Communications: How can you market a 'tricky' cause?

The admission by the Home Office that it doesn't know the whereabouts of hundreds of foreign prisoners who should have been deported led to a media backlash, not just against the department, but also against foreign nationals and refugees in general.

Given this social and political backdrop, it is all the more astounding that TimeBank's Time Together refugee mentoring scheme has been such a runaway success. In fact, it is so popular in London that there is a waiting list for volunteers, who provide anything from career advice to companionship - it was even announced last week that it is to be rolled out to five more locations.

So how do you market a traditionally unpopular cause? "It's hard, but we have found using case studies the most effective way to overcome stereotypes," says John Knights, project manager at Time Together.

"We give the media examples of refugees who have skills they really want to put to good use but can't because of language issues, or because they can't access the job market.

"We have been successful using case studies with the local media. We have found local media much more beneficial than national media, because you can use a more targeted approach and local case studies.

"A lot of negative stories about refugees focus on statistics, but behind those figures there are real people with real needs - that's what we try to bring out."

TimeBank is nonetheless careful not to overcompensate for the media's propensity for alarmist reporting by playing the sympathy card.

"We deliberately choose not to tug at the heart-strings by pitching stories that focus on what the refugees have been through in their home countries," explains Knights. "For many, it is very painful - they don't really want to talk about it.

"We also avoid using case studies only of doctors and lawyers or other professionals. We have a lot of students and many people from lower-income brackets. The point we want to make is that refugees have a lot of things to offer their communities."

Knights warns that charities that don't pitch to media outlets on the assumption they wouldn't be interested could be missing out on valuable coverage.

"In the past, the Daily Star has printed stories that were very anti-immigration," he says. "But when it contacted TimeBank for a story on volunteering, we gave them Time Together case studies and it produced a really good write-up on us.

"It made us realise that you really can target everyone. We are still waiting to get a story in the Daily Mail, but it would be great if we could."

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