Public relations: 'Gay plague' no more

Twenty years ago, some newspapers led a frenzy of scaremongering over HIV and Aids. But used in the right way, says Genevieve Clark of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the media can be used to educate and change public attitudes.

In 1982, as Terrence Higgins lay dying in St Thomas' Hospital in London, one of the biggest and most frightening health stories in modern times was beginning to unfold. The story was Aids.

Out of nowhere, a new killer had arrived - one with no treatment, no cure and no vaccine. Seldom has a health issue provoked such feeling, such panic.

Four months later, what was then the Terry Higgins Trust was set up by a group of Terry's friends, determined to make what sense they could out of the confusing and patchy information available and support those affected by HIV. In those early days they were surrounded by headlines screaming "Gay plague", and they found their attempts to help seriously hampered by fear and loathing in parts of Fleet Street.

The press was no less powerful back then than it is now. Air rifles were fired at our office in Gray's Inn Road, red paint was thrown at the doors, windows were smashed and a TV crew dropped their equipment and ran when they realised they'd been sent to cover an HIV story. It was almost impossible to get a cab or a courier to go to the office, and BT refused to go in and mend damaged phone lines.

There was denial, too. One tabloid memorably wrote that HIV was a hoax, only to change its mind and, a few years later, declare the epidemic the greatest catastrophe to face humanity. In the early 1990s, a Sunday broadsheet asserted that Aids did not exist in Africa and that HIV didn't cause Aids. As little as two years ago, the health editor of a daily broadsheet told me: "The trouble is, this office doesn't believe there is an HIV epidemic in the UK."

It wasn't all negative, of course. In 1987, every UK TV channel and several radio stations collaborated on a week of programming - Aids Week - that was enormously powerful and did much to communicate accurate information, stimulate debate and further the understanding of this frightening new disease.

But that was then. In recent years, the trust has changed rapidly in keeping with changing needs. It is no longer only gay men who are affected by HIV - for example, there is a significant epidemic among African communities living in the UK. HIV is a pandemic, and it's having an impact here.

It's no longer only about HIV. Young people are bearing the brunt of the highest levels of sexual ill health since records began, yet we still find it hard to talk about. Before interviewing our chief executive recently, the presenter of a well-known lunchtime consumer affairs programme asked her producer if she was allowed to use the word "condom" on air.

But the media agenda has also changed. Thanks to some terrific reporting by many journalists, it has become easier to talk about HIV - though pockets of stigma and prejudice remain.

Until very recently, THT sent out all direct mail under plain cover, and didn't even put its name on cheques. For some, receiving a letter with our logo on or paying in a cheque that bore our name could prompt questions that, at best, might be awkward but could at worst have awful consequences.

When people can be thrown out of their homes, jobs or families as a result of their diagnosis becoming known, fundraising imperatives tend to take a back seat. In fact, just getting models for our campaigns can be difficult.

It could be much safer, then, to keep our heads down and try to avoid drawing the fire of the more hostile media. But I believe that's a mistake if we want to change anything or influence media agendas. I work with - and trust - the health editor of a less than sympathetic tabloid. By doing so, I know that I have a chance of getting balance into what might otherwise be a negative or one-sided piece. We both think it's worth it.

Working with the media can be a double-edged sword, but the last time a newspaper had a serious go at THT, donations increased - I think people felt sorry for us. It wasn't pleasant, but we don't have the luxury of a large advertising budget, so working closely with the media is the best way to reach the public, opinion-formers and decision-makers.

For the past four years, we've been lobbying to get HIV and sexual health back on the priority list for the Government and the health service. Without the media, it's unlikely that we would have seen the significant shift in Government policy - backed by a substantial amount of money - that was announced last November. Without the media, we wouldn't get safer sex messages out to teenage girls and it would be harder to influence local communities and persuade politicians.

With the media's continuing help, we will eventually chip away at the stigma surrounding HIV and sexual health, and banish the misconceptions that still abound. This issue is controversial and difficult. It encompasses sex and death, young people and immigrants, harsh truths and bold messages. In the UK, it's no wonder this heady mix can sometimes works miracles and, at others, do some incredible damage.

We participated in more than 100 media interviews last World Aids Day, and everyone wanted to know the same thing: what can we do about HIV and how can we get those messages out there?

The answer does not lie with the media alone - it's part of the much wider mix of communications and political will that is necessary to turn this epidemic around. But we won't succeed without it.


A sensitive issue can easily be ignored by the media or, worse still, misrepresented and blown out of proportion. Months or years of hard work can be overturned by a few negative pieces, and the effects on fundraising can be catastrophic. Whoever said "there's no such thing as bad publicity" had clearly never worked in the voluntary sector.

But it's not all bad news. There are a few tips that can help turn a tricky subject into very good news indeed.

Identify your 'hot spots'

Before you do anything else, sit down with colleagues and decide exactly what is difficult about your issue. Then work out how to tackle it.

Decide what your key messages are, then think about how to communicate your points and counter negative questioning. Do your research - make sure you have facts and figures at your fingertips that will help your argument.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone less sympathetic to your issue and someone who knows nothing about it at all. If your arguments are rational and easy to understand, you'll go a long way towards convincing them in an interview.

Wherever possible, don't wait until a journalist calls you about an issue before establishing your position - you might not have time to think it through.

Learn lessons

Each time you do an interview, evaluate your performance: what went well? What sounded good in theory but didn't work in practice? How can you improve your message and make it easier to understand?

Take a critical look at the performance of your spokespeople too - how is your organisation coming across in the media? Are fussy dressing or windmill arms distracting your audience? Emulate interviewees who get it right.

Be honest

If you cry wolf, you'll lose the trust of the media. It can be tempting to exaggerate to make your story more appealing, but scaremongering is never a good tactic. It might win you headlines in the short term, but in the medium or longer term you'll almost certainly lose out. Once you've lost the trust of journalists and the public, it can be a long slog to win it back.

Instead, look at other hooks that might make your story more newsworthy. Could you carry out some quick opinion research? For example: "We found that one in 10 men think chlamydia is a flower, and 25 per cent think it's a holiday resort in Turkey." I made up only the second one.

Tell stories

It's how you make your story come alive. Most of us don't understand jargon, and few of us remember statistics unaided. But we can all remember a story that touched us, amazed us or angered us - those are the ones we tell our friends. Back statistics up with stories and your interview will not only be good, it'll also be remembered.

Plan ahead

Proactive work puts you in charge of how and when you tackle sensitive subjects.

We all have key dates during the year - fundraising events, service launches or research publication. Many charities also have an awareness day, week or month. These can be useful for providing a positive focus for media attention, but to get the most from proactive opportunities, you must plan thoroughly. What are the key messages? Who is your target audience and how will you reach them? Is it national, local or international, or can you make it relevant to all three? Iron out well in advance any messages that might be misinterpreted.

Be opportunistic

If a story's out there, whether positive or negative, react to it. You'll get known by journalists writing in your area, and next time they might come to you directly.

Have a crisis plan

Make sure you know what to do if your organisation or issue is hit by negative reporting.

You can't mitigate every bad news story, so make sure everyone in your organisation knows the drill. Who's going to answer media calls? Who will be responsible for formulating your response? Who are your key spokespeople?

Stay on the front foot, make sure your messages are appropriate and refine them as necessary. Most importantly, be available, calm and professional.

Resist the temptation to go to ground and issue a "no comment". The public will begin to wonder what you've got to hide.

Build relationships with the media

Find out who is reporting on your issues, and what they're interested in.

You'll have a far better chance of getting favourable coverage if you've got to know the journalists writing in that area. Find out what they're interested in, send them useful stories and follow them up with phone calls. Don't think that a press release alone will guarantee you coverage.

Better still, try to brief a journalist on big or complicated issues in advance - then they won't be starting from scratch with a deadline looming when a story breaks.

Be available

Get a reputation for being responsive and journalists will call you again.

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