Peter Gilheany: Planning a partnership? Then you must handle the message with care

Good partnerships are mutually beneficial and can amplify the reach of communications, writes our columnist

Peter Gilheany
Peter Gilheany

The downturn is showing no signs of going away. As purse strings continue to tighten, it is no surprise that more and more charities are considering and creating partnerships with other charities, as well as with businesses and public sector bodies. You can't move for partner or coalition campaigns, from Unicef's IF campaign on international development to the privately funded Give More initiative on charitable giving. Good partnerships are mutually beneficial and can amplify and diversify the reach and impact of communications. But they can and do go wrong. Here are five simple tips on how to make the most of them and avoid the potential pitfalls.

1 Do your homework When you enter into a partnership, you will cede sometimes hard-won control over your brand and reputation, so be methodical in your approach - shortlist potential partners, research their reputation and communications output, identify benefits and possible risks and provide a rounded assessment of them from a communications perspective that can inform whoever is responsible for finding the right partner.

2 Seek a relationship of equals You might be grateful when a partner comes on board and brings with them clout, reach and prestige, but that shouldn't be reflected in how you are positioned in any partner communications. Draw up your positioning wish-list including an agreed set of messages describing the partnership - plus a sign-off protocol for all partner communications that gives you equal say where possible.

3 Sort out a pre-nup The devil is often in the detail when it comes to partnerships. So it is worth the pain of thinking through all the various partnership communications scenarios and developing a position, plan and response for each. Then seek the feedback and agreement of the partner on all of that, before you communicate a single word to external (or even internal) audiences. This includes the territory where the partnership can have a shared voice and the areas of work or approach taken by each of the partners that is firmly outside of that. You do not want to stray into comment on any element of your partner's activity that is not in that shared space.

4 Have an open-ended planning and brainstorm session with your partner One of the great opportunities of partnerships is to do things you couldn't achieve on your own. The best way to explore those opportunities is together. Partnerships in which the planning and development of communications are twin-track and mutually exclusive are rarely effective. Partnership should start with you all in a room developing ideas that can then be refined into effective joint communications.

5 Don't bitch in public A universal truth of all partnerships is that at some point one or both of the partners will be annoyed by the approach or actions of the other. Those moans and sarcastic asides have an unerring habit of emerging into the public sphere. You must develop a strong rationale for the partnership and a clear set of shared key messages that all relevant people in the organisations understand and, preferably, agree with. If the rationale does not stand up to scrutiny, you should question the validity of the partnership and look at how to develop it further.

Peter Gilheany director of the social change PR agency Forster

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