When Gina Miller, founder of the True and Fair Foundation, released a report last December claiming that one in five charities spent less than half of their income on charitable activities, The Daily Telegraph gave the story great prominence. Although various charities and sector bodies strongly disputed the report's findings, the newspaper still went ahead and published the story on its front page.
However, when Miller released a second, similar report several months later, the sector was better prepared. Rather than simply offering up comment to the Telegraph, a draft copy of the report was shared with the specialist charity press the day before the national paper printed its story. The specialist press published the story, emphasising the sector's criticism of the report. The following day, having lost its exclusive, the Telegraph printed its own version of the story. It appeared on page 17.
Andrew O'Brien, head of policy and engagement at the Charity Finance Group, says: "It could have been a front-page story. That more robust and direct response was really beneficial for the sector and showed that if we get our act together and get relevant bodies working together quickly, we can make a really positive impact."
Miller's report was just one of several battles charities have won in their war with the media in the past year. In February, the Telegraph made substantial changes to its article about Miller's charitable spending report after receiving a complaint from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. And in May, Help for Heroes secured an apology from The Mail on Sunday after it printed allegations about the charity that turned out to be false.
Coordination has been very helpful in giving a consistent response to the mediaAsheem Singh, interim chief executive, Acevo
This recent success in defending the sector can be attributed partly to the work of sector umbrella bodies since last summer, when the Daily Mail ran three critical front pages about charity fundraising practices in one week.
In October, the charity leaders body Acevo and the NCVO launched a joint initiative to secure better treatment for charities in the media. Under the scheme, the press and executive teams of the two bodies work more closely together when they are aware that someone in the media is planning to run a charity-related story.
Asheem Singh, the interim chief executive of Acevo, says: "A bit of coordination has been very helpful in giving the media a genuinely consistent response on some of the bigger issues of the day." Singh says he believes this was crucial for delivering a more positive outcome when Miller published her second report. He also cites the numerous conversations the bodies had with journalists to provide more balance.
O'Brien says that larger charities have also been working in a more coordinated way internally. Where press teams might previously have had little contact with colleagues in other departments, such as finance, now they are communicating more often and making sure they can obtain the information they need to answer media queries in case of a crisis, he says.
Some charities have tried out other approaches, such as using channels other than the media to tell their side of the story. Rather than relying on newspapers to give them a "right of reply" to critical coverage, for example, Help for Heroes and the animal welfare charity the RSPCA - both the subject of negative front-page stories over the past year - wrote directly to their supporters to give their rebuttals.
What you need is a trustworthy person who performs well in the media and uses normal, plain languageIan Dunt, editor, politics.co.uk
There have been several other initiatives to strengthen the ability of charities to defend themselves and create a more upbeat narrative. For example, the NCVO created Constructive Voices to encourage the media to run more positive stories about charities (see "Slow progress for NCVO initiative", opposite page). With the help of the CFG, the umbrella body created a series of factsheets for journalists to help them report on charities and, with CharityComms, the membership body for charity communications professionals, it has produced a toolkit to help charities talk consistently about the sector. CharityComms has also set up an "early warning system" - a closed LinkedIn group for charity heads of media - so charities can tell each other when they get questioned by the press.
But there is a risk that these initiatives will make the sector's already fragile relationship with the media worse. The head of media at a major charity that has recently been in the public eye says that charities should use the early warning system only in exceptional circumstances because, if journalists feel the sector is trying to block their access to information, they might become less willing to listen to the facts. It could also lead to a practice he calls "bomb blasting", in which several journalists phone up charities at the same moment to see if they can find a point of difference.
Ian Dunt, editor of the website politics.co.uk, says he is worried about charities sacrificing their authenticity by relying on a toolkit formulated by the sector bodies. "That is exactly what they shouldn't be doing," he says. "They'll end up talking even more in this managerial, corporate, robotic, passive-tense speak, which the public picks up on instantly. What you need is a trustworthy person who performs well in the media and speaks using normal, plain language to talk to journalists or go on TV and put a decent spin on things."
Not much has changed in terms of charities being bolder and more transparentBecky Slack, managing director, Slack Communications
Acevo and the NCVO have done this on several occasions in the past year. However, according to Peter Gilheany, head of PR at Forster Communications, more work must be done to secure press coverage about the sector that isn't purely reactive. "Charities are getting better at rebutting and reacting to critical stories, but I still don't think there's enough front-foot communication about the effectiveness of the sector and the reality of the sector - what it does, how big it is," he says. "It's also not very good yet at admitting failures - the things that the sector doesn't do well."
One charity head of press, who does not wish to be named, says charities are placing too much faith in the ability of sector bodies to defend them - to the detriment of their own reputations. "Comms teams need to tell their directors that they can't rely on the NCVO to make sure they are seen how they want to be seen," he says.
No better placed
While progress has been made in some quarters, predominately among the larger charities, the consensus among those interviewed for this feature is that most charities are no better placed to deal with media scrutiny than they were a year ago. Becky Slack, author of the book Effective Media Relations for Charities and managing director of Slack Communications, says her company recently approached several large charities to contribute to features for sector publications on issues such as finance and fundraising, but they declined.
"Not much has changed in terms of charities being bolder and more transparent with their communications - so far as I can tell, at least," she says. "Big-name organisations have been very twitchy. Most have declined to speak with us, and those that have have been very guarded."
Acevo's Singh admits this has to improve. "I don't think we're in a significantly better position now than we were nine to 12 months ago," he says. "There's a general malaise about the sector in terms of its relationship with the media. We need to do more."