Interview: Nick Barnard - 'We're not roof-climbing superheroes'

The director of communications at Families Need Fathers on the challenges of setting his charity apart from Fathers4Justice

Nick Barnard
Nick Barnard

Most charities work in a crowded marketplace and find distinguishing their own voice from others with similar causes to be a big communications challenge.

Nick Barnard, the organisation's director of communications, knows better than most how difficult this can be: mention the name of his charity to the public and they think of men dressed as superheroes throwing purple powder at politicians.

"Of course people get confused between us and the campaign group Fathers4Justice," says Barnard, who came to the post after graduating with a degree in English from University College London, where he was also editor of the student magazine Pi. "Its protests have shone a spotlight on many of the issues we deal with.

"We agree with the Fathers4Justice message, but not with the way it communicates. Putting one man on a roof alienates people who can't sympathise with law-breakers. The Fathers4Justice protesters did not represent the thousands of men and women we help.

The need to set it apart is reflected in Families Need Father's communications strategy. "To combat the association with protests, we work in a reactive way," Barnard says. "When the press approach us for comments, we make a sensible, level-headed response. We have to make people realise the dads we represent aren't all roof-climbers and bridge-occupiers."

But wouldn't a proactive approach be a more effective way of making their point?

"It's certainly hard to grab headlines by being reactive, but to start making waves would set us back," Barnard says. "Our core issue is a complicated one: we campaign for the presumption of shared parenting. We couldn't convey the complexity of the message with a headline or a stunt."

Families Need Fathers celebrates its 35th birthday this year and is at a crossroads with its communications. The charity recently ran its first direct mail campaign: it sent two separate leaflets, one with a soft, heart-rending message, the other with a more hard-hitting one. "We will see how much support each leaflet brings in, and it will help us to learn what works," says Barnard.

The charity is also considering how far its name communicates its message. "We work with a significant number of mothers," says Barnard. "We help non-resident parents. When we were established in the 1970s, this almost always meant fathers, but nowadays it's increasingly likely to be mothers.

"We hope our slogan - 'Keeping parents and children together' - conveys this, but over the next few years we will have to think about how we communicate with women. There's certainly a case for changing our name."

2008: Director of communications, Families Need Fathers
2004: Reads English at University College London. Editor of student
magazine Pi

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