Editorial: Transparency is vital to the charity brand

Stephen Cook, editor

Some of the most interesting and challenging work in the charity world is being done out of the limelight by a small steering group tasked with promoting the sector to the public and co-ordinating responses to negative publicity. The plan is to persuade charities to contribute up to £3,000 towards employing one or two people who would be based in the offices of one of the umbrella groups and spend their time defending and representing what is at the moment a rather nebulous concept - the charity 'brand'.

It's a great idea, and it involves opportunities and pitfalls. The main pitfall would be to focus too much on the press and media and try to create a 'rapid rebuttal unit' of the kind run by New Labour in recent elections.

There's a tendency in the sector to think that everything in the garden is lovely, and the only real task is to re-educate the press to say so.

But there are some weeds in the garden, and it's the job of a free press to go its own way, even if it gets things round its neck sometimes. Trying to control the media is like trying to control the weather.

The best strategy for charities in dealing with the press is to be open and frank, to resign themselves to the fact that things will go wrong from time to time, to insist on the correction of factual inaccuracies, to demand the right of reply to contentious stories, and to use the Press Complaints Commission and the courts if things can't be easily resolved.

It's also worth remembering that the press can be a useful barometer of public opinion and criticisms shouldn't automatically be dismissed as malicious or ignorant.

The great opportunity, however, is to go over the heads of the media to some extent and try to reach the public directly. There is huge public goodwill towards charities and the sector, but it is tinged with concern on subjects such as duplication of effort, fundraising costs and the potential for fraud.

One challenge is to create and give a visual identity to a charity brand which the whole sector, despite its differences and competitiveness, would feel able to back. Another is to devise a series of clear and simple messages which would fit on a Tube poster and tackle those difficult subjects.

The early indications are that the unit is making some progress on this front, with lines about regulation and the need to spend money to raise money. As their work continues, maybe they'll also come up with suggestions about how charities can make themselves less vulnerable to legitimate criticism.

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