When Whizz-Kidz designed a new poster to encourage City workers to take part in the Paris Marathon earlier this year, the charity wanted a second opinion. So it showed the poster, which featured a young woman looking seductively over her shoulder, to its followers on social networking websites Twitter, Flickr and Facebook.
The results, according to Rob Dyson, the charity's PR manager, were enlightening. "Potentially sexist, and can't see how fits with Whizz-Kidz," commented one user. "I think Freud would have a field day with the poster," said another. "And the Fundraising Standards Board logo appears to be approving the good lady's posterior."
Dyson says the Whizz-Kidz events team took on board some of the "constructive" feedback, but went ahead with the poster. It was designed by an all-female team and meant to be ironic, he says, and the comments came from charity PR and marketing professionals rather than the campaign's target audience. However, the episode has provided some important lessons for future campaigns, he says.
"I really value the feedback, which is generally supportive and sometimes insightful," he says. "It makes sense, if you are a small charity with fewer resources for advertising, to use all the free channels available to promote your work."
Dyson first started to see the benefits of social networking when he set up a group on Facebook for charity press officers and soon realised the technology could be used to benefit his charity. "It occurred to me that Whizz-Kidz really had to be in the spaces where our supporters already were," he says.
Social networking is particularly useful for smaller charities, he says: "In terms of more traditional media, it remains a challenge to make an impression on a national scale for a smaller, rather niche organisation."
Despite the potential of social networking, Dyson says, there are dangers. "The audiences are very diverse and immediate with social media, so it's important to be thoughtful and targeted with replies," he says. "It's invaluable to engage people straightaway and build relationships."
Establishing a dialogue quickly is crucial to improving a charity's profile, he says. That means responding to 'tweets' and other messages that would previously have been directed to specific people within the organisation.
As a result, Dyson says, he always needs to be thinking about the bigger picture: "The key is not just to broadcast, but to engage."
2008: PR manager, Whizz-Kidz
2007: Created the Third Sector PR and Communications Network on Facebook
2002: PR officer, Scope
2000: Bookstart scheme liaison officer and conference coordinator, Booktrust