Guest post – Charity PR: Stop the sensationalism!

Jen WilkinsJen Wilkins is an LSE alumni and former LSE SU RAG president. She now works for PR agency PHA Media specialising in campaigns and causes. She’s particularly interested in mental health and women’s rights and is a member of Amnesty’s Women’s Rights Action Network connecting activists with their My Body My Rights campaign. Thank you to PHA Media for allowing me to share their blog entry.

All businesses are acutely aware of the need to cut through the noise when it comes to making their brand, product or service visible to their target market. A great communications strategy is, of course, integral to this. You might have the best idea in the world but without the right communication techniques no one will buy into it. Perhaps nobody feels this challenge more than charities and campaigning organisations. With what is often a constant struggle for funding, raising brand awareness and generating revenue through fundraising are on-going concerns, even for established organisations. Stephen Fry The charity market is as crowded as any other and smaller, lesser-known charities must compete with ‘megabrands’ like Amnesty International and Oxfam for donors and supporters. The recent collapse of the much-celebrated charity BeatBullying is indicative of these challenges. Beyond this though, these organisations often deal with highly sensitive and complex issues. Nuanced policy positions must be transformed into simple, attention grabbing calls to action and with a 24-hour news hour cycle that overloads us with content from all corners of the globe, grabbing our attention – at least for more than a few seconds – is now harder than ever. When Band Aid released their first single in 1984, people were shocked by what they saw on their television screens and donations poured in. But what to do when we’re no longer shocked and the donations dry up? Well, there’s always a temptation to revert to ever more shocking images, messaging and stereotypes that urge us out of our armchairs and towards a direct debit and, sadly, this is still a path some charities feel obliged to go down. As a campaigner for women’s rights, it especially frustrates me to see adverts on the tube that serve only to further victimise women and girls to evoke feelings of sympathy and pity rather than empowerment. As Regina Yau, Founder of the Pixel Project says, “We owe it to those we serve to avoid sensationalising their pain…we need to ask ourselves: Are we fighting for brand recognition or are we fighting for real change?” My aim here is not to name and shame these organisations. I think we should acknowledge the real difficulties they face when, in reality, brand recognition is very much intertwined with their objective of creating change. As I said, it’s hard for charities to raise much needed funds when their campaign has no visibility. However, it’s also important to ask ourselves how we can do this without relying on sensationalism. As communications professionals, we are all responsible for the information we present to the public and we have to think about the impact we have. The good news is that we can be creative, innovative and forward thinking and move away from these old stereotypes – there are loads of amazing charities out there doing just this. One of these is KickStart Ghana, an NGO that aims to enhance the sporting and educational opportunities available to the people of Ghana. Their Co-Founder, Dave Coles, recognises the importance of challenging stereotypes in order to address the root of the problem and not just providing a sticking plaster – you won’t find a negative image in sight in their marketing materials. What’s more, Nesta now awards funding from their Innovation in Giving Fund to forward thinking charities that challenge traditional models of fundraising and engagement. So yes, short-term shock tactics might boost a fundraising target but will they attract long-term supporters and drive real change in the future? The answer must be no.

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