Susannah Birkwood: Changing media coverage of charities won't be easy

It's understandable that charities want to safeguard their reputations and protect their income, but can they really persuade the media to do things differently, asks Third Sector's reporter

Susannah Birkwood
Susannah Birkwood

The idea that negative media coverage doesn’t affect charities’ income seems to be losing credence. Last summer, the head of Oxfam’s market insight team told a Market Research Society event that charities should stop wasting resources defending themselves against critics of charity administration costs and salaries because such critics wouldn’t donate to them anyway; and the RSPCA told me in November that the Daily Mail’s open season on the charity over the past two years had had no effect on its bottom line.

Now the mood seems to be changing. It is being widely bandied about in charity fundraising and comms circles at the moment that charities in the Disasters Emergency Committee did indeed lose income after the Daily Telegraph article in 2013 detailing that 30 of their executives were paid more than £100,000. Specifically, senior figures are saying privately that the British Red Cross and Save the Children suffered a fall in fundraising income of about £1m, although they seem hazy about the source of their figures.

The charities themselves both say that they did lose some income but it is difficult to put a definitive figure on it. Save the Children adds that the loss should be seen as part of the wider narrative for 2013, when their supporter numbers and overall income grew. The key point, though, is the acceptance that media stories can have a significant effect on the funds they raise.

So what can the sector do about it? The NCVO has decided to invest £50,000 in exploring whether to create a "charity sector newsroom". This would employ former tabloid journalists to make charity stories more interesting to the media. I can’t help thinking this won’t take off. Martyn Lewis, chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has said publicly that some charities’ press releases could be better, and I would agree with that; but setting up an extra body to improve the work that press offices already do seems unnecessary – and a bit of an insult to those press offices which are already effective.

According to Joe Saxton, founder of nfpSynergy, the charity sector would fare better in the media if only there was a better understanding of how they work among journalists. He wants the BBC to include a section dedicated to charities on its website, like it does for technology or entertainment, and to cover charities as it does the business or arts sectors, including regular articles on who charities are and how they work. It’s a good idea, but the BBC would have to be convinced. Charities can package their news in more appealing ways, they can’t re-write the editorial agenda of the BBC or any other news provider.

I think it’s admirable that charities are looking for ways to safeguard their reputations and ultimately protect the interests of their beneficiaries. It’s just I’m sceptical that the media can be as easily persuaded to do things differently as some in the sector seem to think.

And one thing you don’t hear much from charities is whether changes on their part could make them more appealing to their critics. You don’t, for example, hear the sector publicly discussing the sensitive issue of salaries and whether they should perhaps be capped. One senior figure was heard recently, for example, to say: "I can’t defend charity salaries because I earn a shed-load of money doing the best job in the world". He didn’t go on to volunteer a pay cut.

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