Expert View: Making the most of case studies in the press

"I'm currently looking for a selection of case studies: I'm obsessed with making my boyfriend fat or thin; I have a dark secret I want to reveal; I went from convict to business superstar; I fell in love with my stalker/abuser."

This is a genuine case study request that was sent out to hundreds of charities via the askCharity website we run. When we received it, we realised it was insensitive and immediately sent out an apology to the charities concerned. We also contacted the journalist who sent it and suggested that she might be mindful of the audience in future requests.

However, the chief executive of a domestic violence charity phoned me and angrily demanded to know how we, as a charity, could facilitate such a request. I pointed out that we didn't endorse the request and had contacted the journalist. But the chief insisted that we should vet all requests first and took her charity's details off our website.

So who lost out? The charity felt it was standing up for its clients, but even ethical journalists can no longer find details of that charity on our site, so are less likely to contact it.

Journalists will always seek case studies that charities disapprove of, but charities can choose to ignore them. Providing case studies is one of the easiest ways for smaller charities to get publicity for their cause.

There has been an explosion of magazines running real-life stories and the feature pages of newspapers are full of human-interest articles.

In fact, magazines are so desperate for good, exclusive stories that I've heard of one offering £5,000 for such an interview. The money on offer reflects the value placed on exclusive human-interest stories - stories to which most charities have great access.

Yet many charities get so tied up in knots by the ethics surrounding the provision of case studies that they don't provide them at all. Although there are issues to consider, charities that stick their necks out and offer case studies - without too many pre-conditions - benefit enormously.

There will always be risks in dealing with the media. Every interviewee must be told about those risks and urged to answer only those questions they feel happy answering. But where adult interviewees are concerned, more charities should put their clients forward to speak for themselves.

Journalists love charities that try to work to their agendas. When Lindsay Nicholson, editorial director of National Magazines, was asked which charities were most media savvy, she cited Shelter and Breast Cancer Care, not for their campaigns, but for their ability to meet her writers' needs for case studies. Penelope Gibbs is director of the Voluntary Action Media Unit

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