Communications: Bad publicity can be made positive

Every charity press officer's nightmare is that their employer becomes the subject of media criticism. But according to some of those who have been through it, the experience can be given a positive twist.

Dealing with negative publicity was one of the most hotly debated topics at the NCVO's annual PR conference, held in Leeds in July.

Steve Bloomfield, head of communications at the Eating Disorders Association, was at the event. "Women's magazines dedicate pages to debating whether a certain celebrity has an eating disorder," he said. "It's nearly always pure speculation, yet we still get asked to comment. I explain that it's not our policy to comment on individuals.

"I ask if they would like a separate box on how to spot the signs of an eating disorder. If I can at least get our helpline number in, I have turned a negative into a positive."

The Eating Disorders Association took a more proactive approach by holding an event in London at which magazine editors had the chance to talk to some of its youth ambassadors. It was a bid to encourage them to address the issue differently.

One organisation that has attracted more derogatory comments than most is Opus Dei. The Catholic group first hit the headlines following the publication of bestseller The Da Vinci Code, in which one of the characters is an albino monk who works for Opus Dei. But the group says it is misrepresented in the novel.

"When The Da Vinci Code was published, we put a notice on our website correcting its inaccuracies," said Jack Valero, communications manager of Opus Dei. "But when we heard the film was coming out, we knew we would have to do more."

The organisation thought controversy would only fuel ticket sales, so it was careful not to attack anyone. "We corrected the inaccuracies and then focused on a simple message to explain what we really stand for," Valero said.

Like the Eating Disorders Association, Opus Dei took a proactive stance.

It used events to to reach out to new audiences. "We arranged a number of talks around the country that gave us an opportunity to explain our activities to people who would not normally be interested," said Valero.

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