people with learning disabilities faced institutional discrimination in healthcare provision persuaded health secretary Patricia Hewitt to set up an independent inquiry to examine the issues.

The report highlighted the deaths of six people with learning disabilities - deaths the charity claims could have been avoided had these people received the proper care.

The next day, DrugScope revealed there had been a huge increase in the amount of home-grown cannabis seized by police over the past two years.

It showed that the number of cannabis farms shut down by police had trebled over the same period.

Both were examples of how, armed with a strong message and canny tactics, charitable organisations can mould the news agenda of the day. Given the pressure to raise awareness of campaigns and issues, how can other organisations follow suit?

Getting coverage

David Congdon, head of campaigns and policy at Mencap, says the groundwork laid down by the learning disability charity was a major factor in generating a response. "The significant thing about this report was that we had spent the past three years following cases up, so we had detailed and well-documented stories in the report," he says.

Having a strong human interest angle helped to set the report apart from others, he claims. "The key difference was that the cases we had were strong and the parents themselves, despite their grief, were willing to tell their stories. That's very compelling."

Timing was another significant factor, says Congdon. A trickle of other stories over the past few months about related topics in the health field had helped put the charity's campaign on the map.

Kate Sidwell, head of media at the RNID, says securing coverage is hard, because charities are often seen as worthy but dull. "The media is going to report only on things that appeal to its readers, so getting certain issues in can be difficult," she says.

Sidwell insists size matters when it comes to securing coverage. "The large charities are clearly going to have an advantage, because smaller groups don't have the same resources," she says. "Large charities have another advantage - they are often looking at issues that are more newsworthy because they affect more people."

But all is not lost for smaller organisations. "The basics still apply," says Sidwell. "If you can get a strong news story and push it, it's possible to get good coverage - but you need to be a bit clever in how you present it.

"You might want to build up a relationship with one individual journalist at one newspaper and do it as a one-off exclusive."

Birth defect charity BDF Newlife hit the headlines last year after research revealed chronic underfunding of equipment for disabled children by councils and primary care trusts (Third Sector, 29 November).

Christopher Strange, public relations manager at the charity, says Newlife benefited from the backing of The Sun columnist Kelvin MacKenzie, who wrote about the campaign. But the charity also tried to build support through local newspapers.

"It helps to build up relationships with the press, but you absolutely need to have stories to back that up," says Strange.

"To capture public interest, stories must have a strong people component, an element of controversy and new and interesting information."

John Morrell, founder of media consultancy firm John Morrell Associates, says strong stories must be the result of painstaking research, include quotes from confident speakers and have a strong peg on which to hang the article. "National coverage is a tall order and should be regarded as the icing on the cake," says Morrell. "Much excellent profile-raising work can be done at a local level, especially in local radio, where they have room for good human interest stories, day in, day out."

Richard Lutz, director of training organisation RHL Media, says charities must decide on a snappy headline message. "To get your message in print or on air, you must have a clear idea of what you want people to hear," he says. "That often comes down to defining your overall aim in two sentences."

But the job is not done once the story appears in the national media.

"You can get that story out there and be leading the news for 16 hours, but then you have to do something new to keep up the pressure," says Lutz.

"You have to create more stories."

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