Susannah Birkwood: Full marks to Jeremy Hughes for speaking out

Susannah Birkwood
Susannah Birkwood

Like many in the sector, I was surprised and pleased by the response of Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, to The Sun’s story criticising pay at the charity last week. Instead of doing what so many charities do and burying his head in the sand the moment a negative news story emerged, Hughes was keen to defend his charity’s practices.

On the morning the story broke, with the (non-)revelation that 50p in every pound donated to the Alzheimer’s Society was spent on staff wages and pensions, Third Sector contacted the charity’s press team for comment. The charity made its chief executive available for interview within an hour of our reporter’s call.

Before lunchtime, a full rebuttal from Hughes had been published on the Third Sector website, saying that the charity's salaries were less than those paid for comparable jobs in the NHS or social services, let alone the commercial sector. That afternoon, Hughes went further, publishing a blog on the subject on the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network. The sector responded to both articles with enthusiasm. "Well said Jeremy Hughes!", "Great response to recent criticism", "Great rallying cry" read some of the tweets.

Why was this unusual?

Because it’s one of so few examples of a chief executive speaking out in defence of his charity at a time when the media requires it. There shouldn’t be anything particularly foreign about the idea of an organisation capitalising on media attention and using it as an opportunity to put its own stance across, but few charities do it.

In fact, many interactions I have with charities as a reporter go like this: I phone up the charity after hearing some bad news about it. Press officer answers the phone, tells me the appropriate person is busy but that they will return my call. They do not return my call. I call again an hour later and ask my questions. Press office takes several hours to respond, then sends out a bland statement answering none of my questions. My article goes to print saying that the charity declined to answer the questions I asked.

I understand why charities behave they like this. They believe that by following this procedure, they won’t have to disclose sensitive information that might be used to criticise them (or benefit their competitors). They hope the story will go away if they say nothing.

But the reality is that, in taking this approach, charities are wasting an opportunity to justify their practices or to speak out about a system they believe in.

They might even blame the media for not giving them the chance to put their stance across. Richard Taylor, director of fundraising at Cancer Research UK, said at the Institute of Fundraising convention earlier this month that it was unfair to say charities hadn’t defended themselves robustly enough amidst the spate of media attacks about fundraising. "Lots of charities are commenting, but they’re not being quoted," he said.

Where the Daily Mail and The Sun are concerned, this might be the case, but it’s certainly not true across the board. It’s likely that the comments charities are making that are not quoted are like the statements I so often receive – ones that bear little relation to the questions I’ve asked.

Charities need to follow the Alzheimer’s Society’s lead, speak out more and put their executives up for interview in a timely fashion. They need to appreciate that an interview is a two-way interaction – that they can actually benefit from addressing journalists’ questions in helping to correct misinformation or justify their practices. They should not be willing to talk to the press only when they have good news to promote.

When the tabloids cut short their "right of reply" – their comments in response to allegations against them – charities should think about using the sector press to get their message out there, as Hughes did. They might not reach the same audience through this route, but it’s a start, and it could end up influencing some of the stories published by the tabloids.

Hughes helped to demonstrate how charities can successfully turn negative coverage to their advantage. He has gained the respect of the sector, and of journalists, in the process.

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