Opinion: When the hacks and the flacks collide ...

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

Despite all the developments in fundraising, governance and performance, perhaps it is not so surprising that the melange of PR and media relations practised by the voluntary sector has let itself fall behind - enabling the upcoming Charity Communications event to call itself "the first national conference to explore the nature of the relationship between charities and the media".

After all, beyond the space given to Christmas appeals or fundraising by individuals in the local press, the full depth of charity - from multi-million-pound service provision to policy development, and so much in between - often seems to get less media coverage than an underperforming football team.

But with help from the Media Trust, AskCharity, Third Sector and both NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland, Charity Communications looks set to have a good stab at exploring the murky depths of the interaction between the journalistic hacks and the charity PR flacks.

Having worked on both sides of this fraught fence, I have to report that most hacks know little about the third sector, and many in charity have an abiding fear of the media, which probably hinders their effectiveness in getting messages across.

Between sessions on celebrities, social change and new technology, the conference's big debate identifies a clash of culture at the heart of the media-charity problem, considers whether charities need to change to improve the coverage they get and asks: "Does the media really care about charities?"

Although the short answer is rather negative, let's hope the debate concludes, more positively, that charities can make a difference, in particular by investing more in communications if they want to convey accurate and compelling pictures of their work.

But I suspect charities might resist one media method I've long advocated - using the equivalent of embedded wartime reporters. Why not create writer-in-residence posts and allow those selected to describe the realities of charity honestly?

Reality is one problem, image another. Older readers might recall media cartoonists giving the trade unions the unfortunate image of an elderly carthorse. Let's hope the Charity Communications conference doesn't leave a similar legacy in trying to symbolise what it calls the symbiotic relationship between charity and media.

The photo on its brochure shows the mutually beneficial relationship between a small flock of tickbirds and a grumpy water buffalo.

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