Stephen Cook: Maybe charities are being too defensive with the media

Understanding the art of the possible could be key to getting better coverage of the sector in the press, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

There have always been two strands in the periodic efforts, currently being made by the Understanding Charities Group run by Charity Comms, to secure better treatment for charities in the media.

The first is essentially defensive and coercive in outlook. It is focused on making the press and broadcasters behave better towards charities and demanding restitution for any offence. Under this approach, transparency is interpreted as impressing remorselessly on the media what good things charities do.

The second strand focuses more on recognising the media for what it is, trying to work with the grain to improve matters and accepting that you won’t always get the results you want. With this approach, there is more recognition that transparency includes being open about the shortcomings as well as the successes of the sector, and that not everything charities do is good by definition.

Of the two strands, the second is more likely to produce results for the Understanding Charities Group and the sector in general. The first is based on trying to control the media, which is like trying to control the weather. The whole point about the media in a free society is that, within certain highly contested legal and regulatory restrictions, it cannot and should not be controlled.

The second strand is more likely to be productive because it concentrates on the art of the possible, coming to terms with the habits and requirements of the media and seeking to turn them to advantage. Rather than telling the leopard to change its spots, it seeks to provide it with its favourite breakfast (while perhaps persuading it to adopt a healthier diet).

It’s not entirely clear which strand is stronger in the current discussions in the Understanding Charities Group. The fact that the media were not invited to the recent meeting – mildly ironic for an outfit whose objectives include transparency – suggests the defensive-coercive voice might be the stronger of the two. But signs are emerging that the proponents of the art of the possible are gaining some ground.

One idea being developed is to start a dialogue with media decision-makers about how they habitually perceive and cover charities. Do they go straight into the worthy-but-dull ghetto? Is the word "charity" a problem, as it is in many other ways? Are charities best covered under the headings of their cause areas?

But the abiding problem is who should speak for charities in a general way, and who should provide the resources for that. The umbrella groups are there, but tend to stick quite closely to their own concerns. Should their remit be expanded? If so, who pays? Charities compete, so there can be a reluctance to provide for anything but their individual interests. There seem to be more questions than answers at the moment, and the only sure ground seems to be that this laudable enterprise still has a long way to go.

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