Viewpoint: Please don't cut the media budget

Too much scepticism could be making life difficult for your charity's press department.

The past decade has given the press and public relations a very bad name. These days many people believe everything they read, hear or see in the news has a spin on it.

In a sense, this has always been the case. As a journalist, I learnt long ago that however hard I try to remove myself, my view, my prejudices and my baggage from what I write, they inevitably creep in.

But this isn't spin in the current understanding of the term. That relates much more to the cynical attempt, most notoriously by New Labour, to manage news and put the best gloss on everything.

The latest incarnation of this spin is political parties' current obsession with 'narratives'. So Gordon Brown's individual instances of bad judgement, grumpiness and sheer folly are not to be taken on their own terms, according to David Cameron, but as 'dithering'. The narrative is that the Prime Minister is a ditherer. Everything has to be shaped to fit in with that.

Depressing, isn't it? The temptation is to throw your hands up in despair and steer well clear of the whole PR business. And this attitude, some colleagues tell me, is becoming more common within charities - not necessarily at the coalface, where a good story about a charity in the press continues to hold a certain allure, but at trustee level.

"If there have to be cuts in this economic climate, then cut the marketing and media budget," boards are telling themselves. "It's all spin and a waste of time anyway."

I came across an example of this recently, when I was sent by a newspaper to interview a celebrity patron of a charity that had better remain nameless. He was late. The poor press officer was trying to sort it out, but one of the trustees decided to take over. "You'll not want more than five minutes with him when he arrives, will you?" she said. "You can just make the rest up." I was about to demur, but she was on a roll. "Could you tell me what you are going to ask? I could probably answer most of the questions."

"Press and PR: who needs it?" was the subtext. I can see how it is possible to arrive at such a conclusion, but I remain convinced that it is wrong. Yes, as trustees, make sure that the poison of cynical or pointless spin doesn't corrupt your charity's media department. But realise, too, that it has a job to do. Unless people know your charity's name, they are unlikely to give.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Frank Longford Charitable Trust.

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