NPC is big on encouraging charities to talk about the stuff they get wrong. In that spirit, here’s my own admission of failure, and a bit of advice to accompany it: don’t idly ring the Financial Times on budget day, chasing up an old query about venture philanthropy. I think venture philanthropy is interesting; maybe someone at the FT news desk does too. But three hours before the budget they really, really don’t care. And they will tell you so in pretty blunt terms.
With this embarrassment fresh in mind, it’s a good time for a bit of a refresher on what journalists do want from charities, what they definitely do not, and why knowing this is important for the sector as a whole.
This was the topic of discussion at last night’s launch of new book Effective media relations for charities, which featured a panel of press experts: the book’s author Becky Slack, a former journo, editor and charity fundraiser, talking alongside Hannah Fearn (Independent), Keir Mudie (Mirror and Sunday People) and Ashitha Nagesh (Metro), all chaired by Vicky Browning from Charity Comms.
The book itself looks terrific, full of user-friendly tips and case studies on pitching and getting your tone right. As soon as I’ve read it, I’ll share it around as many of my colleagues as I can.
But more striking yesterday was the panel’s thoughts on how charities had responded to the recent media storm which has engulfed them. Did the voluntary sector find a way to deal effectively with the sudden pressure it found itself under, from the Olive Cooke tragedy to the extra scrutiny resulting from Kids Company?
The panel’s answer broadly split into three.
Firstly, charities had had it tough: ‘the sector got a kicking exactly where you’d expect it to get a kicking,’ as Mudie put it.
Secondly, there had been incidents where the sector had done well. Nagesh talked warmly about the speed and accessibility of NCVO’s response when unfair charges were laid at the sector’s door, which she was able to write-up swiftly for her readers.
Thirdly, despite this, the sense overall was that charities had performed poorly. The sector had resorted to statements which were ‘impenetrable and jargony’, and lacked a ‘clear joint message’. (Leafing through the new book, charities are rightly warned that jargon and mixed messages will just baffle reporters).
One thing stuck out even more. The whole panel nodded along when Nagesh mentioned that it had been hard to track down charities for quotes as the stories broke. The consensus was that charities ‘seemed to have gone into hiding’ to avoid more bad news.
As my colleague Sue wrote in a different context earlier this week, charities can benefit from a bit of boldness. But last night’s panel argued that there were far too few arresting, attention-grabbing charity stories being pitched to them, just when the future of the sector was at the top of every news agenda. Even worse, charity chief execs and press offices seemed to have gone to ground.
The most recent polling shows that public trust in charities fell sharply in the aftermath of stories about Olive Cooke’s death, and has yet to recover to previous levels. Even before these scandals, trust looked pretty precarious.
Good press has a role in helping the sector recover—transparency about what the sector is achieving and how, evidence to help convince a more sceptical audience, a neat news-line to get a journalist interested—but the panel last night wasn’t convinced that charities have quite got the message.