Russell Hargrave: Amid the chaos, civil society quietly blossoms

As terrorist incidents multiply and people die in a high-rise fire, the sector has simply got on with its job of delivering services and offering comfort, writes our columnist

Russell Hargrave
Russell Hargrave

Sometimes, nothing I do matters very much.

I don’t mean this existentially; there is no need to call a doctor. Professionally, it is just a pretty obvious conclusion for charity comms folk like me to draw from recent events.

Lots of charities have worked in the public eye over the past few months, and it is hard to see how even the smartest comms team could have made them look any better.

Amid the chaos terrorists have managed to provoke in Manchester and Borough Market and Finsbury Park, and in the aftermath of the blaze at Grenfell Tower, civil society has quietly blossomed.

Foundations – which, let’s be honest, don’t always cooperate as well as they should – have worked together to distribute funds quickly and efficiently. Small charities on the ground have opened their doors to people left stranded, homeless or just frightened. Food packages have been delivered and much-needed services offered to strangers. People have taken charge in their own backyards and the infrastructure of the third sector was there to smooth the path.

George Orwell warned writers against using clichés, fearing that it was the first step on a slippery slope to a worse society. But he overlooked the fact that clichés endure because they capture something that needs expression.

So, yes, a picture can be worth a thousand words.

Seeing as I am one of the people employed in the charity sector to produce those words, I am very happy to let the pictures stand on their own. TV and social media were awash with shots of local charities comforting their neighbours and relieving suffering around them.

There was no need for comms teams to meet and talk about how to package up images and send them out; there was no rush to email newsdesks en masse. Charities were just out there, making headlines for the best reasons possible. It was charities doing what charities at their best have always done, and everyone from the man in the pub to the commissioning editors at The Guardian could see it.

I am not trying to talk myself out of a job quite yet, mind. The rules of the modern press dictate that attention will move on quickly enough, even after a sequence of tragedies that have focused attention on how communities can pull together to recover.

At that point, of course, the work of civil society will go on. There will still be people visiting food banks, or getting visits and cups of tea from befrienders. It is to the credit of most of the people providing such care that they don’t give a monkeys whether cameras are watching them or not.

Except the bit about cameras and column inches is my job, so it does matter to me. Maybe I and my gang of comms professionals will become relevant again, because charities have to fight for every second of positive coverage they can get. All the day-to-day ways of working, the speculative press notices sent out and the glossy pamphlets published will whirr into action again.

But those of us who like to get a bit snarky about the charity sector – is it really doing that much good? Is it a bit too pleased with itself sometimes? – can take a moment, too. When society came under pressure, charities were on the forefront of making everything OK again. You couldn’t miss it.

Russell Hargrave is press manager at the independent trust Power to Change

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