Sarah Miller, head of news at the Charity Commission

In a series on the regulator's senior staff, Miller talks to Paul Jump about dealing with journalists.

Having worked in the press departments of World Vision, the Salvation Army and Citizens Advice, Sarah Miller can justifiably claim to know what it's like to work for a charity. But charities, she says, do not always realise how things look from the Charity Commission's perspective.

"When you work for a charity, it is easy to think only of your own issues," says Miller, who has been the commission's head of news for two-and-a-half years. "It is a healthy exercise to remember you are part of a wider sector that is hugely diverse."

Miller says it would also help charities' communications departments if they were more aware of how a complaint or a failure to submit accounts on time could affect their reputation. "The longer I've been here, the more I've realised how useful it is for charities to think about how any interaction with the commission might play out in communications terms," she says.

Miller, who has never been a journalist but once wanted to be a music teacher, is also keen to use the press to make the public more aware of the commission. She also wants to create more realistic expectations of what the regulator will investigate and encourage people to look for information on its website so that its contact centre is not swamped with calls.

With her team of three press officers, part of her job is to impress on busy colleagues the importance of answering queries within journalists' tight deadlines. There is no typical day in terms of the number and complexity of calls received, but most usually come from local news outlets. The toughest challenge, though, is educating regional and national journalists about the wider context of the charity-related stories they report.

"The biggest frustration we have is always with things that are factually wrong," says Miller, citing the reporting of the public benefit requirement as an example. "When errors arise or where we feel things are misrepresented or unfair, we sometimes respond. But it is a question of judgement whether to do so."

The most recent surge of press interest in the commission came after Christine Pratt, founder of the National Bullying Helpline, claimed on the BBC that members of the Prime Minister's staff had called the helpline. "That story shows small charities aren't necessarily low-risk," says Miller. "Seeing a story like that in the mainstream media reminds you they can have a big impact." But she also admits she gets a regular reality check when she meets friends for a drink and they struggle to understand the importance of the issues she is dealing with.

But Miller does not take journalists to the pub - and she does not go in for the kind of off-the-record briefings common in many government departments. "It is about being fair to the people you are regulating," she says. "We want to present information in the right way, with the right checks and balances, because we are conscious of the high esteem charities are held in by the public."

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus