When you’re stretched for time and demand for your services is rising, PR often finds its way to the bottom of the small charity to-do list. In this blog Lloyds Bank Foundation Communications Manager, Annie Abelman explains why charities should think more about PR and how hitting the headlines can be a big help to even the smallest charities.
For those of us working in Comms, media coverage often feels about as regular as buses. One minute it’s a battle to get just one bit of press coverage, but as soon as a good journalist breaks a story, all competing media outlets are clamouring for a piece of the action.
At Lloyds Bank Foundation many of the small charities we fund see media coverage as a fairly low priority. With resources scarce and demand rising, it’s hard enough to pay the salaries of staff delivering services to people in great need, and any charities with spare cash are often paying professional fundraisers or bidwriters to bring in desperately important new revenue streams. Not only is a press officer a luxury most of our grantees can’t afford, we also find that most of our Chief Execs are too hands-on to hanker after what may seem like self-aggrandizing press interviews and photoshoots when there are people who urgently need their services.
So why does media coverage matter?
In the right context, positive press coverage can be a huge asset for charities. Back in 2016 we saw that the BBC’s Archers storyline led to a 20% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline. This storyline brought a taboo topic into the public domain in a way that didn’t compromise any confidentiality or safety (as can often be a PR hazard when using a beneficiary case study) because the outcry of public support was for the fictional – albeit realistic – character, Helen. Many of the charities funded by the Foundation talked about the significant benefits of this storyline on their local domestic abuse outreach and support services. When it came to fundraising or stakeholder relationship building, doors were opened to them and they found new opportunities to make the case for their services. With hindsight, many charities said they should have done more to use the national storyline to capitalise on telling their local stories – finding that local people had been moved to set up fundraising pages for Women’s Aid, not realising a charity in their neighbourhood and could really use lasting support too. Once it had gathered speed, there was very little way to redirect this growing momentum.
The local publicity of Dorset Rape Crisis Centre means more vulnerable people have been made aware of the local service there to help them and given confidence that their story will be listened to.
More recently, our grantee Dorset Rape Crisis Support Centre benefited from press coverage around their involvement in the ITV series Broadchurch. They were asked to help scriptwriters with a storyline involving the serious sexual assault of Trish Winterman. Whilst it’s fantastic to see ITV thoroughly factchecking bold storylines that need to be handled sensitively and which will undoubtedly act as triggers for vulnerable viewers, there’s value in the consultancy relationship for the charity too. Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall called the Sexual Violence Advisors ‘extraordinary people’ in the advice they had given, and stressed that he ‘wanted to tell this story because recorded sexual offences have been increasing year on year.’
With greater profile around an often-unspoken issue, along with local publicity of Dorset Rape Crisis Centre, more vulnerable people have been made aware of the local service there to help them and given confidence that their story will be listened to. Dorset Rape Crisis Centre has gleaned longer term support from the coverage too. Julie Hesmondhalgh, the actor that played Trish Winterman has become their patron and is helping with further profile raising and fundraising because this charity has become particularly meaningful for her.
What if my charity isn’t the topic of a TV show?
Stumbling across the situations I’ve described is darn lucky, and almost certainly wasn’t what the charities that benefited from them set out to achieve. But even if we can’t all stumble across a such a great opportunity, we can all mine the human stories that will make our supporters – or would be supporters – feel the effects of our work, not just know it.
The World in Seven Stories
It’s well known that most successful stories follow a common story arc:
The reason we don’t get bored with this predictable format is that as humans we get a kick out of investing in others, hearing about obstacles they face and learning how they overcame them. As humans, stories of others having triumphed over adversity are inspiring, hopeful and make us want to be like those people or share the story with others we know.
The good news is, these are the very stories small charities delivering vital local services are rich in. They’re on theme, and for the most part, they are powerful because the stakes were as high as you can get: they’re about lives changed, or very often saved.
Why use them?
The individual human stories are what make every small charity worker work late, go the extra mile, find an extra bed in a hostel for someone in need, because their story tugged at your heartstrings. So, it’s only right to let your charity’s triumphs over adversity tug at others’ heartstrings too. Use storytelling to find the ‘why’ of your organisation and let the press spread these stories for you. If you can make your supporters, your critics, and your funders feel and not just know why it’s crucial that you are able to do what you do, it’s very hard indeed for them not to find a way to make it happen.