NEWS IN FOCUS: The public relations game has winners and losers

PATRICK MCCURRY

Press officers are having to work harder to chase column inches. But a new survey has found that not all are getting it right.

For charities, managing media relations has become a crucial area that affects the success of fundraising and awareness campaigns. But according to a report published last month, press offices still have a lot to learn about dealing with journalists.

The survey of 102 journalists, carried out by think-tank nfpSynergy, did turn up some good news with 85 per cent of journalists stating that charities were an important source of stories.

Guide Dogs for the Blind came out as having the most effective media office and its Shades for a Day was the third most recalled campaign in the past six months.

But there were also complaints. More than half the respondents said the quality of press releases was poor, condemning them as "worthy but dull".

More than a third said that a press release was not the best way of getting coverage and they were more likely to run a story if they knew the media team behind it.

The RSPB, generally praised in the survey, takes a more proactive approach to media relations. Paul Lewis, head of public relations at the RSPB, says that charities should be moving away from cranking out endless press releases with limited impact and instead think about building relationships with particular writers.

"We did a great story with the RSPB about stolen birds' eggs," comments one of the journalists surveyed. "They approached us and helped with the leg work and generally conducted themselves in a manner which was professional and trustworthy."

Lewis says: "For us, the critical thing is to nurture good relationships with journalists so that we understand what they want."

He favours one-to-one contact with particular journalists and making regular contact with those writers, rather than contacting them every six months when a new campaign is being launched.

In some cases, the fault lies with senior people in the charity who want to make constant announcements about the organisation, despite the fact the press is unlikely to be interested.

Joe Saxton, manager at nfpSynergy, says: "I remember spending two hours with a charity chief executive discussing a press release about the appointment of two new directors, which I knew would only end up being a few lines (in a magazine)."

Tension between a charity's policy staff and the media team can also result in boring press announcements, says Tim Linehan, assistant director of campaigning at the Children's Society.

"When you get people who do not understand the media involved in the approval of press releases, there's a danger that they're full of jargon or presented in a dull way," says Linehan.

The media team is likely to want to present an announcement or piece of research in a lively way and perhaps highlight different areas to policy staff.

"You need a media team that is robust and can present an announcement in an exciting way without compromising the values of the charity," says Linehan.

Behind-the-scenes contact with newspaper and magazine columnists can also bring benefits.

"You can get columnists to drop in ideas without mentioning the charity, which can help increase awareness of particular issues you're campaigning on," he says.

The media skills of animal welfare charities were ranked highly by journalists questioned in the research. Although these organisations have the advantage that the emotive subject matter plays well in the press, highly responsive media teams were also singled out for praise.

The RSPCA press team was praised for understanding tight press deadlines.

"The press officers will give out mobile phone numbers for people we need to speak to," said one journalist. "They are not precious and that gives us half a chance to speak to someone before our deadline."

Ann Grain, head of press at the RSPCA, sees the media team's role as "an enabling department".

"Our job is to give journalists as much relevant information as possible, which may include occasional off-the-record briefings, and putting reporters in touch with experts," says Grain.

Of course, this level of activity is much easier for a big charity such as the RSPCA, which has a national press team and 10 regional teams. Smaller charities may find it harder. For instance, pushing local or regional angles on stories can be difficult for a charity with only two or three press officers and no regional media teams, says Linehan.

Resources are an issue for many voluntary-sector press offices but a lot can be achieved by closer working with other departments, argues David McDonough, deputy chairman of PR agency Bell Pottinger, which advises charities on communications.

He acknowledges that charities have had to become more sophisticated in public relations because growing competition has made it harder to maintain a media profile.

Press offices should be developing a more co-ordinated media strategy and talking to other teams, such as fundraising, about the kind of media coverage the charity wants.

Media teams need to take a step back and look at the long-term aims of their work. A restructuring of the RSPB national press office is leading to a more co-ordinated and long-term strategy, says Lewis.

"Our approach used to be a bit reactive and ad hoc but now we've got press teams to cover policy, corporate news, conservation and supporters," he says.

The restructuring follows a rethink by the charity on what its corporate strategy should be.

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