Russell Hargrave: Charities are embracing the age of populism

The British Red Cross and Oxfam have both employed populist campaigning tactics recently, with varying degrees of success, writes our columnist

Russell Hargrave
Russell Hargrave

I am very good at annoying my colleagues. Most press people are.

We can be a pain to work with, fretting about hashtags and news cycles while everyone else gets on with real work.

My favourite annoying habit goes like this.

Whenever a major new project is discussed, with spreadsheets and contracts and strategic plans laid out for scrutiny, I wait for a lull in conversation and ask: "Who can describe this in seven words?"

Cue much rolling of eyes. Charity plans are complex. Brainbox policy staff and front-line experts don’t normally like seeing their hard graft reduced to a headline.

Except that the age of punchy populism is here. Trump and Farage, two masters of soundbites and simple promises, are now leading players on the world stage.

Recently, high-profile charities have tried the same approach, taking a more Trump-ish approach to their communications.

In the past two weeks the British Red Cross and Oxfam have both employed more populist campaigning tactics. The question is whether the risk has paid off.

Let’s take the BRC first.

Earlier this month, it told The Guardian that its volunteers were stepping in to help the NHS, which faced "a humanitarian crisis".

This wasn’t the first time it had assisted the NHS, nor worried aloud about the state of UK hospitals. But the BRC’s tone was much more populist this time. "Humanitarian crisis" was an incendiary phrase, generally applied to war zones, not struggling hospitals in Worcestershire.

The Guardian duly splashed that as its headline. Every major news outlet ran the story within hours. Like other populist phrases – think "take back control", or "crooked Hillary" – the words stuck.

There was a backlash against the BRC’s language, but by that time it was too late to dislodge the charity from the broadcast studios.

Its press briefing was pitched just right to set the news agenda for days and remind the public of its work helping out hospitals across the country.

Everyone else, including the Prime Minister, was left reacting to the original story – and in the end people were more persuaded by the BRC than by her.

In press terms, it was a triumph.

The Oxfam example is less clear cut.

Oxfam has campaigned for years on the iniquity of global tax avoidance. On the eve of the World Economic Forum, it rebooted the campaign with its own smart bit of populism.

As an example of gross inequality, the world’s super-rich can hoard money in tax-havens while the poor are left with nothing. Or, as Oxfam put it: "Just eight billionaires own the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people."

Here, too, the words stuck, especially on radio and TV. Sky and the BBC led with the headline.   

Except that the story wasn’t quite as simple or crisp as the BRC managed.

Oxfam’s eight billionaires included Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, two men who have donated massive chunks of their wealth to charities around the world. So a development charity used philanthropists dedicated to development to illustrate what was wrong with the world.

This doesn’t mean Oxfam’s core message was more or less legitimate, but it does make the messaging look slightly odd.

Maybe Oxfam won’t care. As one charity communications person has said: "I’m guessing Oxfam will take a few analysis pieces in The Spectator magazine in return for leading news bulletins all day."

But in the move towards populism, the BRC set the standard.

I predict that more charities will follow. Prepare for press folk buzzing around you in the near future, being more annoying than ever. 

Russell Hargrave is press manager at the independent trust Power to Change

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