Communications: Press - Why media experience matters

"Most charities wouldn't know a good story if it tripped them up," one journalist told me. These words echo the constant refrain that charities do not understand the realities of media life - how the agenda is set, the importance of deadlines or how stories are developed.

I felt the same when I worked as a producer on Radio 4's Woman's Hour.

But when I jumped ship to join the Voluntary Action Media Unit, I began to understand why there is so often a clash of cultures.

One problem is that most of those who are trying to engage the media have no experience of it. It's more difficult to get inside the mind of the media if you've never worked there.

So together with the Media Trust we decided to set up a scheme to get charities inside media organisations for one or two weeks. We were inundated with applications from charity press officers, but getting media organisations to open their doors was another matter.

Some places, such as the publisher Emap and ITV regional news, agreed to take part immediately. But many organisations turned us down.

Has it worked? In some cases brilliantly, in others disastrously. One charity attache walked out after one day. She felt she was treated like a work experience person, not someone with years of experience as a press officer.

But most attachments have worked, from both points of view. David Bostock, head of training and recruitment at Emap, says that magazines such as Heat and Bliss can seem light and frothy, but their writers are genuinely interested in the social issues charities champion.

Emma Guise, senior media officer at Shelter, inspired Bliss to run a story about a teenager who was homeless at Christmas during her placement.

Beccy Boden-Wilks, press officer at the Money Advice Trust, spent a week at the Financial Times. Before she started, her charity had no contacts at the newspaper and never got coverage there. Now she understands how to pitch and how to write in their style - she had three articles published.

Robert Budden, personal finance editor of the FT, appreciated an addition to his workforce, particularly one who "comes in with a new perspective and makes you question how you look at stories". He's also glad Beccy understands the pressures they are under. "She will never again assume that journalists don't do any work," he says.

I think this attachment had the key ingredient - trust. Rob trusted Beccy to do real work, so they both gained from the relationship and the media organisation did not feel it was doing us a favour. Penelope Gibbs is director of the Voluntary Action Media Unit

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