Media scrutiny of charities is going to continue – and what to do about it

2015 marked a sea change in the media’s coverage of charities. Over are the days when charities could feel confident that the occasional story about chief executive pay during the slow news summer cycle could be weathered and quickly forgotten by the public.

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2015 marked a sea change in the media’s coverage of charities. Over are the days when charities could feel confident that the occasional story about chief executive pay during the slow news summer cycle could be weathered and quickly forgotten by the public. Stories critical of charities reached an unprecedented level last summer and almost every week since then has brought new negative media coverage. In this blog we look at the ‘new normal’ of charity media coverage, and suggest three things that all charity media and communications teams must do in 2016.

 

The New Normal

Our Journalist’s Attitudes and Awareness Monitor (JAAM) is a bi-annual survey of 150 key journalists covering the Third Sector. We asked them about increasing media scrutiny of charities in autumn 2015. The results indicate that media scrutiny of charities is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

  • 65% of journalists in our survey believe the media needs to do more to scrutinise charities
  • 70% agree there will be more critical media coverage of charities in the future
  • 52% agree that tighter regulation of charity fundraising is required, even if it means that charities raise less money

However, it’s not all bad news. Journalists believe they have an obligation to the public to continue to hold charities to account. But they also continue to recognise the important work of charities and want to continue working with charity media teams to highlight that good work.

  • Less than one in four (22%) agreed that they found it harder to trust charities as a results of recent media stories
  • Only 8% said they would be less likely to cover a charity campaign as a result of recent media stories
  • Only 4% said they would be less likely to cover story about a charity beneficiary as a results of recent media stories

So, what can charity media and communications teams do to continue to work effectively with journalists in 2016? I’ve got three things all charity media teams must do to not just survive, but thrive, in 2016.

 

  1. Give your staff confidence by creating and sharing a key message briefing

‘Unfortunately, many charities could be affected by the bad practices of the few, and not all have done a good enough job of making their operations appear transparent and trustworthy.’  - Producer, TV News, JAAM Oct/Nov 15

Every member of staff with an external facing role in your organisation should have a key message briefing of answers to common questions (a ‘crib’ sheet of sorts), such as how much your chief executive is paid and what percentage of voluntary income is spent on the cause. This will help them demonstrate your organisation’s transparency. Your staff should be prepared to answer questions about fundraising, admin costs and executive pay from MPs and journalists, just as your PR team would answer questions like this from supporters, because- 

 

  1. Journalists are not just professional contacts, they are also supporters, treat them accordingly

‘Some [charities] have been too defensive. They have allowed practices to develop which are extremely off putting. I have had phone calls which have made me cancel standing orders - horrible to think that is happening to elderly/vulnerable.’ - Freelance Legal Journalist,  JAAM Oct/Nov 15

‘No. My mother- in- law is another victim of over- zealous targeting of the generous elderly. I don’t think heads of charities should expect salaries comparable with the private sector.’  - TV News Correspondent,  JAAM Oct/Nov 15

Journalists covering the Third Sector see themselves as providing a vital spotlight to show case your work and raise awareness about your cause. In this role, they see themselves as gatekeepers to the general public’s attention and ultimately donations. They take this relationship very seriously- you need to give them confidence in your organisation’s integrity before you can expect them to provide you with a platform. 

This means not just being ready to answer questions, but pro-actively speaking to your media contacts about these issues. Whether your organisation has a long-standing fundraising code of conduct to be proud of, or you’ve recently made positive changes, show journalists that you take these issues seriously, and are happy to have open and frank conversations about them. 

 

  1. Break down  internal silos

 ‘They need to think about getting a proper handle on their direct marketing practices… They have to be more responsible, particularly when they are using emotional sales tactics, even if it is for a good cause. They should have a higher moral code of practice.’ - Editor, International Periodical, JAAM Oct/Nov 15

Lastly (but by no means least), if there is one thing we should have all learned from the negative media coverage in 2015 it’s that siloed working can lead to nasty surprises. I had several media and communications professionals confess to me privately that they had had no idea about some of the fundraising practices of their organisations- they felt blind-sided when the stories broke. With increased scrutiny, communications teams have a vital role to play, as internal communications are more important than ever.

Now is the time to share best practice where it exists in your organisation, and to challenge methods that may not be living up to the ethical standards that all charities should embody in all their practices. As the media experts in your organisation, you can raise concerns in a non-judgmental way- rather than commenting on your opinion of the ethics of certain practices (not your job), you can simply explain that such practices could open up your organisation to criticism.

In this way, you start important conversations, without seeming to be sitting in judgement of your colleagues. You can explain that you can’t be afraid to raise concerns internally on issues in your organisation, because if you don’t today, the Daily Mail might tomorrow.

 

2016, a year for positive change

2015 was a tough year for a lot of charities’ media teams. In 2016, it’s time to move beyond the ‘bunker’ mentality and accept that media scrutiny is a way of life for charities now. By meeting the challenges presented head on, the sector can use them as opportunities for growth.

If increased scrutiny forces charities to be more transparent and break down internal siloes, charities will come out the other side of 2016 more effective, and more certain that all areas of their work  lives up to the high ethical standards we all expect from the third sector. 

Karen Barker
 
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