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Comms that make a difference: Managing your reputation and making an impact

A report published by the Lloyds Bank Foundation in March 2017 cited technological change, political uncertainty, public trust and an unpredictable economy as the main challenges facing charities today.

With this in mind, we brought together industry experts to offer advice for how to tackle these challenges head on, in an event we dubbed Comms that make a difference: managing your reputation and making an impact.

Keynote speaker Toby Porter, Chief Exec of Acorns Children’s Hospice, warned that charities no longer operate in a friendly media environment. Gone are the days when newspapers were protective of charities, helping them to keep bad stories out of the press. Now, stories coming out of charities themselves are more likely to be the source of scandal.

Neil McLeod, former award winning journalist and Head of Strategic Communications at PHA Media warned that the Olive Cooke crisis opened the eyes of news execs to the potential of charities for scoops on issues of public interest. The resultant effect is that charities are being scrutinised as never before. And journalists will be as journalists always are: ruthless.

The reality is, you never know when the next crisis is around the corner; so Porter urged charities to do a proper audit of risk. He cited an example of when Save the Children deployed a sophisticated crisis management plan to avert a possible disaster story, linking them to the CIA and the Bin Laden kill mission, and that might have endangered 80% of their aid operations around the world.

We only have to recall the dramatic and seemingly unending fall from grace of Camilla Batmanghelidjh to know how relentless a negative story can be if it continues, left unmanaged, to unravel.

So in this hostile environment, how should charities approach the media? Be brave, engage, have an open dialogue encouraged McLeod. Don’t just pick up the phone when a crisis hits. Nurture relationships with one or two select journalists over a period of time, engaging them with positive stories so that they understand who you are as a charity and what you’re all about. These are then trusted people that you will be able to turn to and tell your version of events in the case of a crisis.

But why stop at the press? Frankly speaking, engaging with political stakeholders enables charities and campaigning organisations direct access to power and influence and significant opportunities to further diverse charitable objectives, suggested Tim Snowball, Head of Public Affairs.  

Talking about his experience of both excellent and awful charity lobbying when working in politics, he advised attendees to have clear objectives, strong messages, highly targeted and intelligent approaches and to always think of what’s in it for their audience. “Politicians are just like millennials,” he said “it’s all about them!”

One blanket approach to all MPs won’t do. A glossy brochure will only get as far as the intern who opens the post before dropping it in the recycling, he hinted. Stunts should be used for PR purposes or as a means to begin relationships, but make sure they are consistent with your message and brand and there should always be a follow up.

Shelley Frosdick, Director of Consumer PR, highlighted many PR opportunities for charities seeking to boost their profile, raise money or promote a cause. So much great work is being done that media want to hear from charities. And if you don’t tell people about the important work you are doing, how will you grow? PR is a great shop window to promote your cause.

Working with an agency brings creativity and contacts; however, success depends on a clear objective. At the outset of any campaign, she advised working with your agency to understand what demographic you are trying to target and match the campaign and outreach to this specific demographic. This will vary hugely from charity to charity. Just as with politics, generic approaches to the press will not work.

When making any kind of investment, especially in the charitable sector when you are being held accountable to trusts and trustees, it is vital to set clear KPIs. Some of these might include: more social followers, donations and visits to website which can be tracked for PR campaigns if dedicated micro sites are set up.

Frosdick shared how harnessing a celebrity ambassador is one great way to raise awareness of your cause.  Celebrity endorsement doesn’t always come with a price attached, she said, sometimes a heartfelt letter showing just how much a difference one tweet could make to you could swing it. But authenticity is key.  She guarded that you should only approach celebrities who you are sure has a connection to your cause. Do they live locally? Do they have a particular interest in the subject matter or a pertinent personal connection to it? Is you approach fully tailored and personalised?

And what about that tricky but much desired millennial audience? Research has shown that altruism isn’t going anywhere, and young people do want to support charities, but they want to do more than just set up a direct debit.  Think about how you can engage with them regularly through email and social and how you can make them feel they are giving back  Show them where their money goes and the difference it makes, make it tangible.

Finally, millennials are glued to their phones so make sure that basic things like having a mobile friendly website are in place. (Shockingly, only 45% of charities websites are mobile friendly!)

To sum up, charities are operating increasingly in a hostile environment, based on a fragile trust. Crisis can hit at any moment, so be prepared with a plan and a team to activate it, where possible getting outside help to put this together. This should give you and your Trustees the comfort and security that you are protected should the worst happen. In the meantime, however, don’t just wait for the worst scenario: be proactive, get out there and engage in a positive way with hand selected journalists. If you target the right influencers, with the right campaign on the appropriate platform, the power of PR to raise your awareness and champion your cause will be worth its weight in the investment.

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