Dean Russell: Big society can work if organisations are collaborative and communicate

Charities need to reassess communications plans in order to be effective, says the director of digital at Fleishman-Hillard

Dean Russell
Dean Russell

I recently chaired a panel for the Media Trust on how charities should engage with local politicians.

In an era where 'email your MP' lobbying websites are commonplace and localism has become a buzzword of modern government, it is no surprise that organisations are struggling to know how and where they should focus their attention.

In relation to communications for lobbying and campaigning, this is a serious concern. Should charities focus their efforts locally or nationally? Should they do this by using traditional letters or increasingly popular social networking sites?

When it comes to contacting politicians, the panel still considered email a clear winner. Social media was mentioned many times. In fact, panellists spoke of the power of sites such as Facebook and blogs in building rapport with politicians online and gaining greater understanding of issues.

Interestingly, crowdsourcing tools, such as 'email your MP' websites, came under fire. Because there are so many, they were considered too repetitive and therefore to have less impact.

The panel also considered who to contact. The natural assumption might be that the localism agenda is shifting focus from Westminster to local councils, but it isn't that simple.

Localism isn't just about creating local fiefdoms; it should be creating more community-based decision-making processes that are inclusive of a range of groups, including charities. This means charities will need to focus more on collaborating with local government and community groups to develop packages of services to replace those traditionally delivered by government.

The big society is obviously a great opportunity for the sector, but requires collaboration across multiple parties. This shift in approach towards collaborative service delivery will also require organisations to be able to clearly communicate what they offer in terms of economic value, sustainability and results, while still reaching out to the public for fundraising and campaigning.

The big society should be viewed as a huge opportunity for the third sector, and one that shouldn't be missed.

This will mean taking time now to reassess communications plans so that they encompass everything from lobbying to defining a unique service offer, and how this integrates with existing government activities.

By doing this, charities might be able to do more than be part of the process; they might also be able to define it.

- Dean Russell is director of Digital Fleishman-Hillard and a Conservative district councillor


The Media Trust works with media organisations and charities to help charities improve their communications strategies.

The panel for the debate included: Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton; Steve Winyard, the head of policy and campaigns at the RNIB; Robin Millar, the programmes director at the Centre for Social Justice; and Emily Robinson, the head of public affairs and campaigns at the Local Government Association.

Crowdsourcing means using work done by a crowd of people, usually the general public. It has become popular among campaigners in the digital age because they can get people to send standardised letters to MPs.

The government announced a decentralisation and localism bill in the Queen's Speech. It will devolve powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities control over housing and planning decisions.

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