Peter Gilheany: How to send the right message in a time of hardening public attitudes

Even if your charity's cause sits at odds with the prevailing consensus, you can still engage the public by following these six steps writes our columnist

Peter Gilheany says charities should consider compromising their message to appeal to a wider audience
Peter Gilheany says charities should consider compromising their message to appeal to a wider audience

With Ukip surging in local and European elections, it feels as if we might be living in a time of significant shift in our social views, with a hardening of attitudes towards certain groups such as immigrants and people on welfare - a decisive swing to the right in the majority view.

Charitable causes go through cycles in terms of fashions but, equally, how do you tackle the challenge of communicating a cause that sits at odds with the prevailing consensus? Here are some suggestions:

Check your distance As ever, you need to start with the audience. If the consensus is at odds with the cause you are promoting, then it is likely that the distance between the middle ground where most people are and your organisation will be considerable. However, between you and them will be a whole host of audiences who are closer to you attitudinally. We'll look at how you engage the middle ground, but your first priority must be to engage those who share values and beliefs with you.

Differentiate your message For each of the audiences that you have identified as a priority, do a simple Venn diagram of your messages and the potential touch points with them. Consider how you can adapt your messages to move more of them into the common ground; look at the elements for each audience that sit outside that zone and look for any opportunities to bring that issue, belief or cause into your messages.

Create empathy and sympathy Whatever your cause, there are likely to be touch points with audiences in the middle ground, either through sympathy for the plight of others, human or otherwise, or through the empathy of common experience. Having a strong emotional narrative that ticks boxes in these areas, supported by a human face or case study, will help to make your cause more engaging for public audiences.

Compromise your message A key problem many organisations face is that they find themselves preaching to the converted, frustrated at their attempts to reach beyond the usual suspects. If you want to go outside your obvious audience pool, then you might need to compromise your message. Rabid meat-eaters are highly unlikely to be attracted to campaigns to go meat-free, but they might be interested in meat-as-a-treat campaigns. Think about how you might move towards the audiences you want to engage attitudinally, while considering how such compromises will go down with your core audiences. There is no point in going after the middle ground if you alienate those closest to you.

Look for endorsement If your cause isn't appealing to mainstream audiences, you can communicate it through the voice of someone who does appeal. A celebrity or VIP with a connection or interest in your cause is a great way to take your cause or campaign to audiences who are normally beyond your reach.

Focus on stakeholders Institutional, political and policy audiences often have a more nuanced relationship with causes. Although it is always appealing to reach out to public audiences, you might be better off focusing your efforts on B2B communications, involving stakeholders and influencers.

Peter Gilheany is director of the social change PR agency Forster and a trustee of CharityComms

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