Russell Hargrave: Every charity needs someone to kill off bad ideas

Keen-eyed outsiders can help comms teams to avoid bad misjudgements, writes our columnist

Russell Hargrave
Russell Hargrave

In 2015 I ran my one and only marathon.

It was around Loch Ness. On the plus side, the weather was beautiful and the views were spectacular. On the negative, though, every step after mile 20 was hellish and I nearly crippled myself.

My wife was there to dole out jelly babies and cheer me on. She also saw what I looked like when I staggered over the line and listened to me moan about my legs falling off. So when I heartily suggested giving the route another go this year, she shot me a look that said "that is a very bad idea".

We all need someone like this, professionally and personally. Not necessarily my wife, I should stress, but someone you trust to kill off rubbish plans and misjudgements before they bloom into fully-fledged mistakes.

This has particular relevance in charity comms. A relatively small team is trusted to talk to the outside world about the good the organisation is doing every day. We pore over press comments, website colour schemes and Twitter feeds so that you don’t have to worry about it.

Someone slaving over their work elsewhere in the charity is entitled to feel aggrieved if comms folk blow resources on stuff that doesn’t work. This isn’t so much when the occasional hashtag fails to catch public attention or an email to journalists goes ignored – these risks are built into even the best work – but when whole campaigns falter even though the potential for failure was always there to see.

This is where a keen-eyed outsider is so important. Every comms team should have one, or even several, and there are plenty of ways to get them involved.

I was lucky in my first charity comms job. My boss, who was willing to concede she knew nothing about communications, teamed me up with someone from our trustee board, a former BBC journalist and think tank spinner who took me under his wing.

He answered emails and the occasional cry for help, opening up his little black book of contacts and – crucially – told me gently when an idea was a no-hoper. If I have a good track record now, I owe a lot to this guy.

But it doesn’t have to be a one-on-one relationship. Some charities have advisory boards to which comms teams can turn to sense-test their next big plan. This can be formal, with meetings and agendas, or it can be an ad hoc gang of smart people on a gmail group.

What matters is the chance to get feedback. Does this comms plan make sense when explained to an outsider? Can you answer the questions that get fired back? And what questions had you never considered? All essential stuff to hone the comms initiative you have, or to make you brave enough to junk it.

Or it is the guy on the next table at your charity, who doesn’t work on comms and barely touches his Twitter feed, but is a nice bloke and has sound judgement. Get his view. We want to tell the story this way: does that sound accessible and well-designed, or does it sound mad?

Watch his reaction carefully. If he looks at you the way my wife looks at me, you might need a rethink.

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

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