While coverage can raise awareness and funds, editors are always prepared to run stories highly critical of those charities that stray too far from their editorial line. Annie Kelly reports on the press balancing act
Christmas came early for the Daily Mail this year when it learned that the British Red Cross was ditching all references to Christianity from its festive merchandise.
The resultant screaming headline "Red Cross Bans Jesus" lured readers into a story that accused the charity of banning nativity scenes from shops, and quoted religious minority group leaders as saying the charity's stance was "absurd political correctness."
It is not the first time that the British Red Cross has suffered a savaging at the hands of the Daily Mail. Last May the paper encouraged its readers to stop donating in protest over the charity's role assisting the delivery of aid to refugees in Sangatte.
The latest story is also reminiscent of a front-page splash the paper ran last December under the headline "Red Cross Bans Xmas" that accused the charity of destroying well-loved traditions to pander to 'minority faiths'.
To critics of the Daily Mail, these stories are just further examples of its unashamedly 'middle-England' editorial agenda. But for the Red Cross, they have far more serious implications. By definition, the charity has a responsibility to help those most in need, regardless of race or status. Similarly, it must show no affiliation to any religious, political or ethnic group or movement. By panning the British Red Cross' decision to drop christian imagery, the Daily Mail is effectively attacking its neutrality, the cornerstone of its existence and the means by which it is able to carry out vital humanitarian aid work around the world.
Leigh Daynes, the new head of press at the British Red Cross, says the latest story could seriously damage the charity's reputation and limit its capacity to carry out its work in the UK.
"We are enormously dispirited by the Daily Mail's coverage becauseit has the power to fundamentally damage the public's perception of us and their understanding of our emblem and what we stand for," he said.
The British Red Cross is not alone at the receiving end of damaging coverage.
On her appointment as director-general of the RSPCA, Jackie Ballard was the subject of a series of personal attacks in The Times, The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail on her inexperience at financial management and her stance on animal rights and politics. It put her press team in the position of having to defend a director-general who hadn't even started in the job.
Ballard now regrets her naivety, and says that the experience has taught her a lot about the press's attitude to high-profile charities.
"With hindsight, my anti-hunting profile at the time a hunting bill was going through Parliament was always going to get a negative spin from pro-hunting papers," she says.
"But the almost sole focus on me as a personality was not anticipated and came as a nasty surprise. The organisation was caught on the back foot. The press team were never to know that the decision to appoint me would motivate some of our former trustees to go straight to the press with their complaints.
"I find it irritating that most of the coverage alleged that I wasn't up to the job because I knew nothing about finance, and I doubt anyone would now be interested in writing about the fact that we've almost balanced our books this year."
As Oxfam's media manager Paul Mylrea said in his response to last week's 'Hot Issue' question on whether all publicity is good publicity, we suffer from tall-poppy syndrome in this country. Newspapers are quick to recognise the impact and readability of controversial charity stories. Members of the public form strong emotional bonds with some charities and expect them to be paragons of virtue, so it's easy to see why headlines such as "National Trust deceived public over funds" can generate a gratifying response from a newspaper's readers.
Playing down the impact
But Jon Barton, the National Trust's head of communications and a former BBC journalist, is keen to play down the impact of that particular headline, which appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on 16 November.
'The overall impact of one or two articles can be overestimated by charities," he said. "We have an incredibly loyal membership and the odd inaccurate report is not going to throw them off."
Although it's hard to assess how much real damage is done by negative publicity, it's the staff that are likely to be the most affected by a hammering in the national press.
"Staff are always far more sensitive than the public, particularly charity staff who work for low pay and throw themselves heart and soul into an organisation," explains Barton. "So it's really important to make sure you deal with the impact that bad coverage can have on internal morale."
But the National Trust is in the unique position of being able to reinforce its connection with the public on a daily basis, with more than 11 million people visiting its properties every year. How can a smaller organisation with fewer resources protect itself from bad publicity and the resulting fallout?
Developing an understanding
The Red Cross's Daynes says one way is to build up an understanding of consumers and why they buy the papers they do. Newspapers exist to provide their readers with the stories that will most appeal to their views and sensibilities, so an informed media strategy is more likely to identify what stance a paper will take on an issue and how best to counter it.
Mental health charities have managed to turn negative coverage around through an ongoing campaign to increase understanding of mental health issues among journalists and the public - best exemplified by The Sun's humiliating climb-down over its "Bonkers Bruno" headline, which prompted the tabloid to launch a fundraising campaign on behalf of Sane.
Refugee charities are also starting to reap the benefits of a similar approach, with the Press Complaints Commission recently publishing guidelines for editors over the appropriate language that should be used when reporting on asylum issues.
But press teams must be aware that plenty of editorial attitudes are deeply entrenched and that some newspapers and broadcasters will always leap on a 'political correctness gone mad' scoop, regularly offered by charities campaigning on controversial issues.
As well as investing in experienced press officers, Jackie Ballard believes that press teams should be integrated into charity policy every step of the way.
"I learned through my experiences that the press team can have invaluable input into practically every decision that a charity's management makes," she says. "Leaders often need to learn some humility and really listen and take advice from their press officers."