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When a tweet spells retreat

By Simon Buckby 19 February 2016

Recently, it has felt like virtually every time I turn on Radio 4’s Today programme I wake up to news of a fresh earthquake under the feet of charities.

The impact of the Lobbying Act; levels of chief executive pay; alleged aggressive fundraising; Ministers floating the idea that charities in receipt of public funds should be banned from speaking out about policy issues; the list goes on.

And that’s without considering specific cases ranging from the fallout of Kids Company’s collapse to Age UK’s links with E.ON. Or the fact that many are suffering from continued cuts to budgets.

It is no wonder much of the sector feels under assault.

Almost any gathering of senior charity comms people quickly exposes that there is a lot of resentment in the sector. They feel they are being subject to unfair treatment from parts of the media and from some MPs.

Furthermore, with the rise of Corbynism—not just in the Labour Party but also in parts of the charity sector—it is currently the fashion to resort to protest rather than to engage constructively with a perceived opposition.

I worry that some charities are retreating from the hard work that has always been needed to win arguments in the media, or to make their case in the forums around Westminster and Whitehall. One not uncommon view expressed is: ‘They don’t understand us, they don’t seem to like us, so what’s the point of engaging with this government or the traditional media?

This approach is far from universal, and many charities are still doing excellent work, but for too many others there has appeared the mirage of a rival forum: Twitter.

Of course social media has an important part to play in getting the message across, especially to supporters. But this should not be at the expense of the traditional hard graft: of working out what you are trying to get from external affairs work, who your target audiences are, and what you’ve got to say to them, then deploying your messages in the print and broadcast media, as well as through public affairs.

These traditional outlets still have huge impact on public policy—why else would corporates spend a fortune on them? And why else would politicians from the Prime Minister down still take the trouble to appear in them?

My fear is that parts of the charity sector, feeling put upon and emboldened to protest, are running away from engaging in the old forums, de-skilling in the process, and retreating to the echo chamber that is Twitter. This is simply widening the gap in understanding and empathy between the sector on the one hand, and those who are feeding the Today programme on the other.

In this process, it is obvious which side is losing out.