Russell Hargrave: Comms must be at the heart of a charity's strategy

A general election is a good opportunity to break down the barriers that prevent comms staff from teaming up effectively with colleagues, writes our columnist

Russell Hargrave
Russell Hargrave

Ah yes. A general election is coming.

A few things can be guaranteed for the next seven weeks. Politicians will report "a great reception on the doorstep" (generally alongside a photo of a party activist giving an awkward thumbs-up) and commentators will talk up "the most important choice in a generation" (watching exhausted political journalists reach for clichés is its own entertainment, if that’s your kind of thing).

This will be my third general election working in the third sector, so here is another prediction. In charity land, comms staff will be caught in a flurry of activity as colleagues get excited about writing a manifesto on their causes and beliefs, a six or eight-page document to get out in the next two weeks.

My advice? Communications teams should throw their resources into doing this – but not for the reasons you might think.

Let’s be blunt. A manifesto might be strategically useful for the very biggest charities, by incrementally strengthening their existing relationships with political figures. But this won’t be true for many of us.

Is the shadow minister for paperclips really going to read a new paper on a social issue they have never thought about at the very moment that their time is most limited? I rather doubt it.

The chance of influencing policy commitments right now is very slim. A manifesto can act as a useful place-marker for discussions after the election (this was the logic we used at one charity where I worked), but it still feels like a lot of work for such a vague outcome.

And yet, comms teams should embrace the opportunity. Something more valuable is on offer: the chance to break down some of the barriers that, in my experience, prevent comms staff teaming up most effectively with their colleagues.

To illustrate what I mean, a few years ago I visited a friend who had moved to a new charity job. And there in her office was what she called "the comms corner".

Tall partitions separated these seats from everyone else. There were lots of grids and passwords tacked to the wall, but no sign that anyone else in the office was part of creating them.

The partitions alone meant that comms staff would be invisible as they worked. Even I couldn’t miss a metaphor this obvious.

Communications work wasn’t integrated into the day-to-day workings of the charity. It was a self-contained unit, which might have been perfectly efficient, but wasn’t helping steer the decisions made at the heart of the organisation.

Charities can hold meetings all year long about staff working more closely together, but nothing beats kicking off a project where you have no choice but to collaborate quickly and effectively.

A decent charity manifesto is no different from a decent political manifesto, albeit a scaled-down version. The policies need to be properly costed, the ideas need to be targeted at the people who understand them and there needs to be a clear narrative running through it.

Even the most wonky-headed policy colleague can see that this takes serious comms expertise. It will take a team to make it happen: the policy people to feed in the ideas, the front-line staff to test how this tallies with life on the ground, PR people on the lines to draw out, the marketing gurus to shape the whole political offer.

All this may well lead to a great, short paper, but that isn’t the big prize.

Better working relationships, smarter collaborations, earlier planning for big projects: that is what charities could get off the back off the election.

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

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