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The impact of extra scrutiny on charity PR

With charities are under scrutiny like never before Influence asked Paula Keaveney, senior lecturer in Public Relations and Politics at Edge Hill University, to discuss the implications for the sector’s PR professionals.

The last fortnight has seen a report from the Public Administration Committee, a story about energy costs, a documentary about a failed organisation , news about the treatment of veterans  and a statement by a Government Minister about lobbying.  All of this is standard news fare which we would expect from our media.

What links this rather disparate material is that this is all, in one way or another, about charities and the charity sector in the UK.

The PAC’s report and BBC TV documentary focused on the failings of Kids Company.  The energy story was a piece of negative coverage for  Age UK. The veterans story  focuses on Help for Heroes.   And Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock launched what some would see as a broadside against charities with a statement on which types of funds should not be used to lobby or campaign.

Charities are news today in a way they weren’t some years ago.  And news isn’t always good.

Charities are under scrutiny in 2016 (some would say under attack) like never before.  And this has implications for those working in charity PR or representing the sector.

We are in an age of loss of trust.  We are also in an age of disappearing deference.  This makes us less likely to believe and less likely to think that big household-name organisations will “know better”.

Of course charities are still trusted considerably more than many other institutions.  A 2015 report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (the report itself an analysis of three other statistical reports on perception and trust)  explains that charities are well into the top half of the charts when it comes to being trusted by the public.  But the report also highlights a change in what determines trust.  Top of the list for those considering whether to trust a charity is the issue of whether it uses a reasonable proportion of its income on its actual work (feeding the hungry, providing shelter, caring for animals and so on).  This consideration has replaced the previous top factor, which was whether the charity was effective in what it did (the feeding, providing, caring).  This change in importance means in turn that media coverage around charity accounts, salaries of top staff, fundraising spend and so on is gaining importance in perceptions of trustworthiness.

And then along comes Kids Company being accused of inappropriate spending, Age UK alleged to have been charging elderly people more than is necessary for insurance and the Government suggesting that money for work with beneficiaries has been used for lobbying the Government.

So what is the sector to do?  And what does this mean for PR people working in charities?

Firstly, there is massive job to be done simply to explain what charities are and what they do.  Most people I know have a picture and understanding of the charity sector which is simply not correct.  And the longer misunderstandings persist, the more likely is negative media coverage pointing out the contrast with reality.  To be fair to the sector, the Understanding Charities Group was set up in 2014 to try to provide some better shared knowledge.  But having seen the launch of this group, and some material in sector publications, I have seen little else.

Secondly, those in PR roles in charities need to put more focus on identifying aspects of work or behaviour which could become a “bad news story”.  This is hard, because staff in charities are not deliberately bad.  They do what they do for good reasons linked to helping a cause.  But because staff understand the rationale for, for example, paying a fundraising consultant, they can be blind to what an outsider’s perception might be.  Perhaps an equivalent to mystery shopping needs to be developed in which outsiders can, confidentially, look at charity operations and highlight what seems problematic.

Finally the sector needs to agree and promote shared positions on likely controversies that do not sound like a vested interest defending itself.  I have worked in charities and so understand a little about fundraising, but I have found the sectoral responses on various fundraising controversies to sound more about defending the organisations than understanding the concern of potential donors.

After more than 25 years in PR and communications, I still believe working in the charity sector is the best job ever in PR.  But it’s changed, and charities need people who are as skilled at crisis communications as they are at promoting the latest campaign.

The Understanding Charities Group is at   http://understandingcharities.org.uk/

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations report referred to is called Trust and Confidence in Charities and was written by Joy Dobbs and published in 2015.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is at   https://www.ncvo.org.uk/

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