The lull between the storms: why there are tough times ahead for charities in the media

It seems that charities have been pushed out of the headlines recently by a year of long-running political dramas. But how long will this last?
Jonny Harper
 

After a tough couple of years, it looks like charities have bounced back from the scandals of 2015. Open a newspaper, and you’re more likely to see features about research breakthroughs and fundraising events than scandals about the likes of Olive Cooke and Kids Company. Trust in charities among the public has recovered too, reaching 57% after plumbing the depths of 47% a year and a half ago.

It seems that charities have been pushed out of the headlines recently by a year of long-running political dramas. Critical stories about the charity sector tend to pop up during summer when not much else is going on, but there was never much chance of a ‘silly season’ in 2016 following last June’s Brexit vote. And since the autumn, Trump has kept us all engrossed and horrified in equal measure, with Theresa May’s ill-fated snap election filling in the gaps on quiet weeks.

After speaking to journalists, however, I’m starting to think that 2017 could test the peace that charities have enjoyed in the media lately.

nfpSynergy’s biannual Journalists’ Attitudes and Awareness Monitor (JAAM) recently found that 71% of journalists think the level of critical stories about charities will increase or stay the same over the coming year, and 65% would cover a charity scandal or controversy.

But why is this? Here are three reasons why I think charities could be vulnerable in the media over the next 12 months:

The public are becoming less empathetic

Many journalists sense that the public mood has changed recently – and not in favor of the altruistic values that many charities embody. “We are less compassionate”, one journalist told us, citing “anti-immigration rhetoric” as a symbol of how suffering no longer moves the public. Another told us that “people are feeling less charitable and empathetic, and therefore journalists will have fewer qualms about addressing charities' failings”.

Some pinpointed Brexit as the driving force or ‘turning point’ behind this change, and perhaps this is reflected in the anti-foreign aid headlines seen in newspapers recently, and the rise of nationalist, far-right parties across Europe.

Whilst we’ve noticed this change, we see Brexit as more of a symptom of the change in mood rather than its cause. Our research with the public tells us that donation levels and interest in international issues are in decline, but this process started years before Brexit. If the papers continue to pick up on this, we’ll surely start to see more stories that feed into anti-charity sentiment among the public.

New data protection regulation could mean new scandals

2017 has seen a slew of new charity regulations introduced, with more set to come into effect in future.

For most charities, the most significant of these are to do with data protection. The Government is set to significantly tighten laws regarding the storage and use of personal data to comply with the EU’s upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

This new regulation is well-known in the sector, and many charities have been working hard to prepare their data protection practices in time for its introduction in 2018. But nonetheless, it’s inevitable that at least one charity will slip up at some point, and when the first fines roll in they will make headlines in national newspapers

Our research into GDPR has shown that the public are supportive of the new regulations – so the accompanying press coverage will have the potential to cause reputational damage to the sector.

More scrutiny of fundraising than ever before

The last few years have seen charity fundraising put under the spotlight, with stories about ‘charity muggers’ on the streets and the tragic death of Olive Cooke sparking new questions about how far charities can go to make money.

Inevitably, this has resulted in pressure to change the most controversial practices, and even new regulation. The new Fundraising Preference Service (FPS), for example, means that members of the public can block all future communications from charities of their choice with the use of a simple online portal.

The Chairman of the Fundraising Regulator, Lord Grade, made it very clear last month that the new regulations would be enforced, adding that charities could be fined up to £25,000 if they do not crack down on invasive fundraising practices.

The UK’s major newspapers have never been shy about their disdain for aggressive fundraising, so there’s little doubt that the issuing of any fines on this scale would prompt a wave of new front-page attacks.

When it comes to fundraising, the genie is out of the bottle - we aren’t going back to the days of charities being given the benefit of the doubt.

Although the sector has moved on from the nightmare summer of 2015, there are still many obstacles along the road for charities looking to preserve their reputation in the media. Media teams need to prepare to respond to critical stories before they emerge, or risk being caught out in the resulting storm.

If you would like to learn more about our research with Journalists, you can download the Journalists' Attitudes and Awareness briefing pack below. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section too.

 

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