Communications: Are you being heard? Part Six - Impressing the Press

Charities often have a love-hate relationship with the media. Caitlin Fitzsimmons looks at how they can make it more harmonious.

Pick up a paper and you'll probably find two or three pages of business news. If it's charity stories you're after, however, you'll be lucky to find much at all.

The general news section might carry an item or two touching on the work of charities or quoting experts from the voluntary sector on social or environmental issues. However, it is rare to find scrutiny of how charities operate, and this is as true of TV and radio as it is of the press.

Whether you're counting in column inches or broadcast minutes, charities receive limited coverage. What coverage there is indicates little awareness of how the sector operates, particularly the fact that a modern charity is a professional organisation, with similar overheads to a business.

It's true that private enterprise plays a vital role in the creation of jobs and wealth, and millions of Britons have savings invested in the stockmarket, either directly or through pension funds. But millions of people also donate time or money to charities, with research showing there is a broad public interest in reading about their work.

Joe Saxton, driver of ideas at the voluntary sector think tank nfpSynergy, says it's a vicious circle. "It's self-perpetuating - you get lots of business news because you have business journalists, and you have business journalists because you have three pages dedicated to covering it," he says. "When you rely on the free market, with plenty of subjects competing for space, you inevitably end up with less coverage for charities."

Saxton says that because charities are reported in an exceptional rather than systematic way, journalists lack a proper appreciation of the sector. Inevitably, that means coverage will present issues such as face-to-face fundraising or salary and administration costs in black-and-white terms. "The problem for charities is that people only seem able to talk about them as angels or villains," he says.

NfpSynergy research suggests that the general public does have an appetite for more news about the voluntary sector. More than half of its respondents said they would either quite like or really like to read about charities and their work ahead of politics and government, business and even celebrities. Unlike other topics, charities achieved roughly the same degree of interest across age and social class, although the subject appealed to 62 per cent of women, compared with only 44 per cent of men.

For Saxton, the answer is for the press to include dedicated space for stories about the charity sector, with a particular focus on how charities are run.

Not everyone agrees, however. John Sauven, communications director at Greenpeace, says stories about important issues such as climate change are reported in the main news section, where they belong. "To say that charities should receive the same coverage as business is hard to justify," he says. "I don't think we could create the news that would hold people to a whole section."

From the point of view of the press, Alexandra Frean, social affairs correspondent for The Times, says newspapers regularly quote experts from the voluntary sector on various topics, from cancer research to prisoner welfare. "I don't think the general public are too interested in reading about how charities work," she says. "Some people and some donors are, but not to the same extent that they're interested in the stock market."

There is a widespread feeling in the voluntary sector that journalists' perceptions of charities are out of date and too simplistic. Of course, the British media are diverse, and what is true of one news outlet is not true of another. Alexandra Burden, head of communications at disability charity Scope, says there are some quarters of the media that have trouble grasping the notion of large, professionally run charities.

"The Guardian understands and so does Third Sector, but the Daily Mail struggles with it," says Burden. "We tend to pitch more towards our allies, such as Society Guardian or The Times' Public Agenda, but maybe we need to attempt a more proactive relationship with traditional press, such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph."

There might be cases where, either through ignorance or obstinacy, the media are at fault, but many charities accept that they should do more than just complain and need to shoulder some of the responsibility for misconceptions about the way they operate. Many also agree that it does not help that some organisations still rely on the vulnerable, cap-in-hand imagery for fundraising appeals. That sort of approach is increasingly rare, but people's memories are long and the view of charities as amateurish organisations does persist.

More seriously, many charities can be guarded in their dealings with the press and reluctant to talk about issues such as fundraising costs or salary levels. Alan Gosschalk, director of fundraising at Shelter, believes they need to be far more open about how and why they operate.

"Charities are often not as transparent and accountable as they should be," he says. "If they tend to be quite guarded when journalists ask questions, it provokes suspicion."

Gosschalk is now leading ImpACT (Improving Accountability, Clarity and Transparency), a coalition of charities committed to setting standards for fundraising and to communicating more openly and honestly.

The sector has suffered from the lack of a common voice to comment on issues such as the acceptable level for fundraising costs or the arguments for paying competitive salaries to chief executives. The ImpACT Coalition will partly fill this gap by ensuring that the charities involved have a consistent message and approach.

Organisations such as the chief executives' umbrella body Acevo and the NCVO have assumed some of this role, for example by responding to criticism in the press.

Diana Green, director of communications at children's charity Barnardo's, says it is encouraging that charities are willing to speak together to change public perceptions of how they are run. She believes the relationship between charities and the media is largely positive, but that there is certainly room for improvement.

"Charities should be prepared to be as open as they can with the media about how they are run," says Green. "Journalists are generally quite sophisticated about understanding what charities are for and how they operate, but we could do more."

Green warns that charities wanting to raise their media profiles need to realise that they will be exposed to greater scrutiny and must learn to take the rough with the smooth. "You need to answer difficult questions in a confident way," she says. "Be happy to explain why you've done something."

If journalists have a skewed view of charities, the reverse is equally true. "In general, I don't think they really have a clue," says Frean of The Times when asked whether charities understand the media. "Some clearly do, however, and they tend to be very good."

Frean cites the endless stream of press releases she receives about new research showing that certain people are not getting the services they need and concluding that 'something must be done'. She believes the general public are well aware that services are lacking and would rather hear about innovative solutions than be told what they already know.

Green of Barnardo's points out that if charities want coverage, they should appreciate the media's needs and offer something in return. "The media have an audience to entertain and educate, so they are looking for quality information from charities," Green says. "It's not just about telling the story you want told, but also about understanding the media's audience."

Dominic O'Reilly, director of communication services at the Media Trust, which provides links between charities and the media, says bigger organisations with professional press teams have a better understanding of the media, but smaller charities can struggle.

"Charities are improving press relations, but many smaller organisations don't put their work across in ways that the media can use," says O'Reilly, who was a journalist for 14 years. "They either don't tell anyone or, if they do, it's 10 days too late. This is one reason why there is so much more coverage of big charities."

NfpSynergy research suggests journalists' experience of charity press teams is mixed. Although 94 per cent of respondents said they learnt of charity stories from press releases, common complaints included a lack of case studies to personalise the story, slowness to respond to questions and an aloof or arrogant attitude, particularly by larger charities, towards the local or trade press.

Perhaps, as Scope's Burden suggests, it is time to move media relations up the agenda and look at recruiting journalists to sit alongside finance and fundraising experts on trustee boards.

After all, the media are here to stay. If you can't beat them, you might as well join them.

THE MEDIA VIEW

ALEXANDRA FREAN, social affairs correspondent, The Times

How would you describe charities in one word?

Positive. I'm constantly amazed by what good people they are and what great work they do, especially when many of my colleagues have to deal with some truly awful people.

Chuggers: an important initiative or an irritation?

I have reservations about chugging. I don't think they always locate themselves effectively. It's overkill - the sector hasn't really got it together.

Are charity chief executives paid too much or too little?

I think they should all be put on huge salaries if they're doing a huge job. The sector has undervalued itself and its employees for too long. It should be proud to pay the going rates to get good people.

DOMINIC CASCIANI, community affairs reporter, BBC News website

Do charities understand the media?

It's a mixed picture. The critical thing is to understand how the media works and pitch at the right time, in the right format, to the right journalist. There are a lot of people in this game and if you don't get the right one, your story could be lost forever. You have to understand that the media is complex and will interpret information in different ways to suit different audiences - a journalist on a national broadsheet will have a completely different angle from one working for a tabloid.

STEPHEN ARMSTRONG, freelance journalist for national press, including The Sunday Times and The Guardian

What has been your experience of charities?

I've had a lot of contact with NGOs in war zones. I also have some knowledge of charities through friends of mine, who have a deaf son. There's an enormous number of agendas within the voluntary sector, which means motives can be far from pure. When I was in Kosovo, a charity might announce it had spent £150,000, which had all gone on accommodation and new Jeeps, which they then drove around the burnt-out buildings when the Kosovans had nothing. There are one or two charities I bow to - Medecins Sans Frontieres is probably unimpeachable - but a lot have agendas that I think are quite dangerous.

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